Briefly tell us about your book.
The Dream Builders is the story of one summer in the fictional Indian city of Hrishipur, a new, Americanized city known for its upscale malls, headquarters of global corporations and booming real estate developments. It has countless properties under construction including the latest one generating the most excitement – Trump Towers. The story is told from the point of view of 10 different characters from vastly different social and economic backgrounds. The person we meet first is Maneka Roy, a college professor in the US who returns to India after six years, following her mother’s death. The other characters include the wealthy and sophisticated Ramona, her ambitious husband, their moonlighting chauffeur, an irreverent photographer, and a facialist at a posh spa. On the surface, most of the people in Hrishipur have glamorous, privileged lives. But it’s the invisible workers, the maids, chauffeurs and electricians, who keep the city functioning. And as we get to know all of them, we realize that despite the differences in status and background, all the characters have some things in common: they are all nurturing secrets, they all want something they can’t have, and they are all trying to survive in a changing world. All summer, as the temperature reaches record highs, their longings and resentments simmer, until a catastrophic event that demonstrates just how fragile life is in this city based on aspirations. The novel examines class divisions and gender roles within a society that is constantly and rapidly changing. It examines the impact of American cultural and economic influences on Indian society. The story of Hrishipur is not only the story of contemporary India, but the story of people impacted by globalization everywhere.
What inspired the idea behind this book?
When I was in high school in Calcutta, India’s economy was liberalized and almost overnight the cultural landscape of middle-class India was transformed. Suddenly, MTV and American soaps like The Bold and The Beautiful and Santa Barbara were being broadcast on prime time into our homes. Over the last three decades, the impact of American culture has only grown, through social media, increased prosperity, access to travel and so on. But these economic and cultural changes have impacted the working class very differently. We know that globalization is a double-edged sword and that it has been a huge factor in giving rise to nationalist and populist movements across the world. In India, economic development has only widened the gulf between the haves and the have nots. On a personal note, after I moved to America, my parents relocated from their home in Calcutta to Gurgaon, a city that’s also a suburb of Delhi and a booming corporate and real estate hub. I spent many scorching hot summers there and couldn’t help but notice the paradoxes. The luxury hotels and condos on the one hand, and, just a few kilometers away, the villages where huts were plastered with cow dung cakes. The bright lights in all the offices and malls, and the frequent power cuts in the same city. It seemed to epitomize to me India’s modernity and its problems.
Still, the exact plot didn’t come to me until my parents invested in two condos, neither of which was ever built. That was when I began to discover that many of the constructions were stalled. There were new buildings coming up everywhere, and yet people I knew were not getting possession of their flats. I began to think a lot about property – the desire to own it, what it means to different people, the purpose of it, and even how it changes from society to society. I sensed an almost obsessive interest among many people in my generation in India to acquire property. One day, in the summer of 2018, I was traveling from Gurgaon to Delhi, when I saw a sign on a wall – Trump Has Arrived. Have You? It was an advertisement for a Trump Towers property. It suddenly occurred to me that if this were a property that was not stalling but kept rising, it would be an interesting contrast. I took a photo of that sign. I wanted the American connection in the book because in some ways the book is also about America and the long shadow it casts across the world.
What was the research process like for the book?
I tried to soak up as much information about India as I could, whether it was from news stories, conversations with friends and family, or people’s social media updates. It was very important for me, especially as an expat, to not limit myself to a bubble where everyone had the same political views or interests as me, but to try and understand the plurality of views and experiences. Then there’s pop culture. I watched new Bollywood movies, some of which were very useful, like the 2012 film BA Pass – an erotic thriller, adapted from a short story called “The Railway Aunty” by Mohan Sikka, and published in the anthology called Delhi Noir. It’s a dark but fascinating look at life in urban India and how people sometimes commit monstrous acts in order to survive. I also read nonfiction books like Rana Dasgupta’s Capital about Delhi, and watched documentaries like In Search of India’s Soul on Al Jazeera hosted by Aatish Taseer. The other part of the research process was physically spending time in India. I spent several summers there, specifically in Gurgaon, which was an inspiration for Hrishipur. In 2018 I spent over six months there while on my Sabbatical, immersing myself in daily life. I talked to people from various backgrounds, ranging from real estate brokers and entrepreneurs to drivers of rental cars and pedicurists at the spa I would visit. I also did some specific research on real estate constructions and visited a consumer courthouse in Delhi to observe hearings about property scams. This was all very valuable for the novel.
What are you hoping the reader will take away from reading your book?
I hope that readers recognize that there is no single – or simple – story about India, or for that matter any country. And I hope they recognize the humanity in all the characters and therefore in all of us. Across the world, no matter what our circumstances, we feel the same emotions and are basically trying to find happiness and human connection where we can. I hope readers see that life is complicated and there are no easy answers. But that at the same time, there is also light in the darkness, the possibility of redemption and renewal. I hope the story and the characters resonate with readers from everywhere, no matter where they live.
How did you think of the title of the book?
Originally, the title was Hiraeth – a Welsh word that means a longing for home, a home that may not even exist. Towards the end, I changed the title because I felt it was too obscure and I didn’t want readers to have look up what it meant. I thought of The Dream Builders because it is very layered in meaning. Everyone in Hrishipur has come there to make their dreams come true, even though those dreams may vary wildly. It is a city of dreamers. Who exactly are these builders of dreams? Perhaps the people themselves are responsible for their own dreams, or perhaps it is the city of Hrishipur. On another level, however, we do have actual builders, the much talked about American property developers who are, for some people at least, the ideal builders. This title felt evocative as well as resonant – It suggests hope, longing and desires. Whether they will be fulfilled or not remains to be seen.