Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: The Windfall

Diksha Basu’s novel The Windfall is a charming, but also illuminating, look at the nouveau riche in India. Okay, it’s perhaps exaggerated, what with all the “keeping up with the Chopra-family-next-door” going on, but it’s a fun read. Even more fun is that Basu, who now teaches at Columbia University and divides her time between New York and Mumbai, will be at Politics and Prose in Washington DC on Saturday afternoon, July 22, at 1pm, to talk about her book, published late last month by Crown.

MR. JHA HAD WORKED hard, and now he was ready to live well.

“Now that all of you are here, we have some news,” he said to the neighbors assembled in the small living room of his home in the Mayur Palli Housing Complex in East Delhi. He was nervous, so he looked over at his wife, who was standing in the doorway of the kitchen, and his son, Rupak, who was at home for the summer vacation, sitting on a dining table chair. His wife met his gaze and nodded gently, expectantly, encouraging him to hurry up and share the news. And he knew he had to, before the gossip spread through the housing complex. Tonight they had invited their closest friends—Mr. and Mrs. Gupta, Mr. and Mrs. Patnaik, and Mrs. Ray—to tell them that after about twenty-five years (they had moved in when Mrs. Jha was eight months pregnant) they were moving out, and not just moving out, but moving to Gurgaon, one of the richest new neighborhoods of Delhi.

It would have been easier, in a way, to announce a move to Dubai or Singapore or Hong Kong. Mr. Jha himself had often been part of conversations that criticized families for moving to different Delhi neighborhoods the minute they could afford to. And certainly nobody of his generation had moved out in recent years. He was fifty-two years old, his wife was forty-nine, and their twenty-three-year-old son was in business school in America. The move was going to be seen as an unnecessary display of his newly acquired wealth. And since the money had come from the onetime sale of a website, everyone in Mayur Palli treated it with suspicion. Nobody believed it was hard-earned money. “A lucky windfall,” he had heard Mr. Gupta call it. But Mr. Jha knew that it had been anything but luck; it had been hard work.

If an outsider, a stranger, were to see them all gathered here, would he see that Mr. Jha was different, Mr. Jha wondered?

Author Diksha Basu. / Photo © by Mikey McCleary.

He was five foot eight and was neither impressively fit nor impressively fat. The fact that he didn’t have the traditional trappings of success worried him these days. He liked fitting in.

The new house in Gurgaon was a two-story bungalow with front and back yards, and they knew nothing at all about the neighbors yet. The house was tucked into a quiet lane away from the traffic and chaos of the rest of Delhi. Unlike in other parts of the city, all the drains were properly sealed and the streets were swept and cleaned on a regular basis. Big, decades-old neem trees lined both sides of their lane, and it was the kind of quiet that made it a place that hawkers and beggars avoided.

It was a much more lavish home and neighborhood than Mr. Jha had ever imagined himself living in. Not only did the doors fit in their frames, but most of the light switches had dimmers. There was a separate servants’ quarter at the back, and a wall went around the periphery so nobody could look in or out. Unlike Mayur Palli, and the rest of East Delhi for that matter, the houses in Gurgaon were spaced grandly apart and interactions between the neighbors seemed minimal. Mr. Jha knew he was supposed to want that—that was how rich people’s tastes were supposed to be.

Above his head a fat fly thumped repeatedly against the tubelight. The new house had better screens in the windows to stop flies and mosquitoes from invading. Mr. Jha took off his rimless glasses and wiped them with the white handkerchief he always kept in his shirt pocket. He wished he had opted for a short-sleeved shirt today instead of the long-sleeved blue one he had neatly tucked into his khaki slacks.

The Jhas were one of the original residents of Mayur Palli when they moved there in 1991. Mayur Palli meant, literally, the home of the peacock, but Mr. Jha had never seen a peacock anywhere near the area. Four buildings, each five floors high, were built around a dusty courtyard small enough for everyone to be able to peer into their neighbors’ windows. Every morning, wet laundry hung from ropes on the balconies, water dripping down to the courtyard. Downstairs, what had once been a space for the children to run and play and ride bicycles was now a clogged parking lot. A parking lot filled with scooters and Marutis and maybe the occasional Honda, bought for aging parents as a gift by adult children living abroad.

But now, on top of the fact that the Jhas were moving, the Mercedes Mr. Jha had ordered had arrived early and, embarrassingly, he had to take possession of it here in the old housing complex. He hadn’t wanted the car salesperson to see his current home, or his current neighbors to see his new car. What must the delivery person have thought driving it across the bridge to the wrong side of the Yamuna River? The silver car was big and shiny and completely out of place in the middle-class neighborhood and was nearly impossible to navigate past the cows in the narrow lanes. And clearly the car was annoying others. Just the previous morning, the undersides of the door handles had been covered with toothpaste and Mr. Jha had had a very minty-smelling morning drive. He was grateful it was only toothpaste.

Sometimes Mr. Jha himself couldn’t believe how much money his site had made. It had been such a simple dream——that began as an online resource for local Delhi phone numbers and services. Mr. Jha had been trying to call his old friend Partha Sen in Chittaranjan Park to reminisce about their college days but had accidentally called another Partho Sen from the directory. He had chatted with the unknown Partho Sen for a good four minutes before either of them realized it was a wrong number.

But he had sold the website a little over two years ago, after working on it for five years, Mr. Jha said to himself. And before that he had had several more complicated ventures that had failed completely. But all that was in the past. This was now and he had to break the news.

—Diksha Basu

Excerpted from The Windfall. Copyright © 2017 by Diksha Basu. Published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.