The opening chapter of Oindrila Mukherjee’s debut novel, “The Dream Builders” introduces us to the character Maneka Roy, who has come home to India to visit her father in the aftermath of her mother’s death.
Maneka’s background often aligns with the author’s own biography: Mukherjee moved to America and is a college professor in a small Midwestern school; her parents, originally from Kolkata, invested in condos near Delhi only to have construction halt and their savings vanish. But while the novel feels intimate, the book’s scope is broad — each chapter is told from a different character’s viewpoint, offering a kaleidoscopic perspective on the modernization of India and how it is changing the lives of people across different jobs, classes and religions.
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Looming over the story, the city and the lives of all of these characters is a flashy new development aimed at the aspiring elite: Trump Towers.
The book is set in 2018 and the licensing of the American president’s name — along with a visit from his eldest son — helps cut through red tape in a way no other developer can, which causes jealousy and consternation with dramatic results.
The book also comments on the country’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi use of religion to divide the population. “There have always been tensions between Muslims and Hindus but now it is intentionally being exacerbated and politicized,” Mukherjee says. “It is a part of life in India even if it’s not a central part of the story.”
Mukherjee spoke by video recently about why she used Trump Towers to fuel her story and how the modernizing economy is changing India. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Maneka is planning a book of essays on India but she keeps cycling through different topics. Did you share that experience with this novel?
She’s trying to grapple with the idea that India is so complicated and she doesn’t know which part she should try to capture. I had a very specific theme I wanted to explore, which was the post-globalization new economy. Everything else depends on the characters and the plot. I couldn’t write the novel for many years because I didn’t know what the plot would be.
I was alternating between Maneka and her mother’s point of view and I didn’t have a plot — I just knew I wanted to talk about property and two generations. But it wasn’t working or exciting.
I was feeling a little despondent. Then somebody asked me to summarize what I wanted to explore in one sentence. I wrote that I wanted to explore the impact of globalization on this city and how it affects different people from different classes. That’s when I thought the old manuscript had to go.
Then in 2018, I was being driven in a cab and I saw a sign that says “Trump Has Arrived, Have You?” It was an ad for Trump Towers. I took a photo. The branding was so elitist. What does it mean to arrive in this new society? Is it status, wealth, physical arrival in a different city? That was tantalizing.
I threw away about 95 percent of my book. I just kept the first chapter and then did the different points of view in each chapter and that’s when the plot started to take shape.
Q. Were you wary of American audiences having Trump fatigue? Even though he isn’t present, the Towers are a central character in the story.
Absolutely. I was warned about it by agents. But those four years impacted the whole world and it will always be in the history book. And my book doesn’t focus on the political issues. I’m focused on the economic issues and America’s cultural imperialism that we see in developing countries. I cannot think of a better brand. Trump is a symbol of globalization and capitalism, a corporate brand from America.
Q. I recently wrote about “Age of Vice,” which is set in India but 15 years earlier than “Dream Builders.” How much have class issues shifted since then?
There has always been a lot of inequality in India. But the economy changed quite drastically in the early 1990s. The markets opened to foreign investors and then we had foreign brands and American TV. The middle class was greatly impacted by that. The very wealthy could always travel abroad and get access to that, but suddenly the middle class really became consumers. I remember when I didn’t have to wait for my cousins to bring Pepsi from America anymore.
But the new economy makes things very unstable and the inequality has deepened. The poorer population has not benefited from progress. You can see the shiny buildings and the retail malls; wealth has become much more visible. But it’s easy for people in their cocoons to forget about everyone else.
Q. But as the book shifts perspective to a new character in each chapter, we see that our initial perceptions are somewhat inaccurate and even those who are better off financially are anxious and feel like outsiders.
I have always been very interested in the idea of misperception. You meet people and you think one way about them, but you don’t really know what’s going on – people have more interesting stories to tell than we might imagine.
As someone who has moved so much – I’ve lived in ten different cities on three continents — I often felt like an outsider, at least initially. And everyone in Hrishipur is a transplant because it’s the kind of city that has been constructed and the people who originally lived there were relocated. Everyone has come there to make their fortune or improve their life and so everyone has an immigrant experience. I wanted to explore their outsiderness.
There’s a lot of envy in the novel, everyone is envious of someone else. And their isolation comes from their misperceptions – if no one understands anyone else they feel isolated.
Q. Will the book be read differently in the West than in India?
I worried about that. I wanted people in India to feel it’s authentic and not just pandering to a Western audience. I’ve read advance reviews, and in the West, people are really focusing on the class differences. I was expecting people in the West would only be drawn to the characters who are more underdogs, the poorer characters. That does happen among Western readers. It’s not as easy to sympathize with the characters who are middle class and upper middle class.
I didn’t want to just romanticize or exploit the poor people of India and I didn’t want to just write about rich people because that seems irrelevant. It’s the intersection of the two that interested me — but not just where the rich are oppressing the lower class. I wanted to see the human side of everybody. Everyone is vulnerable and everyone is impacted by globalization.
But this is not an ethnographic study. I’m not a historian or an economist. I just wanted to be a storyteller. This is very character based so the universality of emotions is very important. I’m very conscious of the fact that I haven’t lived in India in 20 years. So who am I to present India to the West? Finding nuance is very important to me. I don’t think the characters have the answers. I don’t have the answers. India is so many things at once.