This appeared in the 'Indian Express' on saturday....
The Masterji’s Last Sigh….
When the blurb reads : “A suspense-filled story of money and power, luxury and deprivation, a rich tapestry peopled by unforgettable characters,not least of which is Mumbai itself, ‘Last Man in Tower’ opens up the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of this great city – ordinary people pushed to their limits in a place that knows none,” you know it’s one of ‘those’ books. There is a point of view. A position has been taken. There will be a strong moral tucked into the narrative. The reader is sufficiently ‘prepared’. Mumbai sucks. Mumbai is a bitch. But wait - Mumbai has become a ‘hot’ destination for ex-pat writers . Mumbai is hot! Just like Bollywood has gone nuts over picturesque Delhi and decided Delhi is ‘hot’. These days our lives have been greatly simplified , thanks to the ‘Hot’ handle. Everything and everyone is conveniently classified under two categories – ‘Hot’ and ‘Not Hot’. I started reading this season’s ‘hottest’ book ( ‘Last Man…’) a bit too eagerly, I confess. My mistake. It’s the irresistible combo – Adiga + Mumbai. Combine that with spectacular reviews and one goes, “Woaaaah.” Well…. let me put it this way, I was still going ‘woaaaah’ on the last page, but not half as enthusiastically. The reason is simple. As a Mumbaikar, I see Mumbai through a slightly different filter, and can pretty much tell when the supposedly ‘typical’ Mumbai characters turn caricatural .Adiga’s story is structured like a tv soap, with neatly demarcated ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’…. plus a Hindu, Muslim, Christian ‘Amar,Akbar,Anthony’ thrown in for good measure (perhaps to underline some politically sensitive points).The book helpfully provides a ‘cast of characters’ with thumbnail sketches at the beginning, along with a map of the metropolis that shows the routes taken by commuters on local trains. Adiga has dedicated the book to the very same commuters of the Santa Cruz- Churchgate line.
The ‘tower’ in the title refers to a building which is a part of Vishram Society in Vakola, Santa Cruz ( east). Readers also get a floor plan of Tower –A, where the action takes place. The plot is linear and very simple. Verrrry. An evil builder called Dharmen Shah is on a demonic mission to demolish the tower for ‘redevelopment’, which , of course, is a code name for pulling down old structures and replacing them with luxury apartments, malls, cineplexes and so on. It’s an urban nightmare that has been successfully chronicled in popular movies like ‘Khosla ka Ghosla’. Shah the Shark is out to make huge bucks out of this transaction… and willing to offer an attractive package to residents sensible enough to take the money and run. But Shah encounters a hitch. One stubborn resident – Masterji ( a retired school teacher) refuses to play ball! His resistance forms the core of the story.
Masterji (Yogesh A. Murthy) is the one character in the book that has been completely thought through, in an otherwise loosely strung together ensemble cast featuring stereotypes - people like Albert Pinto ( hello? Forgotten there was a movie featuring Naseeruddin Shah in the title role?), Import-Export Hiranandani, Ibrahim Kudwa ( the token Muslim in the society), Mary, the ‘kachrawali, Ram Khare the security guard, Ramu, the building boy afflicted with Down’s Syndrome, Ms. Meenakshi, a single career gal, Georgina Lobo, social worker and the oily Ramesh Ajwani, a real estate broker. Sounds like a promising daily soap? Despite the ho-hum nature of these ‘melting pot Mumbai’ types , it is Adiga’s skill at keeping the pace brisk ( I was slightly out of breath as I read the last fifty pages ) and the dialogues crackling , that keeps a reader riveted. This is some feat, given that the ending is totally predictable and - sorry, boss - totally unbelievable. Adiga describes Vishram Society as a ‘pucca’ address (“absolutely, unimpeachably pucca’’). No way, as any Mumbaikar will tell you. He also insists it is ‘middle class to its core’, just like the people living in it. Ummm. Okay. Maybe. The only authentically ‘middle class’ voice in the book belongs to Masterji, as he stubbornly hangs in there, refusing to budge an inch, even after his neighbours turn against him, cover his front door with excreta and complete the social boycott by pretending he doesn’t exist. All this, to get Masterji to sign on the dotted line and vacate the only real home he has known and shared for over 35 years with his beloved (late) wife Poornima.Suddenly the safety nets of his modest existence are removed and he is left to confront the cruelty and greed of neighbours, acquaintances, even his own son and daughter-in-law. In a single telling passage, Masterji’s despair is lucidly shared with readers: “In the old days, you had caste,and you had religion: they taught you how to eat,marry, live,and die.But in Bombay caste and religion had faded away, and what had replaced them, as far as he ( Masterji) could tell was the idea of being respectable and living among similar people.” Parts of the book were extraordinarily well observed and sublimely written. The structure itself is taut, bold and interesting ( chapter headings are terse, precise “11th May” to the final one dated ‘15th December’). In under a year, lives are transformed forever… one life snuffed out…. several destroyed. It’s all very depression making,morbid and macabre, without a single ‘good’ person ( even poor, upright Masterji has his flaws). Sadly, even Masterji is forced to conclude (after reading particularly vicious hate mail stuck with tape on the wall of the compound) : ‘But a man is what his neighbours say he is’. However, the biggest villain of the book is Mumbai… and if I am disturbed by its brutal portrayal, it is because I find it a bit too simplistic and naïve – Big Bad City . So wicked, so ruthless, so ugly. That’s a writer’s prerogative. Perhaps that’s how Mumbai does appear to those who don’t call it home.