This is a state of the nation novel or more accurately a state of Mumbai novel. Behind the tale of a struggle by a developer to acquire, for flashy redevelopment, the three towers of the lower-middle-class, crumbling Vishram Co-operative Housing Society, lies a colourful and ambitious novel about the changing standards and habits of the citizens of Mumbai, poisoned as much by the rocketing wealth all around, as by the foul air and excrement-laden byways. (Adiga mentions shit and its stench time and again.)
On the one side of the divide is a group of friends and neighbours who live in Tower A of the Society. The most respected of them is Masterji — Yogesh A. Murthy — a retired and recently widowed schoolmaster. But all the inhabitants of this tower are aware that in a crumbling world, Vishram is pucca. It stands for something — standards, decency, and old-fashioned rules. It is described on a plaque in hour of Pandit Jawaharhal Nehru as ‘Good Housing for Good Indians’.
As you read this you know very soon that these good but rather poor Indians are going to be unhinged by the pressures of the outside world, which is applied by the developer, Darmen Shah, who offers, with the help of his creature and enforcer, Shanmugham, unimaginable sums of money to all the inhabitants. He has in mind to build something like the extravagances of Shanghai. He proposes beige marble and all sorts of unheard of modern conveniences, like air-conditioning and reliable 24-hour water.
At first many of the residents of Tower A refuse to discuss selling. They love the place, they have a warm, if rather penumbral, social life; they like the antiquity of the Society (built in l950), the old trees, the dozy guards, the exploited cleaners and their outdoor parliament, where they practise a kind of arthritic democracy. All these characters are fully realised. But you soon see that the residents are mostly keen to take the developer’s money and of course you guess that Masterji is going to be the hold-out, the Last Man in Tower.
As he sets out the fault lines both in the Society and in Mumbai, Adiga is writing a consciously Dickensian novel, so that slum dwellers, criminals, police, immigrants, lawyers and fruit-sellers have their rich say. The women are often more forceful than their husbands, in the Indian tradition. In a way that Dickens would have approved of, Ardiga is very keen on the whimsical figure of speech. Some of these are wonderfully witty, even glorious, like his description of the station:
Stone mastiffs flew out from the central dome; rams, wolves, peacocks, other nameless hysterical beasts, all thrusting out of the station, scream silently above the traffic and clutter. Multiplying the madness, a cordon of palm-trees fanned the building — frolicking. Sensual, pagan trees, taunting, almost tickling, the gargoyles.
Adiga also has a sort of second division of imagery which he over-indulges: ‘This place with sea view had palace-of-sin plushness’ doesn’t make much sense and ‘the ocean — storm swollen, its foam hissing thick like acid reflux, dissolving gravity and rock and charging up the ramps’ seems to contain four not very precise metaphors.Also, sometimes the jokiness of his imagery is at odds with the underlying seriousness of his project.
But he has a mastery of Mumbai, its temples, its churches, its shrines, its public buildings, its markets, its barber shops and its stalls, so that his descriptions are astonishingly evocative: you come to see that Mumbai is really his subject, and Mumbai is the central character.
One of his themes is greed; almost everyone wants something: wealth is destroying the sense of community. Only Masterji wants nothing at all. When he is asked by gangsters and lawyers, a Buddhist priest and even schoolboys, what he wants, his answer is always the same: nothing. Nobody believes him. Soon his former friends and admirers turn on him. Even his son and the lawyer he hires try to trick him.
This is 19th-century London, with an exotic cast of crooks; so susceptible to greed are they that his fellow residents would like him murdered, because under the rules of the Society, every single member must agree to sell. Oddly enough, the property developer, originally a simple villager from some remote place, admires Masterji, even though he has had many recalcitrant tenants injured or bumped off. In his view ‘deep down, everyone admires violence’. He has a very young mistress and a spray-painting teenaged son. This is the new Mumbai of ostentatious wealth hard by teeming slums and grinding poverty.
The novel is comic, lyrical and serious by turns, but I do have a nagging sense that Adiga is playing to the audience in the same way that Dickens did, writing ingratiating rather than precise prose; often as I read this I thought of Dickens, both his strengths and his weaknesses, and the strengths include a wonderful description of lawyers, which seems to owe something to Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.