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Toronto, June 08 2009 Author Aravind Adiga photographed at the Four Seasons Hotel on Avenue Rd., while visiting Toronto. Photo by: Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Born into a prominent South India family, educated at Oxford and Columbia Universities, winner of Britain's Man Booker Prize in 2008 for The White Tiger, his first novel, Aravind Adiga is for all appearances the very model of the successful Indian immigrant, literary division – almost like the second coming of Salman Rushdie.

Except that the 37-year-old Adiga, unlike many Indian writers of a previous generation, never settled anywhere else. Despite his cosmopolitan résumé, the author lives in a tiny Mumbai flat with the roar of the great city shaking his windows day and night.

"I never did very well as an immigrant," the author admits in a very-long-distance conversation from his perch in the midst of the bustle. "I've lived in several countries and been a disaster everywhere." Only in India, he says, has he ever "done well."

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"I live here, so to succeed as a writer I have to succeed here," Adiga adds. "My primary audience is right here." And don't look for him on a book tour.

Last Man in Tower, Adiga's second novel, is a lively comedy of Indian manners dominated by the chaotic spirit of the author's beloved hometown – 21st-century Mumbai in all its squalor and glory, seen not through the scrim of memory or the plate glass of a luxury hotel but through the eyes of a native son deeply immersed in its destiny.

Dedicated "to my fellow commuters on the Santa Cruz-Churchgate local line," Last Man plumbs the local to bring to light universal themes of power and identity in the new era of the global city.

While established authors in more developed markets struggle with declining book sales, Adiga is surfing the same wave that has raised Indian commerce to unprecedented heights. "It has always been very difficult for writers to survive commercially in India because the market was so small," he says. "But that's not true at all any more. It's one of the world's fastest growing and most vibrant markets for books, especially in English."

The new novel focuses on the turmoil created among the various residents of a shabby but respectable old apartment building on the edge of a slum when a massively rich, clever and corrupt developer offers them each a small fortune to vacate their co-op. He plans to replace it with a glittering new "super luxury" building in "a mix of Rajput and Gothic styles," with a touch of Art Deco and rents rivalling anything known in Manhattan.

As the diverse members of the Vishram Society (Tower A) struggle to deflect the threats and grasp the opportunities presented to them, Adiga creates a panoptical view of life in the relentlessly dynamic city, the one true hero and clear villain of the book. No research was necessary, according to the author.

"When I was writing The White Tiger I lived in a building pretty much exactly like the one I described in this novel, and the people in the book are the people I lived with back then," he says. "So I didn't have to do much research to find them."

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The often cut-throat business of real-estate speculation is equally familiar to the author, his neighbours and characters, who refer to their home city alternately as either Mumbai or Bombay, according to a subtle code known only to them. Real estate is "the great obsession of the city," Adiga says, doubting that any outsider can grasp the desperate importance of secure personal space in a city where more than half the population lives in unserviced slums.

"Having plenty of living space has to be the greatest luxury in a city, and I guess in some sense Bombay is the antithesis of what living in Canada must be," he says. The prospect of gaining more space, more status and security drives his characters to extremes, and the rough-hewn developer who manipulates them is no simple villain.

"In a city that seems to be gridlocked in many ways, that has grown so much but whose government hasn't done much to help it, the developer is an ambiguous figure," Adiga says. "He's the only man who gets things done in Bombay."

From its chaotic transport system to its spreading slums, Adiga's hometown is a pressure cooker vessel riven with cracks. "Bombay is at a critical time in its history," the author says. "What happens in the next few years will determine whether it continues to be the great Indian city or ends up as the third or fourth most important city in India."

But its failings only make Mumbai more attractive to its suffering residents, according to Adiga. "You become protective of the city because it's clear it's in crisis," he says. "People who live here almost always fall in love with it."

Foreign shores may beckon, but Bombay remains a novelist's paradise. "I think there are many more stories to be told here," Adiga says, "and I plan to stay here."

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