Book review

Set in the glitter of Gurgaon, ‘The Windfall’ is the novel of India’s poor little rich crowd

Diksha Basu’s sharply-observed novel examines how new wealth rewires a family.

The story of India Shining, its rising middle class as it experiences a growth in wealth and unfettered consumption, has had its recent literary interpretations. Vivek Shanbag’s Ghachar Ghochar, a novel in Kannada translated in English by Srinath Perur, tells of the unforeseen consequences on a family visited by unexpected wealth.

A man makes a fortune, after a strikingly innovative and simple business idea, and moves his extended family to an upmarket area in Bengaluru. The rise in wealth comes with moral decline. Bangalore, a city with its recent modernity saw also its reclamation by traditionalists who successfully contested to have the city’s old name back, and so it became Bengaluru.

Gurgaon follows in like manner, its story being, arguably, more chaotic and crass. The 21st Century in India saw a boom in the service industry, and Gurgaon thrived, aided also by its proximity to Delhi. And Gurgaon is now Gurugram.

Suburban opposites

Gurgaon is, in several senses, as Diksha Basu shows in her novel, The Windfall, the very opposite of Delhi, a city it abuts. In Basu’s book, Gurgaon is mentioned in several places as a suburb of Delhi. She wouldn’t be far wrong. The seamless connectivity between the two does make it so (some might well vouch for the reverse, however).

In The Windfall, what is certainly clear is that Gurgaon is a distinct and drastically different place from the east Delhi locality of Mayur Palli. For two decades, before Anil Jha moves his family to an ostentatious mansion whose owners have since moved to Kensington, Mayur Palli has been home to Anil, his wife, Bindu and their son, Rupak.

The Jhas, like the family in Ghachar Ghochar, come into unexpected wealth after Anil Jha makes a successful multi-million-dollar sale of a website he had developed: We never really know the details but almost in a Sabeer Bhatia (of Hotmail) like manner, he finds himself flush with wealth. Mr Jha is a self-made man, having lost his father early in life, and evidently has worked hard to provide for his family. But this wealth transforms him, at 52, in a far more drastic way, than it does his wife, who it appears is only reluctantly comfortable with this, or their son, Rupak, who, in distant Ithaca, doesn’t quite know what to do with new wealth, his parents or even himself.

Mr Jha has seen many struggles, including his widowed mother live a constrained life, and appears keen on a makeover inspired by their next door neighbours in Gurgaon, the Chopras.

Keeping up

There are two other story strands – a romance in charmingly awkward middle-age stage, set up by Mrs Jha, between Upen Chopra and Mrs Jha’s best friend in Mayur Palli, Reema Ray. And Rupak Jha’s travails at college, failing at academics and at love. At the end, in the only instance of self-awareness granted him in this novel, he realises he has also failed at being a son.

These strands draw on the Jhas and the changes in their lives. His new fortunes have rewired Mr Jha completely. The urge to now make himself over isn’t just to erase past miseries, but stretches to acquisitions that Mr Jha desperately seeks: a shoe polishing machine, expensive branded suitcases, wine decanters, and the pièce de résistance, a sofa ordered all the way from Japan embedded with Swarovski crystals – good to look at, hard to sit on.

Mr Jha is a wonderfully imagined character, but even with the others – and this novel teems with several – Basu’s quick details fill in an entire life: Mrs Jha’s neat, tight bun, her starched cotton saris. Reema Ray with her fondness of whiskey and yoga (and yoga pants which annoy others in Mayur Palli considerably). Mrs Chopra playing Angry Birds on her iPad and her often missing earrings. There are also Basu’s neat observations on class difference - exemplified by the lack of a full-length mirror in Mr Jha’s early life, or the post defecation rituals that set apart the social classes. Describing her home in Siliguri, Ganga, Reema Roy’s live-in help, provides graphic details to her about walking some distance to the toilet. Mr Jha is irritated with his wife for insisting on a mug by the toilet seat (a very middle-class habit), for he prefers the water faucet and toilet paper, which are a notch higher.

Snakes and ladders

Indeed, because the novel is peppered with such pleasing details and laugh-out-loud observations on social follies, what remain are the larger blanks. These aren’t many and might puzzle some readers, though not all. Mr Jha’s total makeover, making him almost a mirror image of his neighbour, appears a fascinating conundrum. Suddenly, in his catch-up game with Gurgaon’s ultra-rich, Mr Jha desires one too many things: a guard at his gate, bed skirts, diamonds for his wife from Tiffany’s, and an absurd new trousseau for himself – complete with skinny ties, and a yarmulke from a New York trip, which scandalises his son. Mrs Jha’s is a more reluctant transformation. Moving is stressful, and migration to a higher social class, more so.

A career woman, indeed one of the few of her generation who has remained one most of her life, Mrs Jha seems surprisingly acquiescent to her husband’s will. She has been aware of his hardships, we understand, and remains loyal to him in every measure. But she herself at times remains a blank slate, her revelation of an encounter with one of the rural women she works with revealing some unresolved contradictions.

But the ones making shorter appearances in the novel come to life by Basu’s use of a few throwaway sentences and mannerisms, for this novel uses more of dialogue and conversations to make its case. Ganga, who has perhaps had a non-fictional appearance before in Basu’s writing, owns a small trunk that have her few worldly possessions and on which her gods rest. Johnny, Mr Chopra’s wannabe-poet and playboy son, who plagiarises Yeats and laughs unashamedly when his father notices. It is a sign of being immensely wealthy that a man can afford to support a grown son, and Mr Jha, in turn, feels he must follow suit. Then there’s Mr De, the yoga pant-stealing neighbour who snoozes at committee meetings, Mr Ruddra who believes dance classes go on to become brothels, and the Guptas, plainly envious though they would like to play matchmaker between Rupak and Serena, Mrs Gupta’s niece.

The poor little rich

The household helps, meanwhile, remain servile in a mulish, and often infantile way –whether it’s Shatrughan, the gossip-loving guard who is attached to the people in the many apartments at Mayur Palli, Ganga who warns and watches over Reema Ray, or Balwinder, the security guard in Chopra’s house, who doubles up as informant and neighbourhood spy, so that his boss, Dinesh Chopra can keep up socially. There is none of that ambitious Machiavellian plotting that reminds one of Balram Halwai in Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, the chauffeur who is servile, yet watchful and aware of the right moment to strike and murder.

There is much darkness in Ghachar Ghochar, where Anita leaves her husband, the narrator, and his sister’s estranged in-laws are harassed by thugs. On the other hand, the rich in Gurgaon amuse the reader. The darkness, as with much else in Gurgaon, is discreetly shut away. Just as in Anita Desai’s novels of Old Delhi (Fasting, Feasting for example), where the women silently suffer while life goes on.

In The Windfall, the stories soon go around about Mr Jha and his strangeness, most clearly revealed when he is caught on a ladder “clearing up” or “spoiling” his neighbours’ ersatz Michelangelo adaptation. But the Chopras appear to wave such snide remarks away or even cover them up. There is a strange compassion for all the superficial gaiety. It reminds the reader of the tagline that accompanied the Richie Rich comics: “The poor little rich boy”. Basu’s well-observed novel, with its sharp, small details, could well be a novel of India’s poor rich people.

The Windfall, Diksha Basu, Bloomsbury

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.


SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.