The Windfall (NetGalley)
Let’s get it out of the way right from the start: I was captivated by The Windfall. Writer Diksha Basu writes a sort of Indian Pride and Prejudice with some overtones of Great Expectations. The novel is at times humorous, poignant, and scathing–sometimes all on the same page.
For nearly their entire married life, Mr. and Mrs. Jha have lived in Mayur Palli, a middle class housing complex in East Delhi. The apartments were cramped, the streets noisy, and the neighbors nosy. After Mr. Jha sells a website for the astounding amount of twenty million U.S. dollars, the couple has purchased a house in the wealthy suburb of Guragun where the homes are spacious, the streets tranquil, and the neighbors … well, they’re still nosy, just not crowded in cheek to jowl. The novel opens with the Jhas gathering their neighbors together for dinner to share the news.
It’s clear from the outset that Mrs. Jha is decidedly less eager to leave than Mr. Jha. She remembers her neighbors looking out for their son Rupak when he was young and she was one of the few career women in Mayur Palli; she cherishes the friendships that have grown up with their family over the years. Mr. Jha sees things differently, however. He worked hard and this is their reward. He wants to leave their middle class world behind and revel in his new wealth. There’s no clinging to the old ways for Mr. Jha. The house in Guragun has showers, instead of a cup and bucket. He orders a dishwasher. And he has taken delivery on a new sofa from Japan–one studded with crystals that sparkle like diamonds. As Mr. Jha decides which Next Great Thing to purchase, he reasons, “They couldn’t live in a neighborhood like this and not keep up with the neighbors.”
Caught in the middle is their twenty-something son Rupak. The family’s windfall has meant Rupak can attend grad school in the U.S. so he can make bucketfuls of money himself one day. Except that Rupak is on academic probation, distracted by an American girlfriend and a bank account that magically replenishes itself. Rupak buys thousand dollar golf club sets, an iPad, a GoPro and just about any other toy that catches his eye. He has no clear vision of what he wants to do and is going through the motions of getting his MBA, just barely.
In the end, all of his posturing takes its toll on Mr. Jha as, through a comedy of errors, he begins to recognize the emptiness in his new neighbors’ lives and begins to miss the genuine friendship of his old neighbors. Bashu also gives us the story of Mrs. Jha’s best friend Mrs. Ray, a widow who finds love at her door later in life and her story deepens the connection between the Jhas new life and their former one.
Bashu gives American readers a peek into an India most of us know little about, and her commentary on Americans is wicked. Take this observation, for example: “How come Americans get called expats but if we move to America, we’re called immigrants?” Or this: “Americans were coming to India for holidays … but once they had done yoga and tried halfheartedly to teach English to prostitute’s children, they got on planes back to their homes in Michigan or Texas.” She continues, “They laughed with the slum children and pretended not to mind touching their filthy hands. Of course they didn’t mind. It would be easy to touch those children if you knew you were leaving and next week you would be back at home … telling people how those children laugh and smile even tough their lives are so difficult.” Ouch.
Will the Jhas stay or will they go? Will Rupak return to India or finish his MBA and carry on with his American girlfriend? I thought for sure I knew how the novel would end, but I didn’t. But good people are good people whether fictional or real life characters, and they figure things out.
And the Jhas are good people.