I cooked a lot of curry while I was reading Aravind Adiga's new novel, Last Man In Tower (Atlantic, $32.99). Not that it's an especially foodie book but it's so richly redolent of India that it made me want to transport myself there, if only by evocative taste.
Indian novels, like the country itself, tend to be sprawling, over-crowded affairs; nothing ever happens fast, and this one is no exception. Yet Adiga's follow-up novel to his Booker-Prize winning The White Tiger is suspenseful and extremely compelling all the same.
It's set in Mumbai and concerns the inhabitants of a crumbling apartment complex, Vishram Society. Although bordered by slums, it is home to respectable middle-class workers and friendships have been formed there over the years.
On fine evenings, the residents of Tower A gather on white plastic chairs in the shared compound. They bicker, share meals, watch each other's children and learn each other's business. The community seems a small Utopia. But change has come to Mumbai: slums are being demolished and the old way of life swept away. And this change is about to catch up with the residents of Vishram Society.
Before he dies, bronchial property developer Dharmen Shah wants to create his legacy - a magnificent luxury apartment complex. He has chosen Vishram Society as the site to build it and so makes a generous offer to buy out the residents. People are divided, the old ones especially having no desire to move. But gradually these are whittled down until one man, a retired teacher known as Masterji, stands alone against the development. He doesn't care that poor Mrs Puri needs the payout to provide a secure future for her Down syndrome son, that other neighbours want the money to educate children or make long-held dreams come true. A stubborn old widower, he is convinced he occupies the highest moral ground and refuses to budge.
Last Man In Tower is an extended fable really, a study in how far civilised people are prepared to go to get the things they want and how easily they can find ways to justify it. It's a slippery slope of a story _ to begin with, the people of Vishram Society use reasonable means to persuade Masterji to change his mind. But they edge closer to iniquity. No one among the vast cast of characters is wholly good or bad: not even Shah the property mogul.
There's a definite Dickensian quality here: from the portrayal of greed, to the thinly disguised social commentary. At times, Adiga is a little heavy handed _ Shah's lungs are rather neatly being destroyed by the toxic dusts of the construction sites that have brought him wealth and status. But for the most part, this writing is sheer beauty: darkly humorous, brilliantly observed and ultimately bleak.
Mumbai dominates the tale: a city of banyan trees and bustle, Gothic buildings, heat, monsoons and merciless change. A place where, Adiga tells us in a curiously direct passage, the question on everyone's lips is: what do you want?
"Only a man must want something; for everyone who lives here knows that the islands will shake and the mortar of the city will dissolve, and Bombay will again turn into seven small stones glistening in the Arabian Sea, if it ever forgets to ask the question: What do you want?"