Books Book Reviews

'The Windfall' adroitly probes questions of money and true worth

When an East Delhi man sells his website sale for a 'windfall,' he and his wife struggle to adjust to a newly luxuriously style of life. 

The Windfall By Diksha Basu Crown/Archetype 304 pp.
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  • Terry Hong

Mr. Jha, who not so long ago comfortably supported his family on a monthly salary equivalent to $200, sells his website for $20 million. That titular “windfall” transforms his life – and, of course, that of his family and friends. Money – who has it, how it’s spent, what it buys, what it can’t, what true value is, all of that – drives Diksha Basu’s endearing, astute debut novel, The Windfall.

Welcome to Delhi, where the have-enoughs and the have-too-muchs live rather separate lives. Mr. and Mrs. Jha have spent the last 30 years in a housing complex in Mayur Palli in East Delhi, where they raised their son Rupak, who is currently an Ithaca College MBA candidate in upstate New York. Although occasionally annoyed by over-inquiring neighbors, the sense of community is unmistakable – squabbles are forgiven, children are cared for, meals are shared, and even stolen yoga pants are eventually returned.

Despite the familiarity, the Jhas are willing to risk significant change enabled by their sudden wealth. Mr. Jha buys a Mercedes, proudly trumpeting the built-in six-CD-player. The luxury vehicle is de rigeur in Gurgaon, one of Delhi’s elite neighborhoods, where the Jhas are preparing to move into their substantial new home. Mr. Jha’s first acquisition for the posh abode is a custom-designed couch – one that’s studded with Swarovski crystals and delivered from Japan.

Mrs. Jha – clearly more practical (and nervous) – initially eschews the new car for ordinary taxis, argues against the installation of bathtubs as environmentally unsound, and worries about the vast changes ahead. “How were they meant to start from scratch at this age,” she ponders. More importantly, “Why were they trying to start from scratch? They were happy.” When the couple finally settle in Gurgaon, the concern is well-justified: “Mayur Palli felt like a different country that they had left behind and here, in this new country, Mrs. Jha did not know the language.”

Next door to the Jhas are the Chopras – Mr., Mrs., and their 28-year-old son, Johnny. They’ve recently decorated their foyer ceiling to resemble the dome of the Sistine Chapel. Mr. Chopra feels “particularly humiliat[ed]” over the previous neighbors’ move to London – to exclusive Kensington, no less – which, comparatively, can only mean he is “becoming poor.” Still, that he can bankroll his Yeats-plagiarizing poet son’s life of aimless privilege is a matter of particular pride.

As the neighbors begin to interact – one mustn’t seem overly eager – Mr. Jha works (too) hard to be recognized as the Chopras’ social equals. He wants to not-so-subtly let slip that they’re flying business class to New York to visit Rupak. He buys Burberry luggage he doesn’t need. He insists on serving chilled (never meant to be cold) soup because that’s the latest foodie craze on "MasterChef."

Meanwhile, amidst adapting to their new status, Mrs. Jha overcomes her Gurgaon disorientation long enough to play yenta for her closest Mayur Palli friend, a too-young widow, and Mr. Chopra’s older brother. Further from home, Rupak is dealing with his own amorous complications, not to mention his academic difficulties, both influenced more by what he thinks will be his parents’ reactions than his own choices and actions.

Breezily entertaining enough to enthrall droves of this summer’s beach and poolside readers, “Windfall” also manages to seamlessly insert urgent, relevant themes of gender inequity, socioeconomic prejudice and aggression, familial expectations and constrictions, isolation, entitlement, and more. Avoiding heavy-handed judgments (most of the time), the Delhi-born, internationally-raised, Cornell and Columbia-educated Basu writes what she knows, clearly familiar with adroitly navigating between East and West. Her global citizenry inspires sharp insights. She points out disparate labels: “’How come Americans get called expats but if we move to America, we’re called immigrants?’” She exposes gendered constraints: living “day in and day out with nothing new was like being dead before dying. This kind of widowhood wasn’t that different from throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.” She unmasks the disparity between private and public selves: “... the start of their new lives ... it was now time to try and relax into these roles ... to step into a movie.”

Interestingly, Basu, who is an “occasional actor,” according to her bio – her Bollywood references add ticklish fun – just might have page-to-film intentions. The affecting stories, the multiple settings, the narrative flow all suggest celluloid success. (A reunion between Aamir Khan and Kajol, who were fantastic in "Fanaa," as Mr. and Mrs. Jha?) But then again, before the B/Hollywood makeover, better to grab this chance for amusement and enlightenment now.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.