The Dream Builders: Ten Stories
The Dream Builders, is Oindrila Mukherjee’s debut novel. It received a lot of attention when booksellers like Barnes and Noble and Powell’s selected it as one of the most anticipated debuts of 2023. It also was featured by literary webzines like Electric Literature.
Mukherjee is a Creative Writing professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. She sets her novel in the fictional town of Hrishipur, a suburb of New Delhi, which is clearly modeled after Gurgaon, a sprawling extension of Delhi. Hrishipur, the hub of a real estate boom, is the locus of the newfangled prosperity of India’s success in the global capitalist economy.
The novel is narrated from the point of view of ten residents of Hrishipur It novel offers glimpses of contemporary urban India from the perspectives of characters occupying the extreme ends of the class spectrum. After ten chapters named after the characters, the novel returns to the perspective of Hrishipur, the city. It finally ends with that of Maneka, the character who resembles the author in her profession of a Creative Writing professor returning to India for a summer visit.
The Dream Builders: Robbed of Dreams
If Maneka represents the returning expatriate, her classmate Ramona epitomizes the elite of Indian society who never had any reason to leave to seek better opportunities abroad. Cushioned by the privilege of family connections and wealth, Ramona has reigned as the queen of her exclusive school set. Conversely, Maneka has always felt her tenuous place in this crowd, in her childhood and even after acquiring the credentials of professional academic success in the U.S.
This state of not belonging is exacerbated by Maneka’s father’s loss of his old home in Kolkata and the loss of the dream of owning a flat in Hrishipur. A predatory scam by the real estate company has robbed him of his savings without delivering an apartment, leaving him and other old people to the vagaries of slow litigation.
In the world of Hrishipur, this state of precarity is not confined to the middle class residents like Samiran and his daughter Maneka. It is a pervasive reality haunting everybody – even Salil and Ramona. At the beginning they seem to be at the peak of financial success, celebrating an imminent move to a new flat in Trump Towers, but soon appear to have financial woes of their own. Samir’s start-up wine business not doing very well. Another character Jessica, is besieged by the financial demands made on her by her family and her ailing mother. She has a catering business but also must work as a high-end escort to stay financially afloat.
Surviving Rivalries in Real Estate
At the other end of the spectrum, Pinky’s financial condition is far more precarious. Her shoulder pain makes it impossible to continue her work as a masseuse at a boutique salon. Her husband is an alcoholic surviving on itinerant construction work. This precarity forces Pinky’s son to seek the friendship and work opportunities bestowed by the electrician Gopal, becoming fatally enmeshed in an arson plot.
The world of high stakes real estate and the inevitable rivalries between local and international companies become embroiled with the desperation of the city’s migrant laboring class, eking out a meager life servicing the elite residents.
The fragility of the real estate boom parallels the fragile grasp some of the elite residents have on their own mental health. Ramona, outwardly the most successful and privileged of this set, is reeling from a pregnancy loss and the disintegration of her marriage. In the end, Maneka who has always envied her, feels a sense of relief not to be in her place and to have the option of going back to her predictable college town life.
Through the course of the summer, Maneka realizes the end of her romantic relationship with a colleague. But, she is able to rekindle bonds with her father, which had attenuated after the death of her mother. Even though we feel Maneka’s alienation in Hrishipur, by the end of the novel, that is not her own unique destiny, but a condition of most of the city’s residents. Her father is planning to return to his native Kolkata as Maneka prepares her journey back to the U.S.
Socio-Economic in Gaps in 21st Century India
Mukherjee captures brilliantly a glimpse of the yawning socio-economic gaps in twenty-first century India. Behind the façade of glamor of construction and buildings resembling the west, the condition defining most Indians is one of precarity. There is a consistent dehumanization of the urban poor and the lack of acknowledgment of the losses of their lives and suffering.
More chillingly, Mukherjee exposes the peculiar nexus between high finance and corporate wheeling and dealing with elements of the criminal underground. Hrishipur is an oppressive suffocating place and at the end various characters are happy to escape it.
The novel seems to ask the question: how long is it till all of India becomes a version of Hrishipur?
The Dream Builders by Oindrila Mukherjee
Portland OR: Tin House, 2023.