Author Asks If Mumbai Money Can Flatten Tradition

Aug 15, 2012
Originally published on August 21, 2012 9:40 am

As India celebrates the 65th anniversary of its independence, the cultural landscape of the nation is transforming rapidly.

According to Man Booker prize winning author Aravind Adiga, "If you are an Indian of my generation... there really was only one place you wanted to go to make it big and that was Bombay. "

He chose Mumbai as the setting for his latest novel Last Man In Tower. There slums push against the walls of ambitious high rise apartment buildings with names like "The Shanghai" and "The Milano." In the space between these opposing forces, Adiga weaves a tale of how rapid re-development can turn friendly neighbors into strangers, and sometimes enemies.

Just such a conflict divides the characters who live in the fictional Vishram Society Tower A, a decrepit apartment building that has enough problems to keep a handy man in business for decades. Also disturbing the peace of the residents is an airport that it is so close, the building rumbles as planes fly overhead.

Yet, as many homes do, Vishram Society has it's charms. Neighbors have known each other for years, and they witness each other's lives in ways that are reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's cinematic masterpiece, Rear Window.

Adiga says he drew from his own experiences living in Mumbai to construct his fictional Vishram Society. "This is a fairly typical building," Adiga says, "It's a middle class building, it's for lower middle class people and older people who have retired." The building's main attraction for developers is that it occupies what has become valuable land, a commodity which is scarce in Mumbai.

So when real estate mogul Dharmen Shah wants to tear down the building, to make way for a gleaming high rise, he offers residents cash if they ALL agree to vacate their homes. Adiga says that proves a very difficult choice to make. "The potential windfall for you could be enormous and you have to decide what to do, whether to take the offer or not to."

Yogesh Murthy is one of the residents facing that tough decision. Known to his neighbors as Masterji, he's a retired school teacher who holds impromptu classes in his living room with the young residents of Vishram Society. Adiga describes him as an Indian archetype, "He's not rich, but he's aware of his rights...what he has in life is what he's eeked out himself".

Masterji resists the developer's offer, and goes from being a beloved and respected neighbor to target of his neighbors' frustration and fury. As a reader, it may be hard to choose whether to feel sorry for Masterji or be angry toward him. Aravind Adiga says that's intentional, "...because the entire issue of redevelopment, of change, is a problematic one that resists being put into any easy slot."

The conflicts involved in gentrification and redevelopment could be ripped from headlines of any metropolitan newspaper. And that's not surprising, considering that Aravind Adiga spent years as a journalist. Adiga says he made the transition to fiction writing because it afforded him the opportunity to go deeper into stories and, " push beyond what is seen and to probe deeper motives that people have." For example, Adiga adds, "You can take scenarios that you've seen, you may have seen murder in someone's eye but you know he's probably never going to actually do it and as a journalist you have to stop there."

Plumbing the depths of the human psyche is something that critics have come to expect from Aravind Adiga's novels. And certainly Last Man In Tower provides readers a glimpse into the beauty and paradoxes of modern Mumbai.

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away. This summer at TELL ME MORE, we're checking out literature from countries that are rising on the global stage, the so-called BRICS nations, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Now, it seems fitting to take a literary journey to India as that nation celebrates 65 years of independence. Today's novel is set in India's most popular city, Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, and you might be surprised to find out that, while it may be thousands of miles away, Mumbai is dealing with the same pressures of development facing American cities.

Those very metropolitan shifts and the personal tensions they produce are at the heart of Aravind Adiga's recent novel, "Last Man in Tower," just out in paperback. It's his second novel. He won the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2008 for "The White Tiger."

Aravind Adiga joins us now from Mumbai. Thanks so much for being with us.

ARAVIND ADIGA: Well, thank you for having me on.

LYDEN: In this book, you establish these aging inhabitants of the dreary but closely knit apartment building called the Vishram Society. Introduce us to what's going on here.

ADIGA: Well, this building is closely modeled on the one I lived in when I was writing "The White Tiger" here in Mumbai back in 2007. And this is a fairly typical building in the middle of Mumbai. It was built in the 1950s and it's a middle class building. It's for lower middle class people and older people who've retired. It's a kind of building whose main asset is its location because one of the unusual things about Bombay is that there's very little new land on which to build anything and, if you have to build something, you usually have to break something that already exists.

And it's a fairly typical phenomenon that, you know, people face throughout the city. You have your home. It may not be great, but it's your home. You have lived in it for a long time. And, you know, one day, you may get an offer from a builder to demolish your home and to build a better one. And the potential windfall for you could be enormous and you have to decide what to do, whether to take the offer or not to.

LYDEN: At the center of this book is a man who's known to his neighbors as Masterji. Who's he?

ADIGA: Right. He's a sort of fairly typical middle class man in the city. He's about 60 now. He's just recently retired from his job, which was - he was a teacher. You know, he's a migrant to the city, as many, many people are, as I myself am. He's not rich, but he's aware of his rights and that is very typical of a certain resident of the city who's not, you know, necessarily as rich as some of the people here are, but is very conscious that he's - what he has in life is what he's eked out himself and he's proud of what he has done.

LYDEN: I thought there was almost something a little Gandhi-like about him as his neighbors, his longtime beloved or tolerated or certainly familiar neighbors begin to collude against him, he is not passive, but he is not violent. He teaches the lowly. He seems like a philosopher.

ADIGA: Well, he's not necessarily the hero in any sense of the novel because he's - I meant for him to be...

LYDEN: I didn't think this book had many heroes in it, actually.

ADIGA: Well, he's meant to be an ambiguous figure, in that he both represents something that you can identify with. The man who, you know - who isn't necessarily attracted by money or by the prospect of moving up in life, but is also someone, you know, who's standing in the way of his neighbors achieving their dreams. And, you know, is meant to be a figure who should inspire contradictory feelings from the reader because the entire issue of redevelopment, of change is a problematic one that resists being put into any easy slot.

LYDEN: But let's talk about the developer here, Mr. Shaw. He is allegedly a self-made man. He wants to turn the building called the Vishram Society into something - knock it down and establish this gleaming new tower of apartments and shops called the Shanghai. I thought he was sort of a Donald Trump-like figure.

ADIGA: Well, you know, I did meet Donald Trump once when I was a journalist in New York many years ago. But the figure in this book, Shaw, is another archetype, another Mumbai archetype, the self-made man, the man whose past is slightly obscure who's clearly risen, shall we say, through amoral means, but who's a figure who both attracts and repels people here because life in Bombay can be frustrating. You know, things don't seem to get done. It's very bureaucratic. The infrastructure is creaking.

And there's always - you're always attracted to the man who seems to beat the system somehow, because Bombay is notoriously a city where things are getting harder and harder to get done. You know, if you're here, if you see the traffic, if you see how clogged the law courts are, there's a sense of frustration that builds up when you live here.

So the builder, the man who has come from nowhere, has built his money up himself, can be quite an attractive figure, too, even though he's also very often seen as an immoral figure, someone who's broken the rules to get where he is.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden and I'm speaking with the author, Aravind Adiga, whose latest book, "Last Man in Tower," is now out in paperback.

Aravind, you have lived in the United States. You went to school here and in England. You worked briefly as a journalist here in Washington, D.C. Tell me how India provides this perfect pallet to look at the forces of development and change in fiction.

ADIGA: Well, India is a democracy. It's a free society, so people have freedom of choice. And in that sense it's a great place to study the effects of power and money because individuals here do have the freedom to say no to money. They have the freedom to say they're not happy with the changes that are happening in their country, so it's one of the big differences between India and, say, China. And that, you know, that freedom is what allows you to study India, and outsiders come to India and write books on it, so it's a great place to explore what's happening because of its freedom.

LYDEN: I want to ask you about outsiders in a moment, but also what you can do in fiction that you can't do in journalism. Let's just take a look at one character. At the beginning we meet this Mrs. Puri. She has a son who's afflicted with Down Syndrome, and she prays for him. She seems sort of liberated. She prays in shrines, in churches, in mosques. But by the end, because of the money, she's got murder in her heart and she's willing to do disgusting things to drive Masterji mad. Is that what's going on in India?

ADIGA: Well, it's one aspect of what is going on. I mean it's just one character in a multi-character novel. When you're a writer and you're writing fiction as opposed to journalism, one of the challenges you have, one of the things - the freedoms you have, and also one of the things you'll be tested and judged by, is your ability somehow to go deeper - to take a risk that, you know, you may not be able to do as a journalist. That's one of the things...

LYDEN: Is that why you decided to skip journalism and turn to fiction?

ADIGA: Well, it was partly that. I mean, you know, how do you tell - "The White Tiger," which was the first published novel of mine, it was a story about a murder, you know, how do you tell a story about a chauffeur, a driver who decides to kill his boss? This is something that was plausible, that's something I had imagined happening, something that I'd nearly seen happening once.

LYDEN: And (unintelligible)...


ADIGA: I could actually do it as a journalist, you know. Again, as a writer, as a writer of fiction, you can take scenarios that you've seen. You may have seen murder in someone's eye, but, you know, he's probably never going to actually do it, and as a journalist you have to stop there. But as a writer of fiction, you can take his eye to its - you can take that look in his eye to its natural conclusion.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

ADIGA: And that's what, you know, I've been trying to do as a writer.

LYDEN: Let me ask you. You mentioned going to school at Oxford. The great novels of India in the early 20th century, one written by a Cambridge don, E.M. Forster, and then we move on to the literature of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and finally, more recently, 10 million copies sold, of "Eat, Pray, Love." What do you think these books, all written by Westerners, what, do they skip something essential?

ADIGA: Well, I have to tell you, the first time I heard about "Eat, Pray, Love" was about two days ago.


ADIGA: I don't know. I don't know some of the books you have mentioned. I - they're not widely read here. I mean, you know, that's all I can say. So I can't really comment on them. I like "A Passage to India," the E.M. Forster novel a lot, as do many other Indians I know.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

ADIGA: It depends. Some books are popular here, and some books written by outsiders are popular and some are not, and some are, you know, very controversial. So - but increasingly, I don't - when people ask me about, you know, when friends from outside ask me about books and films about India, I just don't know what they're talking about...

LYDEN: Well...

ADIGA: ...because they had no - they don't sort of penetrate through to us here.

LYDEN: So you can't tell me what you think is the most out of date misconception, what's been got the wrong?

ADIGA: Well, when I'm more, what I've always been more curious about is how those misconceptions, as you put them, come back into India and shape the way we ourselves, you know, perceive our reality. For instance, you know, about five years ago, it struck me that one of the problems we had in India - this is the time of the writing of "The White Tiger," and my views have changed to some extent since - one of the things I disliked was this idea of India being a very spiritual land or a very holy land. And this was partly, I thought then, because of the way the West had manufactured a notion of India from the 19th century to the present.

LYDEN: Mm-hmm.

ADIGA: And this then came back to India in its form and affected way people saw their own country. And that's always been the more intriguing question for me, you know, the extent to which your ability to view your own nation and your own people is influenced by ideas that are imported from outside. That's always struck me as more interesting than anything else.

LYDEN: I just want to ask, your dedication in the book says: To my fellow commuters on the Santa Cruz Churchgate local line, which is a line that some of the characters take. Do you take that line?

ADIGA: Well, I took it to come to the studio today, yeah. Because I've shifted the end of Bombay I live at, and that train is the one I took every morning. When you leave a job - you know, I was a journalist in New Delhi when I was finishing up "The White Tiger" and I came to Mumbai after that, and one of the hard things is adjusting to a life without a routine. And one of the things I did every morning was take the train and pretend I was going to work and go somewhere and start writing. And the trains are the lifeline of the city of Bombay. At one stage the city had the best railways in India and the trains take people up and down and they make the city of Bombay possible. But what has happened is because the city hasn't invested wisely in itself, the trains are now incredibly crowded, inhumanly so.

LYDEN: You make that really, really clear. I'll never complain about the Washington Metro or the New York subway again after what happens on the subway...

ADIGA: No, I mean this, you know, when I first came to Bombay...

LYDEN: ...there.

ADIGA: ...I was surprised that people die, you know, almost every day on the tracks. And I saw stations where there were dedicated, you know, people just to take corpses away from the tracks. It's a question of a train system that was once very good but is now completely overloaded and for some people is a symbol of what has happened to the city of Bombay itself, which was once, you know, India's great jewel, the great cosmopolitan thriving metropolis of India, which has increasingly declined. And what was once great about the city, for instance, the train system, is now not looking that great compared to the transport systems that are in place in other Indian cities, like New Delhi, for instance.

LYDEN: One last question. Why did you decide to move from New Delhi to Mumbai?

ADIGA: Well, it's, you know, when you grew up in India - and I was here till I was 16 - it's every boy's dream to visit Bombay because it sort of India's Los Angeles and New York rolled into one. And suddenly, when I was a child, there was nothing like Bombay in India. There was no city this grand, this cosmopolitan, and that - no city where, you know, you thought you could be the person you wanted to be. And so I've always wanted to come here and I'm still here. If you were an Indian of my generation, if you were born in 1974, as I was, there really was only one place you wanted to go to make it big and that was Bombay.

LYDEN: Aravind Adiga's latest book is "Last Man In Tower." It's just out in paperback, so you can pick it up. He joined us from the BBC studios in Mumbai.

Aravind Adiga, it has been a great pleasure. Thank you so much.

ADIGA: Thank you for having me on.

LYDEN: The next chapter in TELL ME MORE's series on the literature of emerging nations takes us to China, and the short story collection "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl." It's the work of writer and MacArthur Genius Fellow Yiyun Li. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.