The most striking aspect of Diksha Basu’s new novel Destination Wedding, as well as her previous book The Windfall, is how sympathetic she is to her characters, almost all of whom are affluent in varying degrees. Since money, class relations, and the perception of wealth are pivotal themes in both novels, her sharply observed characters in a comedy-of-manners setup could immediately invite judgement.
But Basu is never judgmental, only critical, and that too with the deftest of touches. Her criticism does not stick out as being written from a sense of moral obligation to the reader. And this makes her writing exceptionally humane. Basu’s characters are intelligent enough to introspect about their privileges, and even when they are not, she doesn’t make punching bags out of anyone.
The destination of the title is Delhi, where a host of expatriate Indians, and their foreigner friends and lovers, congregate for the wedding of Shefali and Pavan, whose nuptials inevitably cause everyone around them to take stock of their love lives. The heroine is Shefali’s cousin, Tina, a 32-year-old streaming network executive from New York, perpetually on the hunt for an Indian reality show subject, that is not “Born into Brothels. A thousand times over” or about “poor children with bright smiles for metaphors”, as two characters put it to her.
Tina was born and raised in the USA. When she was a child, her parents took her every year to Delhi in the summers, to stay with Shefali’s family – until Tina’s father Neel got sick with malaria, which made him paranoid enough to never return. Tina’s mother, Radha, conditioned her daughter to always be and behave American, because she felt it was the only way to protect Tina in the “pre-Priyanka Chopra years”.
Thus Tina grew into adulthood with zero idea of what’s India, except for her frequent work trips to Mumbai or Delhi, which entailed partying with people just like her in expensive places. (In one of the novel’s several insightful bits, someone muses that people these days are not divided by countries but by wealth).
So the week of Shefali and Pavan’s wedding, which constitutes Tina’s longest trip to India in decades, inspires an identity crisis in her: Is it finally time to come to terms with her inner desi? Additionally, she finds herself drawn to someone she had a fling with, the Australian Rocco Gallagher, who has been invited to the wedding unbeknownst to her – as well as to the tall, dark, and handsome Sid, a percussionist from Dharavi, Mumbai, whom she had once handpicked for a reality show that never took off, and who is mysteriously in Delhi just to catch up with her.
Also keeping Tina occupied is her own search for a good make-it-or-break-it Indian subject for a reality show, which makes her imagine every new brown person she meets as the key to an Emmy nomination.
So in terms of conflict and character motivation for Tina, there’s search for love, search for identity, and search for professional success. By and large, every other character in the novel shares one or two of these concerns.
Neel, who has been divorced for almost a decade, is in search for a new love in Delhi, while his ex-wife Radha has arrived at the wedding with her dashing white boyfriend David Smith, whom Neel always remembers to refer to by his full name. There’s Tina’s best buddy Marianne, who has a loving relationship with Andrew back home, but has a severe weakness for exotic non-American men.
At the wedding, Marianne comes across international playboy Karan, who charms white women with Susheela Raman songs and Indian women with Etta James songs over the first drink, and despite Tina’s watchful eyes, she is always on the verge of crossing the line with Karan.
A class divide
A big fat Indian wedding in Delhi, populated by characters who come from old money, is a perfect premise for everyone behaving loco with impunity. Basu, though isn’t as interested in satirising human behaviour as she is in exploring concerns, like love, family and friendship, among people who just happen to be crazy rich Indians. And here, she scores.
The author provides each and every character, particularly Tina and Neel, with a degree of interiority and depth. Even the smallest of characters, who might appear for a paragraph or two, like a bhel puri seller or a driver or a bartender, gets an inner voice that doesn’t turn them into a caricature or a stereotype, but presents them as a reasonable human being getting on with life, just like everyone else in the novel.
But unlike The Windfall, where its nouveau riche protagonists played out their emotions creating laugh-out-loud situations, the poised and polite characters of Destination Wedding would never act out of order. So, Basu outsources the shenanigans to two of the novel’s most delightful characters, Bubbles Trivedi and Nono.
Bubbles is a super-ambitious wedding planner who appears out of thin air in the middle of any conversation to remind folks to either get married themselves, or get their children married. She warns young women of the expiry dates of their ovaries, and young men, of male-pattern baldness. She hires white backpackers from Daryaganj to sit upright on horses and “look British”, while getting drag queens to pretend to be Bollywood stars.
In one of the novel’s most terrific moments, when the extremely tangible class divide between Tina and Sid comes to the forefront in a heated conversation (one of the rare bits in which the novel’s cocooned universe is punctured by the outside world), Bubbles shows up and takes the story in a direction so unpredictable that it’s hard to not marvel at Basu’s plotting.
Then there’s Nono, the groom’s grandmother, who carries opera glasses and chain smokes, and whose age and wealth give her carte blanche to cut everyone down to size with her caustic tongue. Still, Nono never comes across as mean, much like the novel’s household staff and blue-collar characters who are extraordinarily servile and good-hearted.
Unlike, say, Balram Halwai (in Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger) or Ayyan Mani (in Manu Joseph’s Serious Men), Basu’s plebeians are impossibly nice. None of them bears any ill will or angst against their employers, despite having reasons to do so.
Conservative beneath a liberal veneer
The only working-class character who comes across as ambitious, mildly bitter, and covets the wealth he constantly sees around himself is Sid. But despite the number of pages dedicated to him, he remains underwritten. Sid is constantly positioned as a bearer of terrific looks and not much else, one who is out of reach because of his inferior social status; thus, he ends up only as a prop for Tina’s personal growth.
A few clichés do creep into Basu’s otherwise sensitive writing. All the well-to-do folks read for pleasure, be it The New Yorker, The Economist, or Vogue, and the rest do not. They stare into their smartphones to watch cat videos and Bollywood songs. That these magazines are a mark of sophistication is pronounced in a bit where a guard reads a sleazy magazine, wrapped in the cover of an issue of The Economist.
But these small drawbacks aside, Basu’s engagement with the themes of class, globalisation, and ethics when it comes to rich folk appropriating narratives of the less fortunate for profit and acclaim is palpable. An interesting insight into class consciousness emerges when an assistant in a Sabyasachi store, who is secretly an aspiring fashion designer, resents the assistant designer, his immediate oppressor, so to speak, but not the lead designer, the oppressor-in-chief, who in turn makes life difficult for the assistant designer.
Basu is also self-aware. When Tina suggests to Bubbles that her life should be turned into a reality show, the seemingly glib wedding planner’s encouraging response clearly articulates what Basu is doing with the novel: turning an inward gaze into the lifestyles of the Indian elite is what you know best, so let’s do it. Earlier, Tina and another character wonder how voyeuristic it would be for people like them to tell stories of poverty, although Tina acknowledges that if she doesn’t do it, the next person will.
Through Basu’s lens, an elite Indian wedding comes across as an occasion to revel in social conservatism, despite the liberal values espoused by this social class. At one point, Neel is shocked to see how old-fashioned he is, compared to his date, an independent-minded widow, who had lived in Delhi through the years following the neoliberal boom of the 1990s. Neel, on the other hand, left for America decades ago, and finds it difficult to come to terms with the new India he sees during the wedding.
And herein lies one of the novel’s key themes: what exactly is the meaning of home? Tina feels she is American, but is increasingly drawn to the sights, smells, and spirit of India, and cannot decide if she wants to shift base here. Meanwhile, she cannot help but admire Mumbai-based Rocco, who has taken to India like a fish does to water. There’s a striking moment in the novel when this feeling of being a perpetual outsider is quietly reflected upon by Tina’s driver, a migrant to Delhi, when she sees Tina struggling to manage the chaos of Indian traffic.
All’s well, until, in the final four-fifth of the novel, Basu realises she has to tie up all loose ends and quickly give her characters what they want. She shifts into fifth gear, and so do the characters, who find themselves in situations whose contrivance is at odds with Basu’s otherwise thoughtful writing. Life lessons and the novel’s themes are spelled out as dialogue. But this sort of thing could surely work well in a movie, whose structure demands a bombastic climax. So any screenwriter ever adapting this may not need to work too hard.