Diksha Basu’s The Windfall follows an East Delhi family who become wealthy overnight when they sell their successful business. Their move to an elite neighbourhood in Gurgaon challenges who they fundamentally are. This novel about the rapid rise of India’s middle class has taken the literary world by storm, in India and abroad. Perhaps what makes The Windfall so interesting is its ability to pinpoint the real markers of success in present day India – uniformed support staff in your bungalow, club memberships, competence at golf amongst others.
The writer – whose father is the noted economist Kaushik Basu – grew up in a Delhi whose fortunes were rapidly changing before her family moved to New York. She lived in Mumbai for a couple of years where she tried her hand at acting for a while before turning her attention to the art she says is her calling – writing. This is her second novel, after the debut work titled Opening Night. Excerpts from an interview with Scroll.in.
In an essay about your childhood, you talk about how the advent of air-conditioners meant that people retreated into their own homes and into their own rooms whereas earlier they would spend time outdoors or together in the one air-conditioned room in the house. The Windfall explores how money and convenience replace community. Were you drawing upon a personal recollection of loss when you wrote the novel?
No, I wasn’t and I don’t think wealth and money necessarily lead to isolation and a loss of community. I don’t think it’s as simple as that – I think wealth and money can change our relationships and our interactions but it need not be negative. What I wanted to do in the book was explore how money affects this one family. I like fiction to entertain first and foremost and I think it does that most successfully when it’s looking at a small topic through a narrow lens. I have no desire to make sweeping statements about money and community – bigger statements like that are best left to the realm of non-fiction. I wanted to explore how these characters specifically are affected by their new windfall of money.
Space seems to be a central theme in the novel. Colonies where one can look into the next apartment can mean comfort and safety to some people and interference and suffocation for others. There is a young widow named Mrs Ray who seems to crave more space and fewer connections. What were you thinking when you wrote that character?
The idea of widowhood, especially young widowhood, is one that fascinates me. Women of Mrs Ray’s generation in India are so often defined in terms of their relationship to others, male others – their fathers, their brothers, their husbands, their sons. What happens if you end up without any of those? Who are you? Who gets to define you? And what if it happens to you when you’re still young enough to have more years ahead of you than behind you?
It’s hard anywhere in the world for women who choose to do things differently and India is no different. If you speak your mind online, the Twitter trolls will come after you and use your personal choices against you and we still live in a world in which rape threats against women are the norm. This is horrifying. But this is also a global reality now – social media has made it much easier to threaten women around the world. But I think and I hope that in certain segments of society in India (and again, around the world), at least in real life you can find people who will support you and help you live life however you choose.
I’m clinging to this optimism even while the world’s political choices seem to be pushing women back and forcing us to retreat but I think the more we’re told to follow the path, the more we’ll find a way to create our own. I certainly hope so.
Was it difficult to write a novel set in a place you didn’t live in anymore?
I think it was easier to write about a place I don’t live in anymore. The distance helps me look at Delhi with more fondness and humour since I don’t have to deal with the daily frustrations of the city. And that would be true for me for any city – I need some distance in order to write about a place with maximum fondness.
Delhi and New York are two of my homes and I know parts of both cities intimately but they are both cities you can never fully know – cities with layers and pockets that you’ll never discover even if you spend your entire life there. Those are the cities around the world that call to me – cities you can never fully understand.
Growing up in Delhi, it was impossible not to notice the explosion of extreme wealth all around. Despite knowing the city well, I am continually fascinated by it.
Did the response to the book surprise you? Everyone is talking about it.
It’s been very surprising and so wonderful. When I was writing this book, I wasn’t sure if people would want to read about middle India – this book is not about extreme poverty nor is it about extreme wealth and the billion-dollar weddings. It’s about a family that’s comfortable and then becomes quite rich – not private jet rich but rich enough to not have to worry about money ever again – so of course they immediately begin to worry about money. It’s about a narrow segment of India and I’m not claiming to speak for others.
The world seems ready for the Indian novel from India – not the diaspora novel, not the immigrant novel, not the novel that needs to explain or exotify India – and that’s heartening.
Despite the fact that Delhi is a crucial character in The Windfall, I think the novel is more universal. The insecurities and issues that my characters face could happen anywhere. Everyone everywhere, despite their claims, wants to know what the neighbors are doing and how they’re faring – there’s a reason social media and reality shows are so popular; we all want to peek through the windows next door or, better yet, the windows in the next, wealthier neighbourhood.
What are some of your favorite books about India? And why?
I’ll read anything and everything by Snigdha Poonam – I think she’s one of the most interesting contemporary voices in India at the moment.
How did The Windfall come about?
This book started as a collection of short stories during my MFA at Columbia but slowly became a novel in the year and a half after I graduated. Hardly any of the original stories remains in the novel, but that’s where I discovered my characters. I needed to write all the stories in order to understand, know, and love my characters as deeply as I now do but the structure has changed completely.
I handed one of the first stories, very nervously, to [writer] Gary Shteyngart – not a lot of people at Columbia were writing through humour – who came back to me a week later, saying he read it on a flight to China and found himself laughing out loud on the plane. I am forever grateful to Gary for reading and giving me that encouragement, and the permission to write from the perspective of a middle-aged Indian man. His feedback gave me the confidence to keep writing these characters and to keep using humour as a tool to explore contemporary India. And later, I’m forever grateful to my agent, Adam Eaglin, for making me delete some of my attempts at humor.
What does a work day look like for you?
I have a newborn baby, so I have no sense of a writing routine at the moment. I write in short spurts when I can. I’m not terribly fussy about my writing routine – if the writing is flowing, I can write anywhere and at anytime. If it isn’t, even the most perfect conditions won’t help. But, despite the time constraints, having a newborn and limited time is adding an urgency to my writing that I’m quite enjoying. I no longer have the luxury of time and I’m hoping that will make my writing come alive even more.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a new novel that takes place in a similar world [to this book’s]. I wasn’t ready to leave this world – I’m so fond of so many of these people and places. And there are so many themes I touched on in The Windfall that I want to explore more. I feel lucky to have contemporary India as inspiration.