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The Dream Builders by Oindrila Mukherjee

05/04/2023
The Dream Builders by Oindrila Mukherjee

It is possible to suppose that there are some elements of autobiography in Oindrila Mukherjee’s debut novel The Dream Builders.  The story begins with Maneka Roy, an American academic who goes back to India following the death of her mother and finds a very different world to the one she left. Mukherjee herself grew up in Kolkata and is now an associate professor of creative writing at a university in Michigan. But The Dream Builders is much more than Maneka’s story. That story is the jumping off point for an exploration of the different strata of modern India and the way in which the more things change, the more they reinforce age old patterns.

While Maneka grew up in Kolkata, her parents have since moved to the ultra-modern city of Hrishipur. Her parents sold the family home and invested in a new apartment in this fast growing city only lose their life savings when the builder went bust. But despite the number of failed developments, everyone still believes in the promise of Hrishipur particularly as it is the site of a new Trump Towers development. This location is coveted by the wealthy set and is forging ahead despite other developments falling away around it. One of those looking to move into the new Trump building is Maneka’s old school acquaintance Ramona and her husband Salil. While Maneka was not actually friends with Ramona and her crowd at school the two manage to make a tentative connection on her return to India.

The story ranges much more broadly. Following Maneka and Ramona there are point of view chapters from a range of characters including Maneka’s father, their live-in maid, their masseuse, Ramona’s husband, their driver and friend Jessica who is sleeping with one of the local organised crime bosses and the local electrician who is generally up to no good. There is a plot here, a conspiracy of sorts that Mukherjee keeps bubbling in the background as these characters swirl around each other and connect in unexpected ways.

The Dream Builders is part of a wave of books by Indian writers exploring modern India. Recently, for example we have had Q&A (aka Slumdog Millionaire) by Vikwas Sarwap,. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, the explosive Age of Vice by Deepti Kapur and the more restrained but often no less tragic Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag. Mukherjee, as part of this tradition, is particularly interested in the way all of her characters struggle to survive and move forward in modern India, with many of the stories skirting or tipping over into tragedy at some point.

Interestingly, The Dream Builders is bookended by Maneka’s return to America. This roots the story in the idea that no matter what the problems, no matter how things play out or what she learns or experiences during her stay, India is still her home and that “there will always be the possibility of return.” This flags upfront that while Mukherjee herself exposes some questionable attitudes and behaviours of her characters, she exposes these not to be critical but in understanding the complexities of her home country and out of her love for it and its people.

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