Stumbling up the Social Ladder in Diksha Basu’s Novel, The Windfall
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In Diksha Basu’s debut novel, The Windfall a couple in India sells a website and, overnight, finds themselves with more money than they know what to do with. With their newfound wealth, they decide to move from their middle class neighborhood in East Delhi to the posh suburbs of Gurgaon.
Although Mr. Jha thinks of the 20 million dollar sale as a culmination of years of hard work, everyone else considers it luck; a windfall. What starts as an exciting move, turns into a comic series of events as the family tries to adjust to their new life. Each of the characters’ ideas about what wealth is and should look like bump up against each other in embarrassing and hilarious ways. Mr. Jha decides to splurge on a shoe polisher for the new house, only to be told by his neighbor, Mr. Chopra, who confuses it for trash, that it’s a good thing he’s throwing that away. “Who gets shoes polished these days? Am I right? It is so much easier to buy new ones,” he tells Mr. Jha. As they struggle to adapt to the norms of Gurgaon, continually tripping over themselves to prove their status, they realize they’ve become exactly the kind of person they are trying to avoid.
Mrs. Jha is proud her son is studying for an MBA in the US, an indication of lifetime security for him and his family. But in Gurgaon, they soon learn a new status symbol of wealth they hadn’t considered: leisure. Their next-door neighbor’s son, around Rupak’s age, stays at home without a job or foreseeable professional aspirations.
The novel also delves into the clashes of cultural identity as a result of living between two continents. While Mr. and Mrs. Jha are arranging their move, Rupak is studying in Ithaca, New York. His life, and the way others perceive it, is caught between two worlds. His community in India considers him a superstar for studying in America, but he feels far from competent, trying to hide the fact that he is on academic probation. Yet, when he comes back to India to visit family, he starts to feel estranged from the community his parents were proud for him to leave.
The Windfall is a satire about wealth and social class distinctions, and the ways in which money shapes and influences human behavior and relationships. Several recent Asian novels have tackled the surge of wealth across the continent in a variety of literary styles, such as Vivek Shanbhag's Gachar Gochar, or Kevin Kwan's books about wealthy Asians in Hong Kong, Singapore and and Shanghai.
Basu grew up in New Delhi, worked briefly as an actress before devoting her time to writing. She now lives between New York and Mumbai. She spoke with Bookwitty about her novel, that will soon be adapted as a TV series:
Gurgaon, the neighborhood where the Jha family moves, plays a central role. Still, their story of upward mobility is a global one. How did you choose the particular neighborhoods and settings for this novel?
The novel starts in the mid 1990s with a few flashbacks, in a very middle class average neighborhood in New Delhi, and then shifts to the posh new neighborhood of the suburbs of Delhi of manicured lands and mansions of sorts. I was raised in New Delhi in the 1990s and there was a real explosion of wealth all around, especially after the Indian economy opened up. When I went back to write a book about 20 years later, that was the obvious source of inspiration.
The family’s money comes from selling a website, which fits in with this idea of instant wealth through the Internet. Was this the catalyst for the novel?
Even though it seems like an overnight wealth, I don’t think it is. I think it’s a result of a lot of hard work. That doesn’t get seen when a visible wealth comes in overnight, but it’s never really overnight.
Throughout the book, the US represents various conflicting ideas to the different characters. How would you explain these various misrepresentations?
I think it goes every way. I think every place misinterprets every other place because we have so few points of representation. It’s really impossible to ever fully represent any one place, so you will have people in India completely misrepresenting the idea of America based on the books, television, and shows they’re consuming, and similarly, you will have, and we still see this very much, a very specific, narrow view of India based on what literature, art, movies, and music, people here are reading about India. I think that the world over, it’s impossible to really know a culture through consuming just the popular culture about it, but that is often our access point to those cultures. That misrepresentation, that narrow representation, is what really interests me from all sides.
I think that the world over, it’s impossible to really know a culture through consuming just the popular culture about it, but that is often our access point to those cultures. That misrepresentation, that narrow representation, is what really interests me from all sides.
How did you get into writing comedy?
I’ve always been very drawn to comedy. I think it’s very difficult to do, but it’s something I really like reading, watching, and listening to. So I was always keen to try it, and that was just my natural way to write.
At the same time, you’re also using humor to deal with heavy and complicated topics, like wealth and class disparity.
Right. And it can get so boring if you do it with such earnestness. I think the way into it is through humor.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on another novel, which is a spin-off of one of the character’s stories. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to these characters or this world yet. I’m so in love with all of them.
Top illustration by Arun Jaitapkar for GQ India