Keeping up with New Delhi's one percent in 'The Windfall'
Jennifer Senior illustrates money and manners of social mobility in modern India as explores by the author
Never underestimate the neuroses of the extremely wealthy. Their nerves are attached to jumper cables. Though the characters in Diksha Basu's debut novel, "The Windfall," may not be one-tenth as rich or half as crazy as Kevin Kwan's 'Crazy Rich Asians,' they're certainly loaded, and extravagantly bananas in their own ways. The worst is a fellow named Mr. Chopra, who has replicated the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in his foyer. (Adam is wearing shorts, but never mind.) He's quite smug about it at first. Then he becomes depressed, because his neighbors show no interest in following suit. Such an investment isn't worth it to them. They're moving to London. Worse than that, actually: Kensington.
"That meant that relative to the Mukherjees," Basu writes, "the Chopras were becoming poor." There's nothing worse than being poor. Unlike 'Crazy Rich Asians,' which merrily hopscotched among Singapore and Hong Kong and London, Basu's novel is set primarily in a velvet-upholstered enclave of New Delhi. It was probably inevitable. In the new Gilded Age, farces about rich people behaving badly will eventually take place in every boom economy, given that every well-off nation now has its own breakaway republic of the 1 percent. It's simply India's turn.
The result is a story that's the stuff of Amartya Sen's worst nightmares and Tom Wolfe's sweetest dreams: Anil Jha, serial entrepreneur, one day sells his company for $20 million, suddenly giving his family the means to move from its lively, middle-class housing complex (short on privacy, long on community) to a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of Gurgaon, a New Delhi suburb so status-obsessed it's a wonder it doesn't have its own line of handbags. Residents pay careful attention to cars bought and servants hired; the Jhas' new neighbor, Mr. Chopra - he of the ersatz Michelangelo - can't even enjoy the splendor of his own home. "Not a single thief had tried coming into the Chopras' property," Basu writes.
"It was worrying." Mr. Chopra inherited his money. But the Jhas, like so many people who blunder into freakish, spontaneous wealth, have no habits or folkways to rely on, and how they handle their unexpected windfall - dramatic tension alert! - differs significantly. Mrs. Jha longs for her old friends and her old way of life, still using a bucket of water to bathe and wearing non-designer saris.
"We don't need to copy everything other people in Gurgaon do," she tells her husband. But that, of course, is precisely Mr. Jha's plan. He's so preoccupied keeping up with the neighbors that he nearly loses his mind. He orders a sofa from Japan specially inlaid with Swarovski crystals. (Perhaps this will come as a surprise, but it isn't very comfortable.) He goes from fretting about his 23-year-old son Rupak's job prospects to delighting in his failures, so that he can make an ostentatious show of supporting him. ("Rupak has no talent," he boasts to Mr. Chopra. No Tiger Dads in this crowd.) He briefly contemplates hiring an armed security guard for his new home, because it would imply that his house contained hidden bricks of gold.
A sizable body of psychological research suggests that our happiness levels remain the same no matter how much we achieve or how many goodies we acquire. There's even a name for this concept: the hedonic treadmill. Mr. Jha is borne backward on his. Just figuring out how to work into casual conversation that he's flying business class to America makes him break into a profuse sweat. For readers who know little about modern India and are beach-novel curious (but too embarrassed to buy one), 'The Windfall' may be the right sort of summer refreshment, providing just enough substance to defy the second part of the 'Seinfeld' rule - "No hugging, no learning." (The Jhas' farewell to the security guard at their old housing complex - who wordlessly accepts a castoff CD player even though a CD would cost him a full day's wages - says more in two paragraphs than a two-hour documentary might.)
The story has its share of identity mix-ups and sitcom misunderstandings. It features a lovely midlife romance. It's hardly a surprise that Paramount TV and Anonymous Content recently optioned the book as a TV series. There's even a Hollywood - or Bollywood - ending. But if the final act of 'The Windfall' suggests that money makes people bonkers, it also suggests that Basu didn't know how to end her novel.
After a madcap climax, she seems uncertain where to go, inexplicably carrying on almost exactly as she had before. As far as I know, that trick only works if you're Katharine Hepburn knocking over Cary Grant's dinosaur skeleton in 'Bringing Up Baby.' And Basu could have stood to be a little more outrageous - or a little more serious. Rupak is supposed to be the soul of the novel, the one who's genuinely foundering in ways that aren't designed for laughs. He's dating two women at once (one Indian, one American), and he's flunking his masters program in business administration at Ithaca College, wishing he could study film instead. He leads a life that's conflicted, caught betwixt and between - just like his parents.
He should be sympathetic. And he partly is. But he's not developed well enough to sink his hooks into us; he often seems more like a delivery system for ideas than a human. The questions Basu wants to explore using Rupak and his parents are worth looking at - how do we adapt to new mores, new cultures, new homes? Is it possible to yank people up by their roots, repot them and expect them to thrive?
"Stop blaming everything else - stop blaming your parents, stop blaming India, stop blaming America," Rupak's American girlfriend eventually rebukes him. Figure out who you are and just be that person. Part of me wants to say the same to Basu. Is she a wicked satirist, a social critic, a writer of rom-coms? She needn't choose, necessarily; but if she wants to be all three, she has to work out how to better integrate these parts of her author self. What a triple threat she'd be if she did.
The reviewer is a regular contributor for www.nytimes.com