04 August 2011

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga

No Booker for this one
The White Tiger was going to be a hard act to follow. Still, I was disappointed that I didn’t enjoy this book as much. It wasn’t just the story and narrative style that I found less gripping. Aravind Adiga says he loves Bombay more than any other place – but I thought that while he wrote about Delhi and the rural north like an insider, in this book he is an observer, not a participant.
I did like some turns of phrase and descriptions. Mango sellers wait by the station for returning commuters – each mango a heartfelt apology from the city for the state of its trains.
It’s the new India, where construction workers’ children clean their teeth using toothpaste, though still only by the water pump under the tree.
And there’s that shopkeepers’ refrain: a man must want something. Everyone who lives here knows that the islands will shake, and the mortar of the city will dissolve, and Bombay will turn again into seven small stones glistening in the Arabian Sea, if it ever forgets to ask the question: What do you want?
Shah, a ruthless land developer is touring a building site, musing. A worker’s family was spending the nights on the unfinished fourth floor, which one day a technology executive or a businessman would occupy. Shah touched the workers’ washing, which hung in the alcoves where Versace would soon hang; their little bars of soap and detergent did the work that expensive perfumes would soon do.
Folding a twenty-rupee note, he left it near a bar of soap as a surprise for the worker’s wife.

Is this book about an old schoolteacher in Bombay, a lonely man who lives by his principles?
Is it about a “housing society” where people from different backgrounds, different ideas, different values, different aspirations – different ways of speaking the same language – live side by side, because that’s the way things work in Bombay?
Is it about drab lives and what greed can do to them?
A man has to bend his rules a little to enjoy life in Mumbai. Just a little. Now and then. But the law in Mumbai was not blind: far from it, it had two faces and four working eyes and saw every case from both sides and could never make up its mind.
Powerful, wealthy men – dying of lung disease. Ruthless men with complicated relationships devoid of love – but employees so loyal and devoted that they sign cheques for them as part of their job, and go home to their scrupulous single-room shanty dwellings.

On page 301, after three-fourths of the book was over, I finally caught a glimpse of the real hero of this book: a gaunt, middle-aged man in a dirty blue shirt.
He looked Muslim because of his beard. Masterji guessed he was one of those he had just seen pulling carts on the road. The labourer picked a biscuit from the stainless-steel plate and chewed. Done with it, he breathed, picked a second biscuit, and chewed. Each movement of his bony jaws spoke of fatigue; the permanent fatigue of men who have no one to care about them when they work and no one to care about them after they work. The thin body broadcast a raw minimal silence. Middle-aged? No. His hair was greying at the edges, but youth had only recently been exorcised from his face. Twenty-seven or twenty-eight at the most. Masterji watched this young man with sunken, shocked eyes and barely enough strength to lift one milk biscuit at a time. This is his daily life. Pulling that cart and coming here for these biscuits, he thought.
The tired Muslim man returned Masterji’s gaze. Their eyes met like foreign languages, and the labourer, without moving his lips, spoke at last. Have you never before noticed how many are all alone?

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