Last Man in Tower and The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India

Last Man in Tower
Aravind Adiga
Atlantic Books, 421pp, £17.99

The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India
Siddhartha Deb
Viking, 272pp, £14.99

When I moved to Mumbai in the summer of 2005, I discovered that my life had acquired a new soundtrack: the thud of the wrecking ball and the clang of the hammer as old apartment buildings were demolished and new tower blocks put up in their place. Mumbai, I discovered, is always expanding, creating itself afresh. In his superb new novel, Aravind Adiga, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2008 with his debut, The White Tiger, offers a homage to a city that "never stops growing".

Nor is it the city alone that is constantly changing. Mumbai is full of people busy remaking themselves, dreamers, schemers and restless aspirers. It is full of men such as Dharmen Shah in Last Man in Tower, a small-town boy who came to Mumbai with no money and big dreams. He has made his fortune as a developer, buying off the residents of blocks of flats, razing the buildings and constructing gleaming, futuristic towers instead. Shah is a memorable and instantly recognisable creation.

He offers each of the inhabitants of Vishram Society - a down-at-heel building in a down-at-heel suburb - a staggering sum of money to leave their homes. One by one, the residents capitulate. Only Masterji, a retired schoolteacher, idealistic, old-fashioned and incorruptible, holds out. What this stubbornness unleashes is, to simplify, the story of the novel.

Adiga's handling of his material is too nuanced to allow Shah and Masterji to become stereotypes. He withholds judgement on both men, preferring to let us see them through the eyes of the huge cast of characters that he steers through the book. The most prominent character of all is the metropolis in which the action takes place. Last Man in Tower offers a sharp portrait of the subcontinent's most cosmopolitan city, and holds a mirror up to the complexities and dualities of the many Indias that it exemplifies.

Dualities and dichotomies fascinate Siddhar­tha Deb, too. In the introduction to his study of contemporary India, Deb, who is also the author of two novels to date, writes that he found himself drawn to the opposites ("visi­bility and invisibility, past and present, wealth and poverty, quietism and activism") that are so pronounced in this contradiction-riddled country. "I wanted to write about the lives of individuals," he declares. "[T]he urban and the rural; the rich, the middle class and the poor; men and women; the technology-driven work that is seen as symptomatic of the new India,
as well as the exhausting manual labour that is considered irrelevant."

Deb has set himself a daunting task, but one of the reasons he succeeds is that he writes about individuals, using their specific stories to uncover general truths about a subject as vast and apparently unmanageable as India. You can't write other people's lives unless you listen; Deb is an astute listener and has a great eye for detail. Dividing the book into five chapters, and using each chapter to narrate the story of a single life (one that turns out to be emblematic of a social, political or economic issue), he takes us into the worlds and often the minds of management gurus, software engineers, subsistence farmers, arms dealers, insurgents and waitresses. Deb shows how the lives of these seemingly disparate individuals connect and overlap.

Renewal and the remaking of the self are motifs that run right through The Beautiful and the Damned (there's a deliberate nod to F Scott Fitzgerald in the title of the book as well as that of the first chapter - "The Great Gatsby"). They are a good way of examining an India in flux and of beginning to comprehend the enormous changes it is undergoing.

Deb is especially persuasive when writing about people on the margins - the under­privileged or not-so-privileged. He has considerable sympathy for those who, like Adiga's Shah, are on a journey from small-town origins and are fighting to make something of themselves in urban India, with its apparently limitless opportunities.

The last chapter of The Beautiful and the Damned is the best. It tells the story of Esther, a young woman from India's neglected north-east who moves to Delhi and ekes out a living as a waitress, first in a five-star hotel, and then in an outrageously lavish and exclusive restaurant. Towards the end, worn down and disappointed but not entirely without hope, she cannot decide if she should return home or stay in the big city.

It is that conflict between the security of the familiar and the perils of reinvention - the tension between the known and the unknown - that animates both these books. It is also the story of one of the world's most fascinating yet enigmatic countries. l

Soumya Bhattacharya is the editor of the Hindustan Times in Mumbai. His most recent book is “Why India Can Never Do Without Cricket" (Peakpublish, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 18 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, India