Mr Dinesh Chopra from Block C, Sector 12A of the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon was not afraid of much. He could count on one hand the number of things that frightened him – stray dogs, rusted edges on cans, bearded men on airplanes, and young women in two-piece bathing suits. But the thing that frightened him most was poverty.
And he understood far too well that poverty, like all tragedy, was largely relative, and the Mukherjees next door had recently sold their house in Gurgaon and moved to London. Not Hounslow, either. Kensington. This had been particularly humiliating for Mr Chopra because he had spent a considerable amount of money and two months having the dome of the Sistine Chapel re-created on the ceiling in his foyer.
“It is a small investment,” he told Mr Mukherjee one afternoon. “But I am a big fan of art. I would be happy to give you the number for the painters. They can recreate anything. Even Bollywood posters.”
“I am sure it will turn out beautifully. I just don’t think it is worth spending so much right now,” Mr Mukherjee had replied.
“It is quite an indulgence, yes,” Mr Chopra had said. “This market has spared no one, but one must spoil oneself.”
At the time, he had walked away feeling smug about his wealth, but looking back at it, now that the Mukherjees had sold their house and disappeared to London – Kensington – he felt humiliated. And nervous. If the Mukherjees had managed to make the move to London—that too without telling the whole neighborhood about it—they were clearly making a significant amount of money. That meant that relative to the Mukherjees, the Chopras were becoming poor. And not just relative to the Mukherjees; relative also to the family that had bought the Mukherjees’ house.
Mr Chopra knew that house was not cheap. It was a bungalow with front and back yards. The driveway was comfortably fifteen yards long and the Mukherjees had planted trees so carefully along the fence around the perimeter that you couldn’t see any of the barbed wire that ran above the fence. So thick was the greenery that over the last five years, two thieves had injured themselves on the barbed wire while trying to climb into the Mukherjees’ property.
Not a single thief had tried coming into the Chopras’ property. It was worrying.
To experiment, Mr Chopra had the glass shards that lined the top of his fence removed one day. He then sat in his yard at night and monitored those sections, waiting for a thief to intrude. None did. A lone monkey climbed through around eleven PM., which caused Mr Chopra to go rushing back into the house and have the glass shards put back in place the next day.
The Chopras were stagnant. The other piece of residential property they owned was a bungalow in Goa with only three floors that wasn’t even close enough to the beach for them to be able to rent it out to white travelers at a good markup. And the down payment they had made on a Dubai flat was held up because the builders were under scrutiny for violating local building regulations.
“Why aren’t you working?” Mrs Chopra asked her husband’s back from the sofa. He was standing and gazing out the window into the front yard. “And where is Johnny? I haven’t seen him all day.”
“I don’t think he came home last night,” Mr Chopra said, laughing a little. His son, at age twenty-eight, still showed no ambition or signs of having a real career. Mr Chopra supported him financially and everyone knew that. Johnny went to all the best restaurants in town, regularly travelled abroad with his friends, and wore flashy designer jeans, and Mr Chopra paid for everything, which made it clear that Mr. Chopra earned enough not just for himself and his wife but also for his son to live a lavish lifestyle. Clearly he was earning the equivalent of at least three high incomes. He often wished they’d had another child, but really only so everyone at the club would know that he was earning enough for four.
Shashi Jhunjhunwala, who had made his money exporting slightly subpar medical supplies to hospitals in the Middle East, had four children, all of whom drove BMWs and none of whom had ever held a job.
Mr Chopra continued to stare out the window.
“The bushes need to be tended. You can’t even tell the one on the left is supposed to be a swan. Don’t give the gardener’s wife any more old saris until the bush looks perfectly like a swan. And I think it may be time to install a swimming pool.”
“Everything grows too fast this time of year. The house is fine for now. Only thing I want is to get the Mona Lisa, Bollywood style, with a bindi on her forehead, painted on the wall in the master bathroom. Why are you standing and staring out the window?”
Mr Chopra turned around to face his wife. She was sitting cross-legged in her nightgown on the large white L-shaped leather sofa that went along the wall of the living room. In front of her, a wooden box sat open with her jewellery spilling out. A gold bangle had fallen on the carpet in front of her. Not many homes in Delhi had full carpeting, but theirs did. On the low glass coffee table, Mrs Chopra’s iPad was open with the current Bollywood hits playing with a tinny sound.
Excerpted with permission from The Windfall, Diksha Basu, Bloomsbury.
Originally from New Delhi, Diksha Basu is a writer and occasional actor who divides her time between New York and Mumbai. You can find her on Twitter @dikshabasu