Monday, 29 July 2013

How far would you go?

Last Man in Tower, by Aravind Adiga

Here in Calgary, we recently had huge floods in riverside neighborhoods, with police helicopters hovering, using loudspeakers to tell everyone to immediately evacuate.  Police also went door to door, just to make sure that everyone was clearing out and heading to safety.  Even so, various individuals refused to budge, insisting that they needed to stay, to protect their home.  What if looters came?  What if it wasn’t really necessary to leave, and they wasted all that effort? 

Eventually, it didn’t matter if looters came or not.  Pots and pans, sofas and grand pianos were swept along in the raging water, along with boxes of jewelery.  The river and sewage water swallowed and took, and the people who had refused to budge ended up clinging to high spots, screaming for help. 

It was frustrating for emergency workers who’d begged them to leave when they could do so easily, and now these people required rescues that risked everyone’s lives.

But who can easily walk away from their home?  In Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower, the younger group consisting mostly of software engineers are easily persuaded to leave Tower B, as a developer in Mumbai is offering them huge amounts of money for their aging properties.  But the older group in Tower A are less inclined toward change.  

This tower is older, and its residents have lived there from its beginning.  Despite the money offered, many of them resist leaving, even though their tower has never been properly maintained, and is likely to crash down on top of them at any moment. 

Mrs. Pinto, in late middle age, has been blind for a decade.  She has learned to negotiate her way around the building through practice and skill:  “She knew she had taken three steps down when she reached ‘the Diamond’: a rhomboidal crevice in the fourth step.  Seven steps and two landings later came ‘the Bad Tooth’.  Sliding along the wall her palm encountered a molar-shaped patch in the plaster, which felt like the back of her teeth when they had cavities in them.  This means she had almost reached the second floor.”  Yet even she eventually realizes that in a new building, safe from decay, and with lots of money in her pocket, she can learn to find her way again.

The Socialist Mrs. Rego has a deep distrust of developers, and her home is close to her job, working as a social worker in a neighboring slum.  She rails against moving, but when the figures add up, and she realizes she can return to the better neighborhood she’d grown up in, she takes her teenage children and skid addles.

Eventually most of the tenants let go of personal sentiments and accept the hard fact that the building is going to crumble down soon, whether by accident or purpose.  Where they had deeply resisted leaving before, now they ferociously cling to the new home their imaginations tell them they can’t live without. 
But the last man in the tower, once respectfully known as Masterji , but eventually referred to only as Yogesh A. Murthy, puts a crimp in their new style.  He refuses to leave.  A retired school teacher, he forces science lessons on the buildings’ reluctant children, and gets along badly with his own surviving son and daughter-in-law.  Refusing to listen to reason or his own decaying body, he ignores what he doesn’t want to observe.  But as long as one person refuses to sell out to the developer, offers to all the other tenants are off.

This novel reminded me of “The Lottery Ticket” by Anton Chekhov.  People who are at ease with their lives and each other are suddenly contemptuous of their home and relationships in the home because they glimpse an imaginary, more luxurious future.

Adiga’s characters go to extraordinary lengths to protect their homes.  For most, the homes are the imagined luxury they hope to experience, but I couldn’t blame them.  After all, their own building is in a state of rapid decay.  We hear stories all the time of buildings suddenly crashing, wiping out dozens of lives.  They must get out of that building before that happens, if they are to survive.  And they’re being offered the double incentive of a windfall that will pay for a far superior home and lifestyle.  But for Mr. Murthy, the home is the one place he can hide, refusing to see light or reason.

If you are honest about how you might behave under similar circumstances, this novel will make you squirm.  Would you go so far?  Could you actually do that?

As far as literature therapy goes, this novel helped me to better understand my values.  Of course we never really know how we might behave, not till push comes to shove.  Please read this story and let me know what you’d do.

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