Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga

This past April, “Radio Diaries” aired an astonishing story. The subject of the National Public Radio documentary was James Weekley, a man who grew up in the small mountain town of Pigeonroost Hollow, West Virginia, and had lived there for 70 years. Just like his father and his grandfather before him, James was a coal miner and worked hard to earn a good living for his family.

Back in the mid-1990s, a company called Arch Coal stormed into Pigeonroost and the surrounding area and commenced work on one of the largest mountaintop removal mining sites in history. Dust and noise pollution filled the air, and the once isolated hamlet became a beacon of industrial progress literally overnight. One by one, over the course of a decade, Weekley’s neighbors and friends moved away, seduced by the large sums of money the coal company threw at them for rights to their land. Not Jimmy. Even after his wife died, he refused to give in and sell. He was, in effect, the last man standing.

“It’s hard,” he said,” to get out of a place where you’ve lived all your life. The old saying is, ‘You always want to come back where your roots are.’ And I’m just not ready.”

Eventually, the coal company was forced to halt work on the site until a settlement with Weekley could be made. So far, though, this hasn’t happened. At least for now, Weekley seems to have beaten the industrial giant. But his win didn’t come without a severe cost. He lost his friends and the respect of his neighbors. Plus, the thought that maybe he wasn’t doing the “right thing” continues to nag him to this day.

Much like the controversy surrounding Pigeonroost Hollow, Aravind Adiga’s LAST MAN IN TOWER chronicles what transpires when a lone individual is pitted against something much larger than himself: the immutable promise of progress. We watch his shockingly rapid descent from a once-revered teacher and beloved figure in the community to a stubborn holdout and much-despised blockade against the dreams and desires of his neighbors.

The crux of the conflict revolves around a Mumbai apartment co-op, the Vishram Society. Built in the late 1950s on the birthday of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the Vishram is a bastion of hope and development for modern India. Its mixture of Catholic, Muslim and Hindu residents are respectfully middle-class, though they do a good job in trying to block out the slums creeping onto their doorstep, the noise of the roaring 747s flying overhead from the adjacent airport, and the fact that water is only intermittently available in their unconvincingly well-equipped homes. At first glance, the Vishram’s tenants are a close-knit group with general concern for each other’s well-being and a collective governing body regulating important building-wide decisions. But soon enough, they turn into a teeming mob that turns out one of their own with enough venom reserved for only the deepest, vilest enemy.

Who is the “Arch Coal” in Adiga’s world? Mr. Shah, a slippery real estate baron of the aptly named Confidence Group, and Shanmugham, his equally smarmy left-hand man. The two hope to make more of a name for themselves in Mumbai by tearing down the Vishram and replacing it with two spiffed-up luxury towers. In exchange for vacating their homes, the Vishram’s occupants would be given what amounts to $300,000 — enough to buy an apartment, a car and then some.

Presented with such promise of wealth and prestige, most of the Vishram’s residents take the deal immediately. Three hesitant parties take a bit (i.e. a “sweetener”) to be convinced, but eventually crumble. Who is left? The venerable Yogesh “Masterji” Murthy, a man of fortitude so strong, not even he is aware of his strength and stamina. As the deadline to accept Shah’s offer edges closer, Masterji faces inordinate pressure from his neighbors. What begins as organized attempts at subtle persuasion blossoms into full-blown physical violence (on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, no less), until the widower loses not only his credibility, but also his sanity.

Although there are nuances to the story Adiga tells, the impasse at the center of his book is a simple one. When a man stands in the way of other people’s dreams, there’s no telling what might happen. But Adiga does an excellent job in allowing his characters’ actions to play out realistically; they are so embarrassingly human. No one character is singularly virtuous. No one character is uniformly evil. Even Masterji is portrayed as coocoo at times. What principle is so important if what he wants out of the deal is truly “nothing” in the end? Why must he be alienating himself so?

As in his 2008 Man Booker Prize-winning THE WHITE TIGER and follow-up BETWEEN THE ASSASSINATIONS, Adiga’s rich, fragrant language is what carries much of the book. One example is his description of a crowded market as “a row of blue wooden stalls, lit by white tube-lights or naked yellow bulbs, in which the most disparate trades were conducted side by side: a chicken shop smelling of poultry shit and raw meat, a sugarcane-vendor’s stall haloed in raw sucrose, a Xerox machine in a stationery shop yawning flashes of blinding light, and a barber’s salon, busy even at this hour, stinking of shaving cream and gossip.” The cleaning woman’s “big teeth erupting out of her concave cheeks” is another. In this next quote, we see India through Adiga’s eyes, which enables us to understand not only the novel itself, but also the reasons why his characters behave the way they do: “Look: how this city never stops growing: rubble, shit, plants, mulch, left to themselves, start slurping up sea, edging towards the other end of the bay like a snake’s tongue, hissing through salt water, there is more land here, more land . . . All of Bombay was created like this: through the desire of junk and landfill, on which the reclaimed city sits, to become something better.”

Like James Weekley, Masterji was only doing what he felt was right — standing up for his convictions in the face of adversity. But was the price he paid in the end worth the fight? I guess that’s up to whom you ask. Adiga certainly doesn’t give you a definitive answer either way, which makes LAST MAN IN TOWER worth reading.

Originally posted on on November 10, 2011

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