This is a story that has been unfolding all around us. Quietly, yet obtrusively, brick by brick, the booming property market has made its presence felt across the landscape of the country, more acutely in the metropolises. As trees give way to high-rise residential apartments and roads gobble up foliage, many wonder whether this is real development or a bubble waiting to burst.
On a literary level, it was a story waiting to be told: a story of urban residential society with its rain-water-tainted walls, peeling plaster, protruding creepers, bespectacled retired men, middle-aged men with a paunch, gold rings and Maruti-800s, women with vermilion and food thalis, and girls in jeans and kurtis! Add all the business of usual neighbourliness where every situation throws up a new friend, and turns a former friend into a foe. And you have an everyday story with great potential to go beyond the banal, and step beyond the stereotype.
Now put a horde of marauders masquerading as urban developers and property builders against a middle-class housing society. Don't forget the good old masterji, the teacher who has lived his life cherishing and upholding certain values that are the only constant in a world of change. He is the only one resisting the forces behind the lopsided development.
Reminds you of a good old Bollywood film with the likes of Ashok Kumar or A.K. Hangal cast as the teacher? Yes, Aravind Adiga takes the simplicity of a Hindi film to spin out the engaging story of Dharmen Shah, a real estate developer who plans to buy out the residents of the age-old Vishram Society, a middle-class colony. His task appears easy until he confronts Masterji, a retired schoolteacher who has lost none of the scruples over the years.
It is a simple tale told by a fine raconteur. The narrative builds up slowly, yet right from the first page the reader is certain Adiga is not going to leave any blanks to fill. We have a handy plan of Vishram Society, Tower ‘A' at the beginning to develop an acquaintance with men and women, carefully chosen to represent different sections of the society. Hence we have a blind lady and her aged husband. We have the fat son of the colony's secretary, Kasturi. There is a retired accountant Albert Pinto, 67, with his wife Shelley. Interestingly, in a little comment on the society, we have Deepak Vij, a businessman who is some 14 years older than his wife, Shruti. Much like Ibrahim, who was born 16 years earlier than his wife. Then of course we have Yogesh Murthy or Masterji, the man who refuses to wallow in self-pity, about the only man in tower! These are little details Adiga invests so much energy in.
Slice of life
Indeed Adiga's story is peopled by characters we see every day but ignore. They do not command attention. They merely invite attention, at times nudging you, at others persuading you to look up. Here is a slice of life with all its foibles and its shortcomings that are identifiable. Yet the best piece of action comes not from the detailing of the main characters but from the little asides that Adiga constantly has the eye and space for. Through the half-mumbled words of Murthy, through the loud proclamations of Shah, Adiga holds a mirror to our times. Murthy's condition is pithily described in his car journey to meet Shah. “Everything in the moving car was sumptuous — the air-conditioned air, the soft cushions, the floral fragrance — and all of it added to Masterji's discomfort.” He quotes Shah, “You should always be thinking, what does he have that I don't have? That way you go up in life.”
The contrast between a man tied down to values and the one high on material comforts is vivid. If the former represents the old order threatened by forces of rampant and lopsided development, the latter is the sign of the times; the destination is more important than the means. Adiga's tale is at once universal and intimately specific. It could have had a bigger, more impressive canvas. Yet the cry for the dispossessed rings loud and clear.
The novel has certain immediacy that is hard to resist, even if occasionally the detailing tends to bog you down a bit. He is sometimes guilty of trying to read much into the social environment, in this novel that juxtaposes the lives of the greedy and the dispossessed in an unsettling but not overwhelming way.