Fiction Reviews

Ambitious but ill-equipped

The Windfall; Diksha Basu, Bloomsbury, ₹499.

The Windfall; Diksha Basu, Bloomsbury, ₹499.  

Basu’s prose is refined, she can even be genuinely funny, but she fails to enter her characters’ world or minds

Diksha Basu’s second novel—misleadingly marketed as a debut—is a story of migration between two worlds, both of which happen to be in the National Capital Region. The novel opens in Mayur Palli, a fictional middle-class locality in East Delhi (think Patparganj or Mayur Vihar).

The Jha family—Anil, Bindu, and their son Rupak—have lived in Mayur Palli for decades. They are solidly middle-class: Mr. Jha, an electrical engineer, runs a branch of an IT training institute, and Mrs. Jha is a social worker in the handloom sector. Their lives are transformed, financially and geographically, by the ‘windfall’ of the title, although they would dispute the term. Mr. Jha sells a listings website to a larger rival for $20 million. The Jhas are now wealthy, and they decide to move to Gurgaon.

Down the ladder

The first third or so of the novel introduces us to the Jhas, their friends, and the life they are leaving behind in East Delhi. Then the action proceeds on three parallel tracks. The Jhas in Gurgaon, getting to know their neighbours, the Chopras; Rupak in upstate New York, a failing MBA student torn between two women, an all-American blonde and a drama student from Delhi; and Mrs. Jha’s best friend in Mayur Palli, Reema Ray, a widow who finds a second chance at romantic happiness with Mr. Chopra’s brother Upen. The closing chapters, which are straight out of Karan Johar, unite the three strands.

The Windfall has romance, hints of tragedy—safely in the characters’ pasts—and plenty of melodrama, but it is principally a comedy, of manners and their absence. It is about wealth: its uneasy relationship to happiness, and the aesthetic and moral confusion it imposes on those who suddenly acquire it. Some people are better equipped to handle this than others.

In The Windfall, the chief victims of wealth are the two men who amassed it, Mr. Jha and Mr. Chopra. Mr. Chopra is paranoid about falling back down the class ladder; Mr. Jha wants to live as the Platonic ideal of a rich man; both become cartoonishly obsessed with the projection of luxury. Their wives, Mrs. Jha in particular, are much more grounded.

There is rich potential in this material, for comedy and for social observation. The Windfall fails on both counts. The essence of social comedy is detail, and the novel’s uncertain hold on the nuances of its character’s lives is apparent from the outset.

The details of life in the Mayur Palli housing complex are both implausible and incoherent. Traffic in middle-class East Delhi is not routinely obstructed by cows; the notion that families who drink white wine and Black Label never go to malls (because only the rich do that) is ludicrous; so too the notion that wealthy Delhiites try to cook Indian food in olive oil.

Gurgaon, a diverse city of a million people with a distinct history and identity, is rendered in the novel as a leafy ‘neighbourhood’ of Delhi, analogous in scale to Mayur Palli. And in a novel about money, Basu is alarmingly cavalier with her figures. Mr. Jha, a man with an MS in electrical engineering, who sends his son to an elite private school, has a monthly income, before his windfall, of $200 or ₹13,000.

The imprecision of social details is matched by the language, which veers erratically between Indian and American diction. Early in the novel, Basu writes that Mrs. Jha “took out the bowl of chilled yogurt mixed with onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and spices,” using the awkward register of cultural translation that Indian fiction has largely outgrown, and not “she took out the bowl of raita.” Elsewhere, Hindi and Indian English words are used more easily; but, throughout, the diction is more American than Indian, especially in the dialogue.

The combined effect is to distance the novelist from her characters. Except when dealing with the oafish Messrs Jha and Chopra, she is unfailingly sympathetic, but unable to convincingly enter the characters’ world or minds. At times, straining for comedy, she surrenders all narrative logic and control. On his arrival in Gurgaon, Mr. Jha is amazed to discover that the Chopras’ guard was hired through an agency: “What kind of agency do they come from? He’s not a model, for God’s sake.” This from a man who has just sold a listings website for ₹130 crore!

Occasional charm

In its milieux and its Bollywood plotting, The Windfall may remind readers of Chetan Bhagat. Basu’s literary ambitions are far greater, her prose more refined, and she can be genuinely funny, such as when lampooning the rich of Gurgaon. But this novel’s failings serve as a reminder of the one virtue of Bhagat’s fiction, 2 States above all: its sure grasp of middle-class attitudes and the details of middle-class life.

The Windfall is best when it moves away from social comedy to romance. The courtship and marriage of Reema Ray and Upen Chopra is charmingly done, unsentimental but tender, and deserved a novel in its own right rather than a subplot. They are The Windfall’s most engaging and authentic characters. Rupak’s Ithaca love triangle is also intriguing, before Basu abruptly abandons that plotline.

The middle third of the novel, more American than Indian, more romance than comedy, suggests that the rest, the study of money and status in Delhi, is a mismatch of writer and subject.

The Windfall; Diksha Basu, Bloomsbury, ₹499.

The author is a writer based in Delhi.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 12:18:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/ambitious-but-ill-equipped/article19324919.ece

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