Sunday, March 22, 2015

Aravind Adiga's Last Man In Tower & Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games

A more mature novel from Aravind Adiga than his previous The White Tiger, Last Man In Tower  drills into the personalities and introspections of each resident of Tower A in the district of Vakola in Mumbai as they wrestle with the option of receiving (each) 150 lakhs  ($330,000) as the offer from a hard-line developer intent on building one of the many posh condos sprouting in the city like cement dreams. Now a third of a million might sound like a nice spread of cash, but not a necessity from which to retire. Not so in India, where, as Adiga points out, the average per capita annual income is $800. So, where and when can I sign, and when do you tear down this creaky old rat-trap?

Adiga takes great care in detailing the back stories and presenting travails of his characters, and the result is a sometimes bewildering exploration of depth and ambiguity, interfamilial drama and isolation. The residents here are middle class, but Mumbai’s rapidly upward mobile construction hopes are ahead of the economic realities by a generation or two. Deepak Vij, Ramesh Ajwani, Ms. Meenakshi and others still harden themselves to the long, filthy work commute while existing in a dilapidated building. So when the offer comes to take the money and resettle, it’s not a dilemma for most of the residents.

Except one. Yogesh Murthy (Masterji), a retired schoolteacher, stubborn, not influenced by wealth or comfort, rejects the offer, and the remainder of the novel accelerates into a dramatic and heartbreaking series of events between him, his ambiguously loyal friend, and the rest of his neighbours trying to convince him of his “error”.

It’s a terrific set-up, and Adiga delivers. Gone is much of the sarcastic humour of The White Tower, replaced by the ironic, shaded humour in this more accomplished novel. But the biggest difference between the two books is in Adiga’s astonishing growth in how he sees his characters. The ridiculous terms some insist on – “good” and “bad” – to describe these people, vanish. And Mumbai is the greatest character of all, a sprawling, noisy, corrupt juggernaut nevertheless inflected with nooks of beauty and colour.  

Another novel set in Mumbai rolled out in 2007, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, at 900 densely-packed pages a structural paean to the city’s excess. At first take, an epic would seem to be a faulty tactic for the usually terse detective thriller, but Chandra uses the genre as a dramatic ploy to play off contemporary and historical problems, while subverting expectations. The good police inspector, Sikh Sartaj Singh, is set against the bad Hindu criminal don, Ganesh Gaitonde, but the reader knows the outcome on page 45 or so, the two meet only twice in the novel (a total of about 15 pages), morals are presented as circumstantial necessities rather than religious absolutes, and the climax is the most banal conclusion to the weight of a  frozen zinc block of a book you’d never predict. (One reviewer, the usually astute Jonathan Yardley, went so far as to complain about the main plot final tie-up, as if Chandra didn’t know what he was doing).

Not many serious novels, never mind epics, have the dramatic insistence ordered here. Chandra’s pace is masterful, scenes of brutal violence interspersed with interior and spiritual anguish. The architecture of juggling so many plots is handled with amazing selection and transition. Characters, all of them, are lively and striking, both in personality and unexpected action. The many scenes of detailed description are meshed with action and character analysis (self- and other-directed). The many dialects are frequently rendered in the original, and it’s entertaining to read a crime book filled with repetitive swearing, casual or angry, that dares the reader to either guess or peek at the partial glossary at the novel’s addenda. The emotional scale one endures is both exhausting and worthwhile. The tone is magnificent – there’s just the right amount of self-irony (the many references to writing and filmmaking make intelligent and humorous points without rubbing the reader’s face in dull games).

And with that last word, “games”, it’s worth a mention that the novel’s title refers to “leela”, the Hindu concept of divine play, an infinite cosmic dance without purpose. It supersedes the Western notion of fixed moral assessment, and it’s here that Chandra takes the biggest risk in an already ambitious novel, since about half the text is a first-person memoir of the gangster, and it’s a tribute to the author that Gaitonde – multiple murderer (including faithful employees), thief, defiler of a young boy, serial user of randis (whores), egomaniac – is given lots of space to wrestle with his demons, and to come out, occasionally, on top. There’s lots of detail here, but to say more would kill the surprise. I’ll just say that Chandra’s bold step of having Gaitonde challenge his guru’s ultimate game, after all we already know of the warlord, is surprising and affecting.

Like Adiga’s Last Man In Tower, Sacred Games jumps into teeming Mumbai with both feet and all senses.