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Last Man in Tower

- Arvind Adiga


Fiction



About the book:

Twenty-first-century Mumbai is a city of new money and soaring real estate and property kingpin Dharmen Shah has grand plans for its future. His offer to buy and tear down a weathered tower block, ...(more)



Excerpt:


The ocean breaking below your window; a lizard on the ceiling staring at you with fat, envious eyes; and in the next room, a woman, twenty-six years younger, brushing her freshly washed hair and sending waves of strawberry and aloe towards your nostrils.

Dharmen Shah yawned. He saw no reason to get out of his bed.

'Woke up?' Rosie called from her room. 'Come and see what I've bought for you, Uncle. A surprise.'

'Let me sleep, Rosie.'

'Come.'

She took him by the hand and led him into the living room; there it lay propped against the sofa; a framed three-part poster that showed the Eiffel Tower being erected in stages.

'For you, Mr Builder. To put up in your office.'

'Very sweet of you, Rosie,' Shah said, and put his hand on his heart. He was truly touched, even though the money was his.

'Eiffel,' he said, seated at the laminated dining table outside the kitchen, 'was the same fellow who built the Statue of Liberty. What would we do with him in India? Ask: what is your caste, what is your family, what is your background? Sorry, go away.'

The fat man stretched his hands and flexed his toes. Rosie turned from the kitchen to see him yawning indulgently.

'Rosie,' he said. 'Did I ever tell you that I was my father's first wife's son?'

'No, Uncle. You never tell me about yourself.'

'They pulled my mother out of a well one day. That is the very first memory I have.'

She came out of the kitchen and wiped her hands.

'I was four years old. She jumped into the well in our house in Krishnapur.'

'Why did she do it?'

He shrugged.

'A year later I had a stepmother. She had four sons. They got all my father's love. He would not even look at me with kindness. The worst part was this: he made me feel ashamed, Rosie. It was as if my mother's suicide were my fault. He would glare at me if anyone ever mentioned it.'

'And then?'

Then came the day he went to his father's grocery store and asked: 'May I have a bicycle, Father? It's my sixteenth birthday,' to be told, 'No', even though a younger half-brother had received one. Understanding then that being second-best was what was expected of the sons of a first wife, he left home the next morning with twelve rupees and eighty paise that he had saved up. He walked, took the bus, took the train, ran out of money and walked again, till the sandals had fallen off his feet and he had to tie the plantain leaves around them. Reached Bombay. He had never once returned to Krishnapur.

'Not once?'

'Why go back? In the village, a man lives as a social animal, Rosie: pleasing his father, grandfather, brothers, cousins. His caste. His community. A man is free here. In the city.'

Rosie waited for more, but he had gone silent; she got up from the table.

'I'll bring you the toast in a second, Uncle.'

'Butter. Lots of it.'

'Don't I know? That's the only thing on earth you love: fresh butter.'

In a little while he was licking butter off triangular pieces of toast at the table. Wiping her hands down the sides of her blue jeans, she watched from the kitchen.

'Did something happen today, Uncle? You're very talkative.'

'Satish is in trouble. The second time this year.'

'What kind of trouble, Uncle?'

'Go get me more toast.'

Rosie returned with fresh bread, which she flicked with the back of her fingers on to his plate.

'The Shanghai, Rosie. Did I tell you that's the name of my new project?'

'What happened to Satish, Uncle?'

'I want to forget about him. I want to talk about my Shanghai.'

'Boring, Uncle. You know I don't like construction talk. Some marmalade?'

'Every man wants to be remembered, Rosie. I'm no different. Once you fall ill, you think about these things. I began as a contractor, then did slum redevelopments because the big developers did not want to get their hands dirty. If I had to kiss this politician's arse, I did it; if I had to give that one bag of money for his elections, so be it. I climbed. Like a lizard I went up walls that were not mine to go up. I bought a home in Malabar Hill. I taught myself to build in style, Rosie. The Art Deco style of Marine Lines. The Gothic style of VT station, and I will put all the styles into this new one: the Shanghai. When it is done, when they see it, shining and modern, people will understand my life's story.'

When he got to the city, knowing no one here, he had stood in line outside a Jain temple in Kalbadevi and been fed there twice a day; a store owner pitied his feet and threw him his own chappals; he began working as a delivery boy for that store owner, and within a year he was managing a store himself.

In a socialist economy, the small businessman has to be a thief to prosper. Before he was twenty he was smuggling goods from Dubai and Pakistan. Yes, what compunction did he have about dealing with the enemy, when he was treated as a bastard in his own country? The pirateering felt natural; on the back of trucks marked as 'emergency wheat supplies', he shipped in cartons of foreign-made watches and alarm clocks into Gujurat and Bombay. But then the Constitution of India was suspended; the Emergency was imposed-the police given orders to arrest all blackmarketeers, smugglers, and tax-dodgers. Even if you hated that period, you had to admire the guts: the only time when anyone showed any will power in this country. He had to get rid of his black money-Man has risen from the earth, he thought, he may as well put his money back into the earth. A construction company was formed-with an English name, of course: it was part of the new world of talent and nothing else. Smuggling was for small men, he found out; the real money in this world lies on the legitimate side of things. Starting out as a contractor for another builder on Mira Road, he soon realized that much as he loved cement and steel, he loved people more. The human being was his clay to squeeze. Poorer human beings, to begin with. He entered the business of 'redeveloping' chawls and slums-buying out the tenants of ageing structures so that skyscrapers and shopping malls could take their place; a task requiring brutality and charm in equal measure, and which proved too subtle for most builders-but one he negotiated with skills from his smuggler years, allying himself with politicians, policemen, and thugs to bribe and bounce people out of their homes. With an instinct for fairness that taught him to prefer (unlike many others in his profession) the use of generosity over violence, he earned a reputation as a man who made other men rich, always preferring to entice a recalcitrant tenant out of a building with a cheque rather than with a knife, and waiting until there was no other option but to order Shanmugham (as he had done in his most recent redevelopment project, in Sion) to go all the way: to shove a man's head out of a window and indicate that the rest of him would follow in three seconds-unless a signature appeared on the appropriate documents. It did.





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