Family-owned business houses, especially the big ones, like to project an image of unity. And yet they are often driven by internecine rivalries. Neel Chowdhury, a Time contributor, fashions a perceptive novel, The Inheritors, out of that promising and, remarkably, all-but-ignored raw material. The clan in question, India's Lohias, is fictional, but anyone who has followed the tangled histories of Asia's real-life business dynasties will recognize some family lore and a few choice rumors.
The plot hinges on a takeover bid by one branch of the Lohias for the whole company. There is the patriarch, whose dignified conduct leaves him helpless in the face of the aggressive global marketplace; his dissolute nephew, rebelling after years of frustrated obedience; and his daughter, a young woman becoming keenly aware of her sexual power. Such drama could easily veer into soap opera, but Chowdhury uses his experience as a business journalist to turn the machinations of finance into the stuff of suspense, elegantly connecting the shadowy moneylenders of Mumbai to the gleaming towers of Hong Kong and New York City. In one set piece at a dinner party in a Hong Kong high-rise, Chowdhury cracks open the insular world of the Indian jet set, exposing their insecurities and pretensions. "The Indian guests ate as they usually did, on the rocking balls of their feet, curiously surveying each other's plates, clawing at the procession of half-heard jokes and gossip swirling around."
What humanizes the characters is Chowdhury's reimagining of the Lohias' beginnings as Marwari traders. Once little more than personal bankers to the nobles of Rajputana, the Lohias are constantly reminded of their mere mercantile status and escape that humiliation by migrating all over India to seek their fortunes.
The book's pacing is uneven slow at first, rushed at the end but full of sharply observed detail. In their craving for status and profit, the Lohias prefigure that élite caste of financial risk takers who still as we are all now painfully aware determine the course of the world economy. Chowdhury's work is fiction, but it is as true an account as any.