Saturday, August 2, 2014

Real Estate Madness

“Last Man in Tower,” by Arvind Adiga, 2011

 Adiga is probably the most prominent modern Indian writer known in the west.  He’s been political, which should be a surprise, but it is not.  After all, this is India.

 This book is a twisted parable of neo-liberalism. It concentrates on the aging residents of Tower A, Vishram Co-Operative Housing Society, in Vakola neighborhood, Mumbai.  For a long time, this building was one of the few collective buildings in an otherwise poor slum south of the Mumbai airport.  It was originally built in the 1950s after WW II.   The building now has intermittent water pressure, its walls are stained with rain seepage, lizards and bugs invade, the elevator no longer works, the road floods.  Yet it holds a group of upright ‘pucca’ white-collar residents who have lived together and helped each other for years.  They know what each other does just by glancing at each other’s daily garbage.  They note every financial good fortune, like the ownership of a scooter, or every tragedy.  They vote on matters large and small concerning the building while sitting on white plastic chairs in front of the main entrance – their ‘parliament.’

 This is a reflection of the old India of Gandhi, Nehru and the ‘old’ Congress Party, of an ersatz bourgeois socialism.  Of a sort of gentle religious and class cooperation, a time of collectivity after World War II.  Key characters are Masterji, a retired school-teacher; Mr. & Mrs. Pinto, retired, the wife blind; Mrs. Rego, a social worker and Communist with two children; Mr. & Mrs. Puri, accountant and wife; Mary, the cleaning lady who lives in a tin hut along a drainage canal; Mr. Kudhari, Secretary of the Society, whose source of income is unknown; Mr. Kudwa, internet store owner and Mr. Ajwani, a real estate broker who frequents prostitutes.  In building B of the Vishram Co-op Society, erected in the 1970s, younger white-collar people predominate, and their roots are short. 

 Dwelling on the personal lives of people in literature can provide temporary enjoyment, but as each of us also lives our own personal lives, this is not news, nor particularly interesting.  Most people’s lives are not worth a memoir, except to their children.  Much present aesthetic fiction never gets past the ultra-personal.   It is when those personal lives intersect with the social realities surrounding them that literature can have a more widespread impact. 

Adiga has attempted to be one of those writers.  

Into this shabby gentility comes Mr. Shah, a ‘bootstrap’ developer who rose ostensibly from nothing – a country boy arriving in Mumbai.  Mr. Shah is now going to gentrify Vakola with a splendid ‘upscale’ luxury building project, involving the land on which the Vishram Societies sit.  He has many successes, and is planning his greatest development.  In Mumbai, real estate developers are known for shabby construction, lying, non-payment, breaking laws, violence and thuggery.  As in every capitalist city, in Mumbai real estate is the life-blood of commerce outside the places of production. It is a part of the relentless circulation of capital.  Real estate developers have close relations with the politicians, the police, the religious authorities.  Your neighborhood determines your status.  And ‘status’ – as Adiga observes – is constantly evaluated among the residents of Mumbai.  The caste system has now mutated in urban areas into the various micro-levels of the economic class system.

Shah mixes the Hindu religion with his business, using religious symbols on his company logos.  He hires fortune tellers to let him know when to do things.  He prays at the temple before any auspicious events, taking the 30 rupee fast lane to get by the lines of non-paying worshipers.  As in the book, “The God Market,” Adiga shows that Hinduism has become a kind of ‘prosperity gospel’ for the Indian middle and upper-classes.  Of course, Catholic, Jain, Parsi, Sikh and Muslim’s also combine business with religion.  Was it ever so.  Shah suffers from lung disease, spitting blood occasionally, a reminder of his mortality.

The proposal to be very generously bought out by Shah is put before the somewhat impoverished residents of Tower A.  Their society is to be sacrificed for the ‘new life.’  All will be scattered to different places, and the co-operative will be no more.  All but 4 agree in Tower A, while the young people in Tower B immediately agree.   So Shah, Mrs. Puri and Mr. Ajani work on the holdouts – Masterji, Mrs. Rego and the Pintos.  Mrs. Rego believes it will be a swindle.  Masterji will not move because his close friends the Pintos do not want to move, as Mrs. Pinto’s blindness would not allow her to get around another building so well. 

Mrs. Rego eventually succumbs to an appeal directed at her children’s future.  The others suffer shunning, hostile posters put on their doors, threatening phone calls and physical threats from Shah’s ‘left-hand’ man.  The Pintos do not want to stand in everyone else’s way, and eventually quit in fear.  Only one person, Masterji, holds out over memories of his dead wife and daughter in the building.  He is the last man in the tower.   His former friends and neighbors become his enemies. 

Adiga here seems to be looking at the role of individual stubbornness or anger in what ostensibly could be called ‘class struggle.’  Masterji ‘cannot be bought’ at this point in his life.  He ‘wants nothing’ – a most dangerous person.  He is not linked to any organization or movement against gentrification - even his lawyer and the law abandon him.  He is totally isolated, even from his son.  Has it come to this, even in populous India?  In disagreeing with all the other people in his building – isn’t he the one who opposes ‘the will’ of this particular majority?

Spoiler alert:

It is so.  The builder does not even have to 'do it.When he continues not to agree, the neighbors and friends of Masterji bash him over the head with a hammer, then haul him up the steps to the 6th floor rooftop of Tower A and shove him over to his death.  They go unpunished, as the incompetent police think it is suicide.  He was depressed over his wife’s death, over his diabetes, over the loss of his friends, you see.  The conspirators – at least 10 of the people in the building – go on to live more wonderful lives, at least from the last care-free Mumbai scenes on the beach in Juhu or the mall in Andheri West.  At the end even the developer Shah becomes likeable and cuddly.

So the ‘political’ author has now chosen an odd, dark story – sort of like a group of suburban Americans burying a troublesome neighbor under their backyard barbecue patio.  What are we to make of this ambiguous ending? Is Adiga now a neo-liberal, welcoming the wealth?  Or is he just holding a mirror up to the Indian pucca ‘middle-class?’  Even including a ‘Communist” auntie? Most people reading the book might agree practically – kill the old man.  As such, Adiga has tried to recruit to the side of the developers and the killers, no matter what ‘ironical twist’ he thinks he has fashioned.  As with most ambiguous stories (see review of the “Hurt Locker,” below) the impact of the story is generally shaped by the dominant environment. 

This is the message of money.  It is the golden rule in the “new” India.  Those with it will have their way. Few can resist cash waved in their faces, and for good reason, because most do not have enough. That desperation is the point of class society and, at least for me, this story too. 

(Prior books by Adiga, “The White Tiger” and “Between the Assassinations,” reviewed below.  Other books about India, “Walking With the Comrades,” “ Field Notes on Democracy,” “Water Wars,” and “The God Market,” also reviewed below.  Use blog search box, upper left.)

And I bought it at Strand Books in London

Red Frog

August 2, 2014


Shawn Deny said...

Red forg totally amazing job you have done in this post role, also great suggestions you have shared, keep it continue.
Thank you
Real Estate

adson stone said...
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