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: justcall.com. 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

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