The title of Diksha Basu’s eminently readable new novel, The Windfall, is pretty straight-forward. Anil Kumar and Bindu Jha, Mr and Mrs, are your decent, middle-class, East Delhi Uncle and Aunty, professionals, parents, neighbours, likely to register median on most national surveys. That is, until Mr Jha’s homegrown website (simplycall.com) is acquired by an American company for twenty million dollars. Said windfall sends them careening out of their comfortable if quotidian Mayur Palli housing society to a glamorous bungalow in a posh, tree-lined avenue of Gurgaon. The consequences of this almost stratospheric shift become the subject of Basu’s breezy novel-of-manners.
In Mayur Palli, one merely had to compete with the Guptas who drive a Honda Swift, or the Patnaiks who are obsessed with the notion of getting their homely daughter married to Rupak, the Jha offspring, studying towards a business degree in a private college in Ithaca. But, Rupak is failing business school and he also has an American girlfriend to boot. Basu’s Mayur Palli captures, with exactness, the sights and sounds of East Delhi that are familiar to most Delhiwallas.
In Gurgaon, though, one must keep up with the Chopras. Dinesh Chopra has recreated the Sistine Chapel in their family foyer, at great expense. Although he addresses most whims of his family-members — his wife Geeta and “poet” son Johnny — and all fancies of his own, Mr Chopra still can’t keep at bay the uneasy feeling that “relative” to his neighbours, he was becoming poorer. As the Jhas move in next-door, with their Japanese sofa studded with Swarovski crystals and brand new Mercedes, Dinesh Chopra and Anil Kumar Jha soon begin to mirror each other’s acquisitive obsessions, leading to bizarre scenarios.
There are two competent sub-plots. A rather feel-good one involving the changing fortunes of Reema Ray, Mrs Jha’s best friend and neighbour, a young widow who feels suffocated in Mayur Palli; and, a more nuanced one about Rupak, who is torn between his parents’ changing class-status – middle-class or newly rich? – and two women, one Indian and one American.
There is, however, no doubt The Windfall has been written primarily for an American readership. What would be trousers in India become “slacks”. Even more problematically, Gurgaon, that steaming city with a monster’s breath and gilded eyes, where extreme affluence and urban poverty exist cheek by jowl, becomes a “monolith” in Basu’s world — all quiet, tree-lined, “an oasis of calm” as it were. Something that an American audience would equate with affluent suburbs of New York City, perhaps? In Westchester County or Scarsdale? The real Gurgaon, of course, is no oasis of calm. Neither is it exclusively for the rich. Indeed, it was after Mayur Vihar and its obverse in the south, Vasant Kunj, became well-nigh impossible to afford, that a large chunk of the middle-classes escaped to the high-rise apartments of Gurgaon that they could afford on EMIs, so much so that these too, in due course, became “aspirational”.
It is, of course, heartening to see a novel of this sort, gentle humour, honest story-telling, and a clever Candace Bushnell-like pulse on contemporary trends (albeit without any Candace Bushnellian emphasis on sex) do so well in the US, given it has nothing whatsoever to do with caste, terrorism or atrocities on women, the usual favoured memes. One breathes a sigh of relief as it were to see that immigrants and exotic locations are no longer what sell. However, the attendant points this raises is rather troubling. Had this novel been published only in India, it would have disappeared from the mid-list before you finished saying windfall, perhaps even unreviewed in newspapers or magazines. Must (windfalls in) Indian writing in English come to India via an MFA degree and a global (read American) launch to be read at all? What does that say about the state of the industry in India at large?
Chew on that while you read the book!