Book: Last Man in Tower
Author: Aravind Adiga (2012)
Review: Trevor Williams, editor of Global Atlanta
My taste of Mumbai in 2012 was brief: Two quick days of blaring horns, stray dogs dodging traffic, rickshaws bobbing and weaving and construction seemingly everywhere. My memory’s mashup of images shows a schizophrenic reality: luxury high-rises alongside remnants of colonial architecture, scenes of poverty in the shadow of stunning hotels, office buildings and gleaming tech parks. The one constant was the pulsating energy, the feeling of inevitable motion, though – like some of its rickshaw drivers – the city didn’t seem headed in a clear direction.
“Last Man in Tower” captures the reality perfectly in a suspense-filled story showing how unbridled development threatens to disrupt cities’ social fabric. When real estate developer Dharmen Shah offers tenants a buyout of their aging condo building, Masterji, a retired teacher and widower, becomes the lone holdout. This pits him against longtime neighbors more interested in a quick payday than preserving their memories. With little else to live for, Masterji hardens against Shah and finds himself in a seemingly unwinnable fight against a stacked deck of municipal corruption and personal coercion.
At its core, the book is a David and Goliath story in which Masterji and Shah personify the competing forces at work in the rise of modern Mumbai: Old butts heads with new, tradition collides with transience and moderation and contentment hold fast against the onslaught of excess and ambition.
Zoom out a bit, and this story has global implications. Poverty reduction in emerging markets is almost always tied to urbanization, setting the stage for ongoing cultural clashes. Think favelas in Brazil, ubiquitous slums in India, crackdowns on street vendors in African cities and land seizures by local governments in China.
As countries look back on their growth models at the end of this century, they may find themselves fabulously wealthy while wondering whether it was all worth the cost. This page-turner provides a microcosm of these issues through the dynamic cityscape and colorful characters Adiga both relates and creates amid the swirling activity of India’s commercial capital.
Read more on my trip to India here.