If you suddenly came into a ton of money, would you move to Gurgaon? In Diksha Basu’s second novel, The Windfall, the suburb is a town of quiet lanes, green trees, and big houses - a sort of free-standing Chhatarpur. Your neighbours are still aspirational Punjabis, your neem trees fifty years old, and the NCR’s general atmosphere of unregulated wealth is largely placid and undisturbed here.
This recreation of a teeming, unequal city as West Egg, North India is conducted with a very light touch: The Windfall is a novel about people, not of place. It’s also strikingly kind-hearted about wealth and the newly wealthy: it may, indeed, be quite different from the sort of novel about Gurgaon a writer who lived there would write. Class is the water in which all of Basu’s open-mouthed, shiny-scaled little fish swim, and the novel is her airy, gently comic examination of their biosphere and its small dramas.
Plunge, then, into the fish tank of the Jhas, who are vacating their middle-income colony in East Delhi and leaving behind their friends to move to a big house (with garden) in Gurgaon. Their neighbours, the Chopras, grow rich off the fat of the land (literally - they own a mine) and seem interested only in golf, diamonds and neurotically calibrated displays of wealth. Mr Jha, who leaps from the 1 percent into the 0.0001 percent by selling a lucrative website, is spoiling to join the battle of appearances: having grown up in straitened circumstances, he longs for the comforts of electronic shoe polishers and bathrooms where you can shower without a bucket and mug getting underfoot.
Class is the water in which all of Basu’s open-mouthed, shiny-scaled little fish swim, and the novel is her airy, gently comic examination of their biosphere and its small dramas.
Much of the novel’s comedy comes from Mr Jha and Mr Chopra circling each other like paunchy gladiators as they attempt to display the most wealth, sparing not even their progeny, whom both are rich enough to support many times over. “Johnny should learn from Rupak,” Mr Chopra tells Mr Jha as they discuss their wastrel sons, an amateur poet and an indifferent MBA student respectively. “He gives absolutely no thought to the future.” ‘“Yes, maybe. But Rupak has little talent, so it is likely he will fail completely,” Mr Jha said. Both men laughed heartily.’
Basu’s ear for manner and voice is in form with the elder Jhas and Chopras; The Windfall has some of the best, easiest dialogue you’re likely to read in an Indian novel this year. This capacity shrinks somewhat when the novel moves to the USA, where Rupak Jha is floundering, trying to choose between white and brown girls and unmotivated by anything beyond, it seems, self-pity. In these passages, relations become more laboured, and both narrator and characters seem to be speaking earnestly to camera as they discuss class differences in Delhi and how best to be oneself.
But Basu more than makes up for how boring young people are with Mrs Bindu Jha, the family matriarch and the sort of character who will make you want to put down the book and hug your mother or grandmother. Through this stolid, sweet, clever heroine, Basu is able to capture something of the miracle of an entire generation of Indian women whose spirited individuality far exceeded the bounds of their experience or opportunity. Mrs Jha is no paragon, but she is both good and interesting - a rare achievement both for human beings and the novelists trying to put them in books.
The Windfall stumbles at the very end with a climax this reader found silly and out-of-tune with the rest of the novel. By this time, however, even Mr Jha and his social climbing have wormed their way into our hearts - and a most charming romance, about which we will divulge no spoilers, has reached its nail-biting conclusion. In someone else’s Gurgaon, wealth might harden hearts and corrode morals; in Basu and Bindu Jha’s Gurgaon, there’s always the consolation of hot gulab jamuns and incorruptible aunties.
Getting there: The Windfall is available to purchase here.
Image: Yes, we did read an uncorrected proof. #dishka
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