“All diasporas are unhappy, but every diaspora is unhappy in its own way”, writes Vijay Mishra in The Literature of the Indian Diaspora (2007). The diaspora, constituted of those who trace their origins to a cultural/geographical location different from the one they currently inhabit; those, therefore, of hyphenated identity, conscious of the unbridgeable gap between the past and the present, are for Mishra, a “people precariously lodged within an episteme of real or imagined displacements”.

Oindrila Mukherjee’s The Dream Builders, set in Hrishipur, a fictional suburb of Delhi, is an exposition of the same idea, albeit for a migrant population – one that leaves a small life in a small town for shiny new dreams in a shiny new city that promises opportunities, change, and splendour. As in Mishra’s theorisation (and in Tolstoy’s original hypothesis of unhappy families), Mukherjee’s migrants are all unhappy in their own way, despite the success they have achieved, the boxes they have ticked. Her cast is a microcosm of India today, made up of entrepreneurs and domestic workers, activists and scholars, dysfunctional families, disappointing lovers, absent mothers, grieving fathers, and a whole range of characters that stand in the intersections of class and privilege.

Desire and failure in Hrishipur

Mukherjee’s Hrishipur is a thinly veiled Gurgaon – that unwieldy mouthful that now announces itself as Gurugram. With its tall towers, its hectic pace, its brightly lit malls and their flashy brands, its expensive hotels, and a skyline imitative of the great capitalist centres of the world, Hrishipur offers up dreams. In an India poised on the cusp of greatness (if political rhetoric is to be believed), Hrishipur is, we are told, “a potent symbol of our collective development.” Born out of the lore of seven villages named after seven sages mentioned in ancient Hindu scriptures, that unified into a single city in the 1970s, the city of rishis, Hrishipur acquired the extra “h” in its spelling on astrological advice, to bring its residents good fortune and prosperity.

The modern city, the site of start-ups, this paean to progress and hyper-productivity, is also the site of micro-regressions and age-old religious and class prejudice. It is a city where landlords can ban meat just as easily as they can deny accommodation to those whose religious identity they do not like. It is also a city, that like most of its counterparts, offers no safety to women, often subjecting them to intrusive gazes, judgement, and even violence. Aspirational and insistent, Hrishipur is an “adolescent city, clamouring for attention, building higher and higher. Until all that was left was a cluster of unfinished buildings at various stages of construction, standing like scarecrows with empty arms and vacant gazes.” Desire and failure are twin codes, set into the very bones of Hrishipur.

Author Oindrila Mukherjee.

The novel starts with a three-month visit to India of Maneka Roy in the summer of 2018. Maneka teaches creative writing to undergraduates in a small town in America. Her return is in the aftermath of her mother’s death, and to a city that has never been home to her. Six years before the events of the plot, her parents had moved to Hrishipur from Kolkata for her mother’s new job as a teacher of French at an upscale school, starting afresh in a place with habits far removed from their own.

Once in Hrishipur, Maneka re-connects with a schoolmate, Ramona, part of the popular, cool-girls circle Maneka had always stood outside of. The rekindling of this friendship after 17 years pushes her into new relationships, new perspectives. Alongside, she is witness to her father’s trauma of the loss of property her parents had sunk their life savings into, because of the stalling of yet another construction project in the city. The construction boom has gone bust and Maneka’s father, Samiran, is rendered “homeless” in a city he remains alienated from.

Maneka’s friend Ramona and her husband Salil, in a perfect rendition of the golden couple, have invested in a flat in Trump Towers, an upcoming condominium whose ownership opens all doors, cutting right through bureaucratic logjams, holding out the promise of perfection, announcing its to-be residents as the absolute peak of social hierarchy. In obvious contrast to Ramona’s world is that of others like Pinky, a beautician at a salon for the well-heeled, her kind and mild-mannered son, Jeevan; Gopal, a disabled electrician; Rajesh, Salil’s chauffeur; and Chaya, part of the house staff for Maneka’s parents, each of whom finds themselves a misfit in this city that fails to deliver on its promises.

Hierarchies in high-rises

Mukherjee writes about class with refreshing candour, keeping a sharp eye on the many slippages between power and control. Hrishipur breathes ambition and drive at the same time as it reinforces hierarchies and pushes down the vulnerable. It is an exploitative culture where employment often equals ownership, benefits are minimal, and time is monetised. Restaurant staff can be fired for having eaten food from the kitchen. Masseuses can be told to change their diet so their smell does not offend the delicate sensibilities of their clients. The “help” does not need to be thanked.

How well do we know the people who work for us, the text seems to ask. How much do we care? The book puts on display the obvious power dynamic that exists between those who live in Hrishipur’s high-rises and those who work for them. And yet, inevitably, (in a nod to Michel Foucault?), power becomes an everyday, socialised, and embodied phenomenon that cannot remain stable or fixed. Where there is oppression, there will always be resistance. In Hrishipur, resistance stems from resentment. The resentment of those in service, invisibilised by those they serve, becomes a pivotal part of the story. In an interesting inversion, indifference and apathy, the currency of the privileged, become the domain of those who have been subject to both for generations.

The Dream Builders is as much about the people we encounter in it as it is about the city they inhabit. The book is structured as overlapping stories of ten characters, bookended by Maneka’s arrival and departure. As an outsider, Maneka could have played the trope of the perfect impartial observer but is pulled into the drama of Hrishipur as an active participant instead. The book consistently rejects perfect solutions to embrace the flawed, the fractured, and the less-than-savoury. Maneka’s grief, her guilt at not having been “home” at the time of her mother’s death, her inability to belong, in either this new city or her adopted hometown in America, her awareness of the difference race and class make, in America and India, respectively, are all dissonances mirrored in other characters – all the small towners from Indore, Ranchi, Gwalior and other such, who flock to Hrishipur in pursuit of their own dreams.

Mukherjee also inserts sharp political critique in this picture of Hrishipur. People who want to keep their jobs in Indian universities need to stop sharing their opinions, Maneka is told. In this and multiple other moments, Hrishipur stops being fictional and becomes that real Indian city we know only too well – one that is complex and exacting, like all modern cities, and unhappy in its own, unsettling way.

The Dream Builders, Oindrila Mukherjee, HarperCollins India.