@@@ (3 out of 5)
In The Windfall, the debut novel from Indian writer and actress Diksha Basu, a struggling middle-aged, middle-class Delhi family strikes it rich and moves across town to a wealthy neighborhood in the suburb of Gurgaon. Anil Jha had strained for years to build an online business, earning just enough to send his son to an upper-class school, when a surprise offer to buy his site led to a $20 million windfall. Mr. Jha’s immediate response was to purchase a Mercedes and a large and expensive home in an exclusive neighborhood, leaving behind the family’s cramped quarters in an aging high-rise development in East Delhi. His wife, Bindu, is less than enthusiastic about either purchase. Now, the two are moving into their new quarters—and Mr. Jha’s primary concern is to impress the new neighbors with how much money he has. The old neighbors, jealous about the Jhas’ good fortune, are unhappy about the move.
Meanwhile, Basu’s other key characters enter the stage. The Jhas’ son, Rupak, is flunking out of an MBA program at Ithaca College in New York. He’s infatuated, and maybe in love, with a beautiful young American woman named Elizabeth, a student at Cornell. But Rupak is terrified of letting his parents know he’s dating an American, and he has been procrastinating about telling them. Bindu’s friend, Reema Ray, a widow at 37 and now 42, is pretending to be happy living alone. And the Chopras, who live next door to the new house in Gurgaon, are fretting about whether their new neighbors have more money than them. Their own wealth has permitted Mrs. Chopra to buy a large quantity of flashy and expensive jewelry and their adult son, Johnny, to live at home, chase girls full-time, and avoid work.
The Windfall is what critics are fond of calling a “comedy of manners.” It’s at times an amusing tale, but it would be a stretch to call it comedy. Though the dominant themes are class envy and the corrosive effect of having a great deal of money, Basu also shows belief in the possibility of romantic love—as well as her fondness for the practice of arranged marriages. Under the story’s surface lies the tragic reality of India’s poverty and the yawning gap between rich and poor in the country’s fast-developing economy.
Indian writers have contributed a great many award-winning novels in English. Among those I’ve enjoyed greatly are Amitav Ghosh (reviewed at A brilliant Indian novel about the first Opium War), Neel Mukherjee (The human toll of social change), and Manu Joseph (A comic novel about India today, and Big Science, too).