The Dream Builders: A Novel
- By Oindrila Mukherjee
- Tin House
- 384 pp.
- Reviewed by Elle Thompson
- March 2, 2023
A fragile new city tests its residents’ endurance in this evocative debut.
In The Dream Builders, sprawling class differences play out in the fictional city of Hrishipur, a place struggling against itself to innovate and expand faster than it can handle, all as the hot summer of 2018 bears down. The story is told through the eyes of 10 major characters anchored to Maneka Roy, who returns to India to see her father and mourn her mother in a place she doesn’t recognize or comprehend.
In the time Maneka was gone, her parents left Calcutta so her mother could pursue work as a French teacher in Hrishipur; they sold their flat and took a risk on a condo in a new planned complex. But Maneka’s mother dies, and the condos are never built. When Maneka arrives to visit her father and complete an essay collection about contemporary India, she finds herself overwhelmed by the complexity and vibrancy of Hrishipur, which reminds her so little of the country she remembers.
Adrift between her life in the U.S. and the life she expected to reclaim in India, Maneka — along with the reader — is left to search for purpose beyond what she thought might be. That search includes returning to her writing:
“In French, the language her mother grew to love late in her life, the word essay meant to try. For months she had resisted this. The book she needed to write. Not about a country at all but about a person who was no longer there but might live on through her and her words.”
One person still familiar is Ramona, a former classmate who invites Maneka to a party at her high-rise. Maneka has always known Ramona as beautiful, wealthy, and one step ahead of everyone else, and this continues to feel true when she meets her equally attractive and ambitious husband, Salil. As author Oindrila Mukherjee reminds us early on, though, appearances can be deceiving.
A presence that hangs over everything is an enormous, under-construction, Trump-branded complex. These are condominiums that, once completed, will ensure the money Ramona and Salil committed to them will not be lost (like Maneka’s parents’ was). But this is not a story tinged with politics. The Trump complex is expected to prevail over its equally luxurious rivals because its developers pay the most bribes, not because of any special intervention from abroad.
Regardless, Mukherjee doesn’t leave us long in this sparkling world of parties and new money in high-rise Hrishipur. What follow in successive chapters are introductions to Jessica, a caterer and single mother whose nightlife intermingles with the increasingly fragile Hindu nationalist government; to Rajesh, a driver for Ramona and Salil who sees the cracks in the beautiful couple’s façade and longs for a better life of his own; to Gopal, an embittered electrician who resents the Trump condos’ promise of upscale extravagance amid his own life of rolling blackouts and deprivation; and to Pinky, a masseuse whose ailing body and fear over her family’s prospects keep her up at night.
These are just a few of the characters populating this brilliantly crafted debut, all of whom give the reader a glimpse, however fleeting, into the interconnected lives of the people of Hrishipur. Collectively, they’re chasing the idea of living fully and meaningfully in a city steeped in capitalism and its many petty cruelties.
Gopal’s chapter in particular is marked by the anxiety and animosity sparked by modernization. Gopal is only barely tied to Maneka, having been called by her father to repair their apartment’s A/C. He speaks with his young, far more optimistic friend, Jeevan, while they shop for food, observing the upgraded store’s chaotic layout, which provides more options but fewer one-on-one interactions with the employees they’ve always known:
“‘But the people are lost, Gopal bhai. Look at that young woman. She can’t find what she wants.’ He pointed to a young woman with a bewildered expression on her face as she stared at the tickets in her hand.
“‘It’s part of the plan. Make them hungrier. They will eat more.’”
The constant interweaving of blackmail, corruption, and political scandal propels the narrative even as it strays from Maneka. Jumping across the lives of so many people, Mukherjee does falter at times in maintaining momentum, but her strong, clear prose and flair for crafting distinct, believable characters makes the novel feel both empathetic and authentic.
The Dream Builders’ strength lies in its fundamental humanity, in its suggestion that to see someone at their most vulnerable is to see them most clearly. Maneka considers a city that imagines itself the physical manifestation of capitalist success and recognizes the toll that success takes on everyday people. In the end, what lies beneath the scorching sun and inescapable dust from Hrishipur’s construction projects isn’t the triumph of progress; it’s the triumph of the human spirit in spite of it.
Elle Thompson is a former literary agent and current law student with a particular interest in intellectual property. She lives in New Hampshire.