Diksha Basu’s debut novel The Windfall is a highly entertaining Indian comedy of manners. Family, friendship, identity, romance, a Swarovski-embellished sofa, worthless sons and insecurity in all its forms make up this sharp comic tale. The Jha family are new millionaires, thanks to the sale of Mr Jha’s internet start-up business, and they decide (some more enthusiastically than others) to give up their modest flat in a lively East Delhi block for a new way of life in a large gated house in one of the city’s wealthiest and most peaceful areas. But moving away from the close-knit, if claustrophobic, community is like leaving family, and keeping up with the Chopras, their super-rich new neighbours, proves a challenge. I ask Diksha about the origins of The Windfall and life in India today.

FG: There seems to be a growing audience for stories about contemporary Indian or Pakistani culture. The film The Big Sick is set to be a summer blockbuster. Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories and novels are all bestsellers. And now your book is causing a stir. Why do you think these stories are now so appealing?

DB: I think The Windfall comes under a different category because it isn’t about the diaspora or the immigrant experience. My novel is based in India and is about contemporary middle India. And I think stories like that are now working because international readers have moved past the diaspora or immigrant novel or movie – they don’t need India to be exotified or explained to them.

This book is, I hope, different from a lot of the work coming out of the subcontinent right now. We live in a globalised world in which the terms ‘immigrant’ and ‘expat’ are quickly losing meaning. Indians in America no longer live afraid and on the peripheries, and non-Indians visiting or living in India are doing so for reasons other than tourism or volunteerism. There are large numbers of immigrants that now defy definition and stereotype. There are people from all over the world who choose to live in countries different from their birth countries, but they still carry within themselves a sense of self-identity that isn’t necessarily tied to a nation or a race – or perhaps it is tied to their nation or race, but is a source of confidence rather than a reason to apologise. There is a global tongue emerging that goes beyond language and while parts of the world are getting increasingly divided and frightening, some boundaries are also dissolving. For a certain wealthy global elite, the points of reference are all the same. We live in the era of the global citizen and that leaves me with so much to explore.

I know that I’m making heavy generalisations here, and of course I know there is a worrying global refugee crisis going on while I’m talking about the luxuries of global citizenship, but I just mean that there are enough of the latter now for this to be a topic that interests me. Immigrant to expat has become more of a spectrum than ever before.

How did the premise for The Windfall come about, and which characters or scenes did you start with?

This book started as a collection of short stories during my MFA at Columbia but slowly became a novel in the year and a half after I graduated. Hardly any of the original stories remain in the novel, but that’s where I discovered my characters. I needed to write all the stories in order to understand, know, and love my characters as deeply as I now do, but the structure has changed completely.

The Windfall is set principally in Delhi. Is the Delhi culture particularly significant for you, compared to setting the novel in, say, Mumbai or Calcutta?

Absolutely. Delhi is as much a character in my book as my characters are. I grew up in Delhi in the 80s and 90s and saw the explosion of wealth all around me. The city fascinates me – it is the seat of power, the setting of so much wealth but also inequality, it’s changing rapidly.

You’ve also given us the very appealing Reema Ray, a youngish widow trying to enjoy life on her terms and finally opting for a conventional solution. If Jane Austen was Indian, Reema could have been one of her creations, right?

That’s very kind of you to say and I hope so! The idea of widowhood, especially young widowhood, is one that just fascinates me. Women of her generation in India are so often defined in terms of their relationship to others, male others – their fathers, their brothers, their husbands, their sons. What happens if you end up without any of those? Who are you? Who gets to define you? And what if it happens to you when you’re still young enough to have more years ahead of you than behind you?

I was engaged and getting married while writing this and I think I was dealing with similar ideas through a very different window in a way – so many women of my generation choose not to get married and I was one of the first of my core group of female friends to announce an engagement (hardly early, I was 30).

It took me a while to allow myself to admit that I wanted something as traditional as marriage, that I wanted a part of my identity to be defined in relation to someone else, a man.”

My engagement and wedding had no resemblance to Mrs Ray’s arranged marriage. I am married to a musician from New Zealand whom I met at a bar in Mumbai! Our story could not be more different from Mrs Ray’s, but the questions are often the same for women – how do you make choices and build a life outside your own social norms?

My husband and I had dated for years and not really given marriage a thought, but then we got engaged and then we got married and I loved being engaged and I love being married. But I felt a little sheepish about that – as if I was supposed to make a statement by having independent lives or, at most, living together but remaining unmarried. It took me a while to allow myself to admit that I wanted something as traditional as marriage, that I wanted a part of my identity to be defined in relation to someone else, a man. I felt that some of my friends felt betrayed by my decision to embrace something they stood against. So the core of the dilemma was not dissimilar from what Mrs Ray goes through. What happens when you end up in a situation – whether chosen or forced on you – that is different from the company you keep.

My social world is filled with wonderful, independent, successful urban women who are fighting against tradition and I am glad that we are, but I still wanted to marry Mike. How could I do both? A lot of my friends, especially in India, are making a statement by not getting married. Marriage in parts of India is still very much an institution to cage women and rob them of their identities, and here I was excited to have my wedding. I felt I had to keep my excitement a secret. And similarly, Mrs Ray has to keep it a secret that she’s okay being widowed, that she’s happy living life alone, that she has her own sense of self that she doesn’t want to apologise for and that yes, she enjoys drinking whiskey!

I speak from a very specific place in India – I’m privileged, urban, educated, and that’s the India I know. I’m not claiming to speak for anyone else. But within my little slice of India, I see attitudes slowly shifting. I see women choosing to have civil partnerships instead of marriages, I see them choosing to remain single, I see them coming out of the closet, I see them filing for divorce – and I see them all thriving.

It’s hard anywhere in the world for women who choose to do things differently, and India is no different. If you speak your mind online, the twitter trolls will come after you and use your personal choices against you, and we still live in a world in which rape threats against women are the norm. This is horrifying. But this is also a global reality now – social media has made it much easier to threaten women around the world. But I think and I hope that in certain segments of society in India (and again, around the world), at least in real life you can find people who will support you and help you live life however you choose.

I’m clinging to this optimism even while the world’s political choices seem to be pushing women back and forcing us to retreat, but I think the more we’re told to follow the path, the more we’ll find a way to create our own. I certainly hope so.

I find the idea of citizenship and nationalism so interesting because it’s so arbitrary, yet we’re meant to have these ideas of patriotism. I’ve never understood patriotism but it seems to be the topic of the day.”

Rupak as a character represents the dilemma and confusion of the clash of cultures in India – Western versus Indian; modern versus traditional; rich versus poor; young versus old. Tell us about his situation and why he represents the heart of the matter in The Windfall.

For Rupak, on the surface his concerns seem like those of a typical 20-something searching for love and a professional calling – but his real struggle is trying to find a sense of self, trying to figure out how to be a global citizen, trying to discover how much of himself is tied to his passport. I find the idea of citizenship and nationalism so interesting because it’s so arbitrary, yet we’re meant to have these ideas of patriotism. I’ve never understood patriotism but it seems to be the topic of the day. But I, and many of my friends, now identify as third-culture citizens who grew up with an attachment to at least two different countries, and I feel so fortunate to have that.

Anil Jha is the core character around whom much of the comedy revolves. He’s a family man, obsessed with the latest gadgets and even more obsessed with competing with the wealthy Chopras next door. Is he pure caricature, or will many men in India who read your book recognise themselves?

Not only men and certainly not only Indian men. I hope people around the world recognise small parts of themselves in him. We live in the era of social media and reality shows – we are all obsessed with peeking into our neighbours’ lives and comparing them to our own. We live at a time when Keeping Up With The Kardashians has become a cultural icon.

What is it about new wealth in India that creates such competitiveness? Are Indians that different from the British or Americans?

Again, I think this is a more global phenomenon, and that’s why the book is being well received outside India as well. While my story is deeply rooted in New Delhi, I hope the topics are more universal. I don’t think it is very different in the UK or US.

Are your characters based on people you’ve directly encountered?

This is not an autobiographical story. The whole idea with this book was to not write what I know. So I’m going to avoid drawing too many parallels to my own life. I think some of my other answers clearly touch on things from my own life that have inspired parts of this novel, but this is not my story thinly veiled.

There’s a TV adaptation in the pipeline. How far along is that – and in what ways do you expect to be involved in shaping the production?

I can’t say much about that yet unfortunately but I am very excited about seeing these characters on the screen.

What is your writing routine?

I have a newborn baby so I have no routine at the moment! I write in short spurts when I can. I’m not terribly fussy about my writing routine – if the writing is flowing, I can write anywhere and at any time. If it isn’t, even the most perfect conditions won’t help.

Which book would you cite as being your biggest inspiration behind your own writing?

No one book, but a lifetime of reading.

 

Diksha_Basu_420Diksha Basu is a writer and actor. Originally from New Delhi, she holds a BA in Economics from Cornell University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Buzzfeed and bbc.co.uk. She divides her time between New York and Mumbai. The Windfall is published in hardback and eBook by Bloomsbury. Read more
@dikshabasu

Farhana Gani is a founding editor of Bookanista.
@farhanagani11

Author photograph © Mikey McCleary

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