Oindrila Mukherjee, THE DREAM BUILDERS

Oindrila Mukherjee, THE DREAM BUILDERS

Zibby interviews debut author Oindrila Mukherjee about The Dream Builders, a kaleidoscopic and arresting new novel that is written from ten different perspectives and explores class, gender, secrets, ambition, and dashed dreams in a booming, shimmery Indian city. Oindrila describes her book’s memorable elements–the astonishing Americanization of India, her fascinating cast of characters, and the agonizing disappointment felt by all of them. She also talks about herself–her immigrant family and nomadic lifestyle, her love for solitude, her busy job as a creative writing professor, and her next few projects.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Oindrila. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Dream Builders: A Novel.

Oindrila Mukherjee: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really honored to be on your podcast.

Zibby: It was so much fun to read this book. As I was just mentioning, I carried it with me all of the December break and could dip into different characters’ lives. It was really wonderful to be able to sort of ride on the shoulders of one and then jump over and ride on the shoulders of the next one and just keep going with all these different perspectives. It was really great. I was so captivated by all of it. I loved it. It was great.

Oindrila: Thank you. I’m glad you liked it.

Zibby: Maybe you should describe it better than I did, though.

Oindrila: No, you did great. The Dream Builders, which comes out a week from today, actually, is set in a fictional Indian city called Hrishipur, which is known for its real estate developments and upscale malls and corporate headquarters. It’s a very Americanized and rapidly Americanizing city, especially on the surface. The story is told from the point of view of ten different characters who belong to very different social and economic backgrounds. The first character we meet is Maneka Roy, a college professor in a US college town in the Midwest. She goes back to India after an interval of six years following her mother’s death. She finds herself in this new city, Hrishipur, where she’s pretty startled because it’s very different from the gentle, laid-back, historic city, Calcutta, where she grew up. It’s also very different from Heathersfield, which is where she lives now. Soon after she gets there, she gets invited to a party by an old high school acquaintance, Ramona. She goes to the party. That’s where she meets a lot of the other characters. The only other thing I would mention is that on the surface, it seems like everyone’s life is really glamorous and privileged and exciting, but there are a lot of invisible people in Hrishipur, migrant workers and the chauffeurs and maids and electricians who really keep the city functioning. We get this mix of characters. Ultimately, as we keep reading, I hope people realize that everybody has a lot in common. They’ve all come to Hrishipur from somewhere else. They all have secrets that they are keeping. They all want something that they cannot have.

Zibby: Wow. That was a much better description. Thank you for that. I have to say, I often don’t read the back copy of a book when I start it. I’m just like, okay, here I go. Let’s see what happens. I was surprised when I kept going in all the different directions. I was like, I’m sure we’re going right back to Maneka. Wait, what happened to Maneka? Then as I realized that that was the intention, I found it so interesting. Like you said, the electrician, I am so horrified by the sketchiness of the man and that one day when they lost power and then what happened later with the — the characters are so richly drawn. You took us all over, from the most posh living rooms to the dirtiest cars. It’s everywhere. It’s like you’re our tour guide in this fictional city. It was pretty cool. I also particularly loved the chapter from the point of view of the facialist/facial massage — what’s her name?

Oindrila: Pinky.

Zibby: Pinky. Her life and her level of pain that she lived with and the piece of fish curry or whatever the dish was that really improved her life, just the value of that one piece of fish that Maneka brought her, it’s really amazing. Maybe start off by talking about her. Which character did you start this whole maze, this web from? Where did it start for you? That was a lot of questions.

Oindrila: That’s great. Actually, I could talk about Pinky. That is a chapter that a modified version of it as a standalone short story was published in Ecotone Magazine. It’s the only chapter that’s actually been published and was published as a story. At the time when it was published, because I was working on it with the editor of the magazine, it definitely was the strongest chapter and the most polished chapter. It sort of set the bar for the rest when I went back to edit it. She was not the first person that I came up with. Initially when I began this book, I’d been thinking about it and kind of researching it for a while, but I really didn’t start writing it until 2016. I only had Maneka. It was a completely different book. It was only from her point of view and maybe her mother’s point of view, who’s not even alive now in the book. It was alternating between past and present, Calcutta and this city, and mother and daughter. I did have Ramona. I had that party scene. The first chapter was there. I took it to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. That was the only chapter that, actually, I had for a while. Then everything I wrote subsequently, I threw away. In 2018, I threw everything else away. Then I started over just keeping that first chapter. The people that were there were Maneka, Ramona, Ashok, Salil, and Jessica, but not in the current iterations of them. Salil was really obnoxious and sketchy, not really fully realized. They were kind of there. That’s how it started, but it was a totally different book.

Then in 2018, I really was — I have a writers’ group that was reading it. The first chapter, everybody seemed to like. They said, “There’s a lot of potential here.” Then the second chapter they read was about Maneka and Ashok. They were like, “Nothing’s happening in this book. What is the plot?” Honestly, I didn’t know. I wasn’t able to keep going because I was just writing a lot, but it wasn’t going anywhere. There was no shape to it because I didn’t really know what the story was. I just had a background. I had a situation, but I didn’t have any destination or whatever. I’d been working on it for a couple of years. When they said that, I really had a moment where I was like, maybe I can’t write fiction. Forget it. Maybe this is it. I can’t do it. I can’t do a novel. One of the people in the group asked me, “Can you summarize in one sentence what the book is going to be about?” Then when I summarized it, I realized I wanted it to be about the city and more than even about one person. Honestly, at the time, I didn’t know what to do with just Maneka for three hundred pages. I didn’t have enough. I knew what to do with all the individual characters for a little bit. It began from that limitation that I had at the time. Then it became a kind of strength of the novel where I just got more and more excited about each of the characters and how they interconnected and intersected. That’s probably a very long-winded way of answering your question.

Zibby: I like long-winded. That’s the whole point, is to hear from authors. I do feel like it was about the city. I feel like the looming Trump Tower, the build of that was such a symbol for so much of the changing times in India, the changing culture, the world power relationships, and things that are out of their control. One interesting part was the setup of the story, how Maneka’s parents bought this dream apartment and then got to the city, and it never got built. It was a whole swindle. It sort of set a bad tone of the city. The dashed dreams of so many people in that city, in cities in general, I feel like you did a really nice job with that element of it and having the city become its own character.

Oindrila: Thank you. Dashed dreams is really important. The title, of course, came much later, but I just wanted to deal with aspirations. It’s a very aspirational city and an aspirational society in this book, not all of India, but just in this book. Everybody has different aspirations, but they all go back to material aspirations in the end. What happens when your expectations are not met? I guess it’s not just material because it’s even expectations that you have of places, the expectations that Maneka had as an immigrant when she came to America and then she finds herself somewhere different, the expectations that she has of Hrishipur when she gets there. It’s all kinds of expectations. I’m really interested in exploring the emotion of disappointment. I think that’s my favorite emotion to write about because disappointment means you really build things up. You really hope and anticipate. There’s a lot of drama there. Then when things don’t go the way that you want them to, there is that moment. If it’s a child who really wants something, even if it’s a little thing like a candy bar and then you’re like, “You can’t have another one,” it’s just that moment of crushing disappointment versus someone who’s disappointed that their marriage didn’t work out or that their chemo isn’t working, something huge and massive versus something little. In that moment, disappointment can be so powerful. It’s an emotion that I realized I really love to write about. If I’m struggling, I’ll just think of something that somebody could be disappointed by. It happens a lot, but there’s also hope. I hope that it’s not all doom and gloom because it wasn’t supposed to be. I feel like there are moments of redemption and hope.

Zibby: I love the idea of writing all about the effects of a particular emotion. That’s such a good writing exercise in general. Write six stories with everybody experiencing embarrassment. I interviewed the author Chris Bohjalian a long time ago. He said all of his books, the main theme is a combination of something that I can’t remember right now and dread. That really stuck with me. I’m like, dread, how often do I feel dread? What do I feel dread about? He’s built all of his books around it. Now you’re saying disappointment. It’s really interesting. Even just an essay or a story or a scene.

Oindrila: That is great too because it’s, again, so dramatic, building up suspense.

Zibby: Yes. Maybe humiliation instead of embarrassment. That sounds better, right? That would be good.

Oindrila: Oh, yeah. It’s so powerful. How do you cope with it? How do different people cope with it? Some people put up a brave front. Some people pretend it didn’t happen. Some people totally own it and tweet about it.

Zibby: I feel like we had that experiment in the pandemic. We had a situation that caused dread and caused fear and panic. Then we got to watch in real time as everybody on the planet dealt with it differently, the people who did all the research, the people who just became scientists and learned everything they could, and then the people who threw themselves into their cooking or their work as a stay-at-home mom or the teaching, people who couldn’t read, people who read so much. I also find that fascinating, different people’s responses to basically the same situation or the same feeling.

Oindrila: I think I wanted to do that with Trump Towers just in terms of the construction. It doesn’t matter whose name is attached to it. It matters to some of the characters, but what matters to me is it was an American name more than anything else. Of course, it’s the summer of 2018, so that has some implications. I did actually see a sign one day when I was being driven from this city where my parents used to live, which is sort of the real-life inspiration for Hrishipur, Gurgaon. I was going to Delhi. I saw this sign. It said, “Trump has arrived. Have you?” It was an ad for one of the Trump Towers, not in that city, but somewhere else. That was a defining moment for me. I was like, now I know what to do with my novel. Now I know how it can move forward. Just the name, the branding, the tantalizing question at the end challenging and teasing people, the word “arrived,” which is also so loaded, that really — everyone’s reaction to that advertisement, to that construction is different. How could it not be?

Zibby: I think the word I couldn’t remember before is fear from Chris Bohjalian. Sorry, it just came to me. I think it was fear and dread. Anyway, yes, the construction of Trump Tower, it’s interesting. Basically, the takeaway there is, when you’re driving, keep your eyes peeled for billboards because you never know where your inspiration will next hit.

Oindrila: This is true. I actually got a lot from movies and social media posts because I haven’t lived in India in twenty years. I go back a lot. Before the pandemic, I used to spend months at a time, summers, my entire sabbatical. I talk to people a lot. My parents still live there, so I talk to them a lot. To keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening, you have to know what everyone is thinking, as many people as possible, and not just in an echo chamber, not just in your bubble. Just listening to what people are saying, even people you don’t agree with or who may not have that much in common with you, is really fascinating to capture the pluralism of a place and a community.

Zibby: I liked how you also made Ramona, who theoretically should have been the happiest if we equate wealth and happiness as a graph — I’m drawing a graph because I can’t think of the words. In fact, she is the loneliest and is sitting inside this beautiful apartment, which still isn’t enough for her. They still are aspiring to something even better. The trappings of her life and her husband just sending her gifts to make up for his deficiencies and all of that, yet that doesn’t make her happy either. Then people who are far happier — although, nobody’s particularly happy, I would say.

Oindrila: It’s not even just wealth. She’s very attractive and has the pedigree. She has the friends.

Zibby: Queen bee social status.

Oindrila: Also, I don’t even know if that is not enough for her or if it’s a substitute for some of the other things. She doesn’t really want the bigger home. She does, but why? I don’t think she’s actually as shallow as she might appear. It’s a way of compensating, like retail therapy. It’s really supposed to be some sort of therapy for her. My editor actually told me that she felt the sorriest for Ramona, which is very interesting.

Zibby: Interesting. She is the most — is this true before I say this as a theory? — the most lonely. She’s alone. Although, Maneka’s dad is very sad and lonely at the loss of his wife. It’s really heartbreaking, even the complicated feelings of losing someone who was a difficult personality, which we don’t often read about either.

Oindrila: They’re all very complicated. They’re all pretty messed up and flawed at times. I think most of us are. I certainly am. It’s interesting you mention loneliness. I don’t know if that’s an emotion. I guess it is a situation too. That’s also something that I’m very, very drawn to creatively. As someone who has moved a lot, I think I was quite lonely as a child. I read one of your pieces about being really shy.

Zibby: Thank you.

Oindrila: I was thinking, yeah. I was an only child. My parents moved a lot. Every time I made some friends, I had to move. I’ve lived in ten cities in my life. Just being an immigrant and then the pandemic — I live alone. Loneliness is a really powerful thing. It can be very beautiful too. It can make you reflect and think deeply and make you write. Just the idea, the image of someone very lonely in a crowd — you go to a party. Everybody’s having a good time. There’s one person, you don’t even know for sure if they’re lonely or they’re stuck-up. They’re in a corner. It’s just so poignant. I think it’s a very poignant emotion and situation. They’re kind of lonely in their own way, most of the characters, certainly the electrician. I don’t want to say too much to spoil .

Zibby: Sorry. I know. I keep talking.

Oindrila: He’s pretty lonely too.

Zibby: Loneliness, I feel like it’s the hardest to fix. Also, that it’s so linked to the fundamental human condition. They say that it can shorten your lifespan, essentially, if you don’t have enough of a network or whatever. It’s not by, I would think, most people’s choosing to not have a network. Then you’re like, in addition to that, I’m going to die earlier. It’s loaded.

Oindrila: I have to say, though, sometimes when I have lots of appointments or lots of things going on, I kind of miss being lonely. I miss the loneliness. It’s hard to explain. I don’t know why. That would have to be unpacked with some therapy. I like wallowing in it, I think.

Zibby: Being alone is not necessarily lonely.

Oindrila: Yeah, but I just mean even feeling lonely. I even miss feeling lonely. It’s really strange, right?

Zibby: Maybe that’s your natural set point. It makes you feel at home if that’s the way you grew up. I don’t know. Maybe there’s just something familiar.

Oindrila: I don’t know how lonely I was. I certainly didn’t have a lot of friends all the time. It did make me want to read a lot. There’s something very bittersweet or just sweet about it too. I feel like lonely people or people who say they’re lonely are also quite interesting. Maybe it is just solitude. Maybe it’s just a certain kind of complicated love for solitude that I am confusing with the negative emotions of loneliness. It’s just something fun to explore in writing.

Zibby: I think you’re going to have to book some appointments around that one. It’s very interesting. Are you working on anything now, anything new?

Oindrila: There’s so little time, to be honest. My book’s coming out next week. It’s also coming out in Australia in March and the UK in July and India later this year. I also teach full time at universities. My semester is beginning on Monday, the day before the book launch, as well. It’s very difficult, usually, to write during the semesters anyway. With the book and the book tour that’s coming up and all the interviews I’m doing this week and all the promotions, it’s very difficult to do actual writing right now. I do have two manuscripts that I am working on. I probably shouldn’t say too much about it because I’ll probably end up changing my mind. One is a story collection. It has something to do with fairy tales. The other one is a novel. It’s quite different from this one. It definitely doesn’t have so many points of view. Definitely centers around one or two characters.

Zibby: That’s a lot on your plate. I’m thinking about all the publicity stuff and the full-time teaching.

Oindrila: That might be why I’m missing the solitude.

Zibby: I bet. Solitude sounds nice if you compare it to complete overwhelm.

Oindrila: It’s a lot of texts and a lot of messages. I have a lot of emails right now.

Zibby: I always feel like I’m at the net with my racket waiting for the emails. If I back up and I’m back at the baseline, it’s like, forget it.

Oindrila: I don’t know how you do everything you do.

Zibby: Everybody. Everybody’s so busy in all these different ways. All of us take on so much. When writing is just one piece of it, that adds this other little layer. Thank you so much for coming on. As I said, I really found the book so immersive and like I had gone on this whole trip and learned about new places and people. That’s the power of a great book. It just takes you there.

Oindrila: Thank you so much. I hope people who aren’t Indian are able to connect with the emotions and characters. That’s my basic hope.

Zibby: It doesn’t matter where you’re from. The feelings are the same. I think that’s why you feel like you somehow live for a little bit in a different place and feel at home, because you see parts of yourself. It would be hard for someone not to see any piece of themselves in all of your characters.

Oindrila: That’s why we talked about the universal emotions.

Zibby: Exactly. See, looping it all back. Coming full circle here in this interview. Good luck. I’m very excited for you.

Oindrila: Thank you so much for having me. This was great.

Zibby: It was my pleasure. Take care. Buh-bye.

Oindrila: Bye.

Oindrila Mukherjee, THE DREAM BUILDERS

THE DREAM BUILDERS by Oindrila Mukherjee

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