What better subject for satire than new money and those spending it? The wealthy suburbs of Delhi provide rich pickings for Diksha Basu who sets her tale of social jockeying amid its denizens.
Her recently-enriched protagonists are Anil Kumar Jha and his wife, Bindu. Anil has sold his technology firm to outside investors and, consequently, has become a middle-aged millionaire. Keen to enjoy this “windfall”, he decides to move the family home from (the fictional) Mayur Palli in east Delhi to the upmarket area of Gurgaon. While telling their neighbors of 25 years that they’ll be moving on is tough, the Jhas soon realise it is far harder becoming accustomed to showers, electric gates and full-length mirrors under the judgmental eye of new nextdoor neighbors Mr and Mrs Chopra.
With a copy of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling gracing their hall, the Chopras are a truly gruesome yet utterly believable study of the nouveau riche.
With a copy of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling gracing their hall, the Chopras are a truly gruesome yet utterly believable study of the nouveau riche. Obsessed with social status, Mr Chopra at first mistakes Mrs Jha for a servant in the Jha household and then worries that his own staff are not as well-dressed. At the golf club, we see him angling for position with the richer members while he is content to let his twenty-something son drift because it signifies the family is rich enough for its offspring to avoid work.
Basu saves her deepest cuts for Mrs Chopra: a spoilt, overdressed housewife with few interests beyond shopping. Her humble roots are not so well-buried, as Mr Jha observes:
He had built up a visual of Mrs Chopra as some young Kareena Kapoor type who would be wearing jeans and maybe a sleeveless top. But Mrs Chopra looked like someone had taken Mrs Gupta from Mayur Palli, coated her in honey and dipped her in a luxury mall.
Nor do the youngsters escape pillory. The Jhas’ son, Rupak, is studying for an MBA in the US, although he has no desire to go into banking and would rather be a film-maker. He also ends a relationship with a white American girl as he is too cowardly to broach the subject of a non-traditional wedding with his parents.
Presented as a comedy of manners, The Windfall cannot be expected to read like classic literature. It does have some faults, including a somewhat thin plot and a preposterous climax (involving the aforementioned Sistine Chapel ceiling). To the British reader, it may also seem somewhat dated as the kind of social anxiety experienced by the Jhas was a regular feature of 1980s and 1990s sitcoms such as Keeping Up Appearances.
However, much of the interest in the novel lies here: it would have a very different outcome if set in the west. Mr Jha would be more likely to sell his tech firm in his twenties rather than in middle age. As such, he would be unlikely to aspire to joining a stuffy golf club or worry too much about eating with the right fork. In the UK at least, such notions would align Mr Jha to the upper middle-class. With all its connotations of privilege, being out of touch and conservative (politically), this is currently desperately unfashionable.
There are of course enough similarities between one-upmanship in Delhi and everywhere else in the world to raise more than a few smiles as the pages turn. Saintly indeed would be the reader who comes to the end of this novel without recognizing one of their own foibles depicted in the text.