Last Man in Tower

…by Aravind Adiga.

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Vishram Society, Vakola. The site sought after by builder Dharmen Shah to demolish and rebuild a new development in its place. The residents of both Tower A and B are given an offer for their flats. Given that Vishram society is falling to pieces, most of the residents are more than happy to sign the contract, get the money and find a new and more stable place. Except for one man.Yogesh Murthy of Tower A. A retired teacher also known as Masterji to his neighbours. What initially begins as a way of sticking up for friends eventually results in him taking a stance for exercising ones freedom and rights to keeping ones roots. However, Masterji’s stance soon sees him making enemies and those people he thought of as neighbours and friends can no longer be trusted. There is Mrs Puri who longs for a new life after 18 years of penance looking after her disabled son Ramu. There is the building secretary, Mr Kothari who longs to live in Sewri watching flamingos and reliving what his father lost. There is the scheming broker Ajwani who will do almost anything to make more money. And the cyber-cafe owner Ibrahim Kudwa who thinks more money would mean a better life for his family and who is always looking to please everyone. Then there is Mrs Rego, a single mother and social worker who is envious of her sister’s life. And the Pintos who were very good friends with Masterji but have troubles of their own. Finally, can Masterji trust his own son Gaurav who seems to have grown all the more distant since the death of Masterji’s wife Purnima a year ago?

How far will people go to get what they want?

Will one man be enough to stand up against corruption in society?

And what makes a person good or bad?

To know all these, you have to read the book.

I thought this was an interesting book. It took a little while to warm up but then picked up really well. It really makes you question humanity in general particularly the lengths that people can go to when they are desperate. It also makes you question issues around good versus bad and whether deep down some people are evil or whether circumstances make them that way. Adiga delves into the corruption that is rife in Indian society and how sometimes it is a struggle for one man alone to fight the system. Especially when the system is bought by the corrupt and rich few. I found all the characters interesting and intriguing, each with their own background stories and morals. Some of them I must admit, reminded me of people I’ve encountered over the years. Mrs Puri in particular was one of those characters most people might have encountered — a martyr of sorts but a hypocrite at other times. Your regular nosey neighbour.

I’d picked up the book ages ago because my maternal grandparents lived in Vakola and it was an area I’d frequented for years. It definitely brought back memories of the area and well, of Bombay in general. Bombay — the city of dreams. But also, the city that can make or break you.

In short, I really liked this book. Even more than the one that won the Booker Prize! I give it a rating of 4.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

Note: This post first appeared on my personal blog

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A Fine Balance

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is set in India in the mid-1970s. When Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister and a state of emergency was called upon the country. The book begins in the City by the Sea where Om and Ishvar, tailors from a village, meet Maneck Kohlah, a college student, all on their way to Mrs Dina Dalal’s house for different reasons. Om and Ishvar are hired as tailors by Dina to undertake sewing for an export company while Maneck is her new paying guest. They are the central characters of the book.

Each chapter takes you into the characters’ pasts. Dina came from a Parsi family and was brought up in the city by her kind and generous father who was a doctor and her mother and older brother Nusswan. Unfortunately, hard luck hits the family and Dina is forced to leave school and is under Nusswan’s reign. She manages to escape through marriage to Rustom but once again, life isn’t fair to her. She strives to keep her independence and dignity despite struggling with money for basic necessities like rent and food and clothes. Yet, she ploughs through what life throws at her.

Ishvar and Om (uncle and nephew) belong to the Chamaar caste or the ‘Untouchables’ and their family has been on the receiving end for generations due to the nonsensical caste system that ruled rife in India. Ishvar’s father Dukhi finally snaps due to the unfairness of it all and sends his sons, Ishvar and Narayan, to the nearby town to his friend Ashraf, a tailor, to learn the trade. The upper castes in the village are obviously not happy with Dukhi breaking the norms of Hinduism and the family have to pay for it dearly for generations. However, Ishvar and his nephew Om, eventually set out to the City by the Sea to earn more money before they can go back to the village. However, not all is rosy in the city either, especially with the Emergency and the unfair treatment continues. Through their escapades, they meet other interesting characters such as Shankar, the crippled beggar, Rajaram, the hair-collector, the Monkey-Man. and Beggarmaster.

Maneck is probably the most privileged of the lot. An only child, he is born and brought up in the mountains and is doted on by his parents. Until the change in the cities begins to affect the mountains. Maneck’s parents send him to boarding school and then off to college in the City by the Sea thereby creating a distance between themselves and their son. A gap that only widens the older he grows. However, despite this, he is not an arrogant boy and befriends Om and Ishvar. He believes that everything ends badly, and unfortunately it seems more prominent as he grows older.

Dina automatically mistrusts the tailors as has been taught to her by society. Om too is not fond of her and is hostile. Ishvar plays the peacekeeper. However, slowly and steadily, the relationship blossoms between the four central characters and they do seem like family after a point. Dina forgets what society tells her to do in terms of class barriers and treats the tailors as family. The tailors for thier part are always willing to help…helping Rajaram, Shankar, the Monkey-Man, despite struggling to make ends meet themselves at times. However, things start to go wrong when two beggars are murdered. Who has done it? And will the upper caste brahmins make Dukhi regret his decision? And will Dina manage to live independently?

The book critically looks at the caste system that was so rampant (and still is, though not to this extent) in India. It looks at the hypocrisy of the same. It also questions the state of emergency and its farcical nature. [Funnily enough, I don’t remember learning about the Emergency in history at school. I wonder why…] It looks at what a mockery Indira Gandhi made of democracy. And it looks at the massive class difference, the scale of corruption and yet, the goodness of mankind that is struggling. The fine balance that exists is one between hope and hoplessness for all characters. Which ones continue to have hope and which ones succumb to the hopelessnes is for the reader to find out…

There are so many aspects of the book that make you smile…especially where the so-called lower castes or the poorer people help others worse-off. And there are several things that make you feel sad…and leave a hollow feeling. The book has a bitter-sweet ending.

I absolutely love the book and have read it twice. Yes it is a thick book (about 600 pages) but it is an easy read and flows really well. From all Indian authors I have read, Rohinton Mistry remains, by far, my favourite. He tends to have Parsi characters but I don’t find that a problem. A Fine Balance is my favourite book by an Indian author. In this book, Mistry never names the City by the Sea but I suspect it is Bombay. A city where several people around India migrate to with hopes and dreams…and some of whom do not get what they expect.

Highly recommended!!! A page-turner for sure. And after that, I’m sure you are not going to be surprised with my rating: 5

Until next time,

Cheers!!!