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the daily review, wed., nov. 2

Aravind Adiga

Aravind Adiga's first novel, The White Tiger, was a fast-burning firecracker of a book, a chatty madman's brisk, darkly funny account of his ascent through the ranks of contemporary Indian society, which involved both sly servility and sly murder, as he blithely explains in a series of letters to the premier of China. That novel, which was the surprise winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize, was at once a biting critique of the black mores of Indian life and equally a push-back against the fragrantly solemn novels that have nevertheless come to define that life for Western readers.

His latest, Last Man in Tower, is more of a steady bonfire than a firecracker, a much fuller if more conventional novel that maintains the caustic humour and critical-mindedness that made its predecessor so compelling. This new book explores a similar set of concerns around questions of virtue and vice, power and punishment, ambition and abjection, honour and humiliation, in a place – present-day Mumbai – where the stark differences between such pairings are so boldly on display that you can't help but admire someone's decision to take a stand against it all, especially when someone else, when it seems like everyone else, tries to take him down for it.

The novel is set in Vishram Society (Tower A), a five-floor apartment complex in the heart of middle-class Mumbai, where for decades a cosmopolitan collection of people has lived together in very close and somewhat decrepit quarters. As Adiga unfolds their long-standing quarrels and mutual accommodations, the residents seem to behave very much like members of an extended family: Each has long since settled into the acceptance, whether grudging or generous, of the others' needs and habits.

When the family in 2A decides to listen to music late at night, the sleepy families in 1A and 3A have dance parties, and even if two older women have hated each other's very sight for years, each will always make sure to let the other know when the water unexpectedly comes on.

The building's peculiar if charming harmony is suddenly and forever disrupted when, one day in May, a property magnate named Mr. Shah offers to buy out all the residents at a remarkable sum – the equivalent of $330,000 per family in a country where $800 is the average income – so he can tear down their building the following October and put up a luxury tower called the "Ultimex Milano."

Adiga's ear for the grand and clumsy sounds of ambitious South Asia is devastatingly pitch-perfect, while his efforts at lyrical closes to many of the novel's chapters tend to feel more forced and formulaic.

Struggling between their rootedness in the building and the prospect of an otherwise unimaginable windfall, the residents are divided in their response to the offer, but eventually everyone agrees to accept it. Everyone, that is, except Yogesh Murthy, a retired schoolteacher and recent widower who is affectionately known as Masterji and is hitherto respected by all for his prudence, thoughtfulness and care for others. A dignified, aging man who feels like his life has gradually lost any sense of greater purpose since his retirement and the death of his wife, he vacillates, initially, over the offer, but soon thereafter discovers a new sense of purpose, even vitality, in refusing to sell.

Not surprisingly, the invigorated and resolute Masterji rapidly frustrates and then enrages his erstwhile admiring neighbours, his own son and likewise the powerful Mr. Shah and his cronies. "We are dealing with the most dangerous thing on earth," Mr. Shah muses at one point, "A weak man. A weak man who has found a place where he feels strong."

Indeed, Masterji resists all kinds of soft and increasingly hard pressure to sell while tirelessly, uselessly seeking allies in the building and beyond. In all of this, he's motivated by a desire to prove that Mumbai, which he describes as once "a city where a free man could keep his dignity," could still be such a place.

In Adiga's blunt handling, however, this city can offer great, even shocking amounts of money and violence to its people, but not much in the way of dignity. The denouement makes for engaging if difficult reading. For someone to win big in Adiga's Mumbai, someone else has to lose, badly.

Randy Boyagoda's new novel is Beggar's Feast. He is a professor of English at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Four great books set in what is now called Mumbai:

Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra (2007)

Chandra's very big, very entertaining book is a postmodern hard-boiled detective novel, which pits a dogged police inspector against an India-wide famous criminal. Their respective backstories and pressure-cooker exchanges play out against a Bombay that is as loud, dangerous, mysterious and wild as their clashes with each other.

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, by Suketu Mehta (2004)

Journalist Mehta's brilliant first-person exploration of contemporary Mumbai, from gangsters and belly dancers to migrant workers and ascetics, makes a persuasive case for understanding the city as a study-in-extremis of 21st-century urban life, characterized by intense and outsized sectarian tensions, economic disparities and cosmopolitan delights.

Tales from Firozsha Baag, by Rohinton Mistry (1987)

Mistry's first book is a collection of affecting short stories set in an unremarkable apartment complex in Bombay, where the small miracles and tragedies of daily life, as experienced by a set of well-meaning ordinary people, mostly Parsi, reveal the metaphoric vastness of interior space available to individuals even in this most packed of all cities.

Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie (1981)

Rushdie's finest novel, and certainly one of the very best of the late 20th century, is narrated by Saleem Sinai, a man whose life is historically and magically intertwined with the life of India itself. The early sections, in particular, wonderfully recount Saleem's childhood adventures in an elite, anglophile quarter of Bombay.

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