Aravind Adiga's latest novel, "Last Man in Tower" (Alfred A. Knopf, 382 pages, $26.95), is a beautifully written, moving narrative about the various middle-class residents of an aging building known as the Vishram Society located on the edge of the slums in bustling and rapidly changing Mumbai, India. It considers the tugs and pulls that are happening now in this huge city -- once known as Bombay -- of more than 13 million people. As he did in his first novel, the 2008 Man Booker Award winner, "The White Tiger," Adiga adeptly explores the moral dilemmas that face modern India and much of the developing world: class distinctions, gender differences, religious divisions and the overarching matter of money that makes daily existence such a life and death challenge for many.
Our hero, as such, is a retired and stubborn schoolteacher, Yogesh Murthy, called Masterji; he's a recent widower who often thinks of his late wife's soul in mid-flight across the ocean. Her presence is felt in his small Vishram apartment: The sound of her old calendar tapping against the kitchen wall reminds Masterji of his beloved Purnima, chopping onions.
His nemesis is Dharmen Shah, a real estate developer who arrived in the city as a village boy with absolutely nothing, and literally fought his way up to the top of Mumbai society to become one of its wealthiest citizens. Shah's latest project is a massive luxury apartment building, the Shanghai, which will be built exactly where the Vishram is located; to pull it off he has offered each resident a huge amount of money, many times more than their apartment's worth, so they will move and the building can be demolished.
Setting the novel in a small apartment building is a brilliant move by Adiga: The various backgrounds, circumstances and reactions of the residents to being offered an astronomical sum to leave their homes is cause for much drama, at times humorous, but mostly distressing. Adiga has captured their personalities wonderfully and with great empathy, such as Internet cafe owner Ibrahim Kudwa, a happy man: "He was a bear that could find honey at any level of a tree." Adiga also describes the difficult city he knows so well with care and grace, as when Masterji leaves a crowded train station he is greeted by "a welcome carpet of fructose. In the market by the station, mango sellers waited for the remaining commuters: ripe and bursting, each mango was like a heartfelt apology from the city for the state of the trains."
Ultimately "Last Man in Tower" is about how greed affects compassion, and while readers sense a growing and inevitable tragic ending, Aravind Adiga skillfully unfolds a surprising conclusion that underscores what a great novel this is.
Jim Carmin, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Portland, Ore.