Top positive review
The Old man and the Building
14 March 2017
At a vertiginous moment in this brilliant Novel the eponymous last man in the tower - Masterji - looks at the neighbors he has lived with for 30 years and asks the question “Am I looking at good people or bad?” It is the sort of question we find ourselves asking about people around us whom we feel we knew who change drastically when circumstances change and to our dismay they become strangers. 'Last man in Tower' is a devastating portrayal of shifting morals of shifty people in the city of Mumbai. A city which is always asking “What do you want?” and goading you to get it and in the process enriching you and itself thereby making it into a megalopolis. Here is when a person like Masterji stands out as an anachronism as he wants “nothing”.
Yogesh Murthy or Masterji is an obdurate teacher and widower belonging to the Vishram society in the northern suburb of Mumbai. Vishram society is “a dreadnought of middle class respectability” built in the 1950s and by the start of the Novel already creaking under infrastructural problems. The society is home to a kaleidoscope of people belonging to various castes and creed who over the years have shared each other’s joys and sorrows and have generally got along like one big family.
Enter Dharmen Shah who sees in the acquisition of this society for redevelopment a chance to become the biggest builder in the city. He has in fact called the new luxury apartment building he is set to build on the site ‘Shanghai’, a tribute to the Chinese who he idolizes for their sheer will power. He is no novice in such matters as he believes that “human greed must be respected” and hence makes a generous offer to the residents of the society. Eventually all but Masterji are goaded to accept the offer by appealing to their basest selfish desires. Only Masterji holds out despite his neighbors’ pleas and eventual boycott as he is the one who has least to gain from the offer as the building is “pregnant with his past”. A past with his loving but deceased wife and daughter. Also he sees in this final battle a chance to redeem his lifelong timidity in dealing with similar situations earlier in his life. A chance to become a man again at the age of 61. So much is his stubbornness that it seems to border on Nihilism making him an ambivalent hero whom we are not sure whether to sympathize with or not.
Masterji hails from the Karnataka coast and has made it as a teacher in Mumbai. He has old world virtues and moralities and a penchant for acquiring knowledge. His son has inherited none of his qualities and has moved out with his family which has left Masterji alone. He has recently retired and spends the time teaching the society kids and despite being agnostic reads spiritual books about transmigration of the soul to understand what became of his wife and daughter. He is the kind of man who does not trod over a Times of India copy because one of his students writes for it now.
Dharmen Shah on the other hand is also a self-made man who came from his Gujarat village to the city with a handful of rupees and made it as one of the most important builders by a combination of “charm and brutality”. He can charmingly breakup a mutiny of laborers as well as threaten people with violence to leave their homes. He believes that “deep down, everyone admires violence”. He divides the world into two kinds of men “those who can get things done and those that can’t” and he places himself proudly in the latter. On the verge of greatness he encounters a man who has the same stubbornness as him but on the other end of the morality spectrum. And he knows he has met his match in Masterji in whom he sees, “a weak man who has found a place where he feels strong”.
As Hegel used to say a tragic situation is one when two rights collide. And here in the collision of the builder and the old teacher we have a classic tragic situation which Adiga brilliantly delineates. Along the way Adiga shines his light on the amoral nature of human beings and the collusion of vested interests in the city and society in general who will eventually get what they want even at great human cost. Hence Adiga is ringing a gong about the kind of society we have become and it is gripping as it is disgusting to see what unfolds.
Once the battle lines are drawn both the teacher and the builder dig their hoofs in. Masterji takes recourse to what he thinks are institutions of democracy – Police, Law and Media – who all disappoint him showing how hollowed out with corruption they have become to be of any use to the weak. Shah himself is trapped in his own image as a builder who will be the first suspect if anything happens to Masterji. Hence he relies on psychological tactics to influence Masterji’s neighbors to do what he himself cannot do. The denouement of the Novel deals with how these two opposite men face off each other and who wins in the end. However ironically they never meet through ought the Novel and their fight is carried out in the shadows of the city and its institutions. They are like two massive celestial beings circling each other trying to gobble each other up without ever meeting.
Although this book does not have the biting satire of the White Tiger it is one of the finest examples of character studies ever attempted in fiction. The characters are put inside the cauldron created by the clashing moral universes of the two protagonists, allowed to simmer in their hypocrisy and in the end stripped of their basic human decency. They look like the people Adiga characterizes in his other Novel 'Selection Day' while describing the Indian middle class
“What are we, then? We are animals of the jungle, who will eat our neighbor's children in five minutes, and our own in ten”.
This Novel is a moral playground of epic proportions and is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the decadence of our times.