A New Delhi Family Learns To Navigate Wealth After A 'Windfall' Diksha Basu's new novel was inspired by the explosion of wealth she saw in 1990s India. She says money is a complex thing, and it takes a while for her characters to see that.
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A New Delhi Family Learns To Navigate Wealth After A 'Windfall'

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A New Delhi Family Learns To Navigate Wealth After A 'Windfall'

A New Delhi Family Learns To Navigate Wealth After A 'Windfall'

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In the novel "The Windfall," a newly minted tech millionaire buys a big fancy house, a flashy car, and he leaves his middle-class life behind to rub elbows with the superrich. What follows is a delightful comedy of errors where he and his family navigate the unexpected pressures and pleasures of newfound wealth in modern India. Author Diksha Basu joins us now from our studios in New York. Welcome to the program.

DIKSHA BASU: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So making a fortune and having all the trappings of wealth, I guess, aren't just part of the American dream. In the past few decades, India has minted more millionaires than many other developing countries. Tell us about the world where you set this book.

BASU: So this book is set in New Delhi. And it starts in the mid-'90s and comes up to present day. And I myself grew up in New Delhi in the '90s, and I saw the explosion of wealth all around me. And it was hard to ignore. And that's what led to this novel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, so into this world of newfound wealth are thrust Mr. and Mrs. Jha, who leave the apartment where they have lived all their lives to move to what I take is the Beverly Hills of New Delhi. Am I right there?

BASU: That's a good way of putting it. Yes, exactly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, tell us about the Jha family.

BASU: So the Jha family start off, like you said, just an average middle-class, middle-aged couple. Their son, Rupak, is doing an M.B.A in America. And Mr. Jha suddenly comes into a large windfall of money. He sells a website. It's not - you know, it's not money that comes from winning a lottery. He has worked hard in order to earn this money. But it comes in one lump sum as opposed to an accumulated income over a lifetime of work. So he gets this large windfall of money and decides to move him and his wife from their middle-class neighborhood to the flashy suburb of Gurgaon into a mini-mansion of their own.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the funny conflicts in this book is about the expectation of what being wealthy really means. And you have Mr. and Mrs. Jha, and they've sent their son, as you mentioned, to the United States. And they think that that's a real sign of status. But when they meet the neighbors, they have a different view of what sons should be doing and what that shows about your status in the world.

BASU: Right. They do. For them, the children working is a sign of the parents not succeeding because they cannot provide for their child through life. So for these wealthy neighbors, the fact that the - Rupak, the fact that the Jha's son actually has to go and study is seen like something he does out of necessity, not a step towards his own success.

It's looked at with sympathy that the poor fellow has to study in order to make a living for himself, whereas, in their home, their son in his late 20s doesn't actually do anything. He plays tennis and flirts with girls and doesn't actually work towards making anything of his own life. And that is the symbol of his parents' success.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are so many sharply observed moments in the book and, specifically, about how women and men are treated differently. What were you trying to show? You discuss this with so many of the different female characters.

BASU: So what I was trying to show - and this is not about Indian women in general. I think this is more universal for women. It's almost like there's no winning. Yes, on the one hand, politically, all over the world, they're surprisingly regressive laws being put in order to keep women down. And that is shocking given that it's 2017. But I'm not - I wasn't speaking to the larger issue.

What interests me is women trying to do something different within their own societal norms - whatever that may be. If you try to do something different, you will get criticized. And so for instance, one of my characters, Mrs. Ray, she's a young widow. And she is enjoying widowhood, not that she didn't love her husband. She did. But he passed away. She's mourned. She's gotten over it. There's no father, no husband, no son. She is living on her own. And what she is doing is looked at with a lot of suspicion and often criticism.

And at the same time, what I found while I was writing this book, I had just got engaged and then married. And in my urban elite Indian female circle, to get married and to have a child, which I just did, is looked at as betraying the rest of my social circle. So even though my...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Betraying?

BASU: Yeah. It's sort of looked at as I shouldn't have chosen those conventional choices. And so then I end up having to defend what I looked at as conventional choices, where someone like Mrs. Ray is having to defend what is looked at as unconventional choices.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You made this book a sort of tender comedy. But it could have been a tragedy, I suppose. These are people who left the people they cared about, they'd grown up with, to ascend socially. But you don't seem to judge them.

BASU: I don't. I love them. I really like all of them. And I don't think it is as simple as a tagline of how wealth destroys love. I don't think it does. I think it's much more complex than that. And I don't think it's as simple as, oh, look at the poor slum children smiling through their poverty, which is often how some literature from India is perceived.

I don't think it is black and white. I think wealth can be destructive just as much as poverty can be destructive. And wealth can be irrelevant. And wealth can also bring a family together in a completely different and unexpected way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I don't want to give away the end of the book. But everyone finds their place in the end. So why did you want to give the book a sort of sweeter ending?

BASU: I think for my own sake, my readers' sake, my desire to be a bit more optimistic maybe than I am. I will tell you, I had a hard time with the ending. I wasn't sure. It wasn't heading towards a happy ending at first. But I felt my characters deserved it. And I felt the book starts with enough love and affection amongst my characters that they can weather storms together.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Author Diksha Basu, her new novel is "The Windfall." Thank you so much.

BASU: Thank you. It's been a privilege talking to you.

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