Oindrila Mukherjee’s debut novel, The Dream Builders, intertwines the stories of the inhabitants of the fictional town of Hrishipur, a city that has sprung up outside Delhi where farmlands are rapidly developed into luxury condos for the ultra-rich who have profited from India’s rapid economic growth and globalization. In the summer of 2018 during a record-breaking heatwave, Maneka, a professor of Creative Writing from a small Midwestern university, arrives to meet her recently widowed father. Delhi is new to her as her parents moved there from Kolkata in pursuit of a career for her mother and dreams of a luxury flat in Hrishipur. Now the mother is dead, the flat has disappeared due to corruption in the building industry, and the Trump corporation has arrived to build a mega luxury condo complex for the super wealthy. Maneka reconnects with a woman she went to high school with, Ramona, and is introduced to this new elite society. The novel focuses each chapter from a different character’s perspective. We see Ramona’s grief after several miscarriages; the financial burdens and secrets of her husband Salil; the economic challenges of Pinky, a beautician to the rich; the nostalgia of Maneka’s father for his old life in Kolkata; the experiences of Chaya, Maneka’s maid; the difficulties of Jessica, a single mother trying to build a life for her adopted daughter; the evil machinations of Gopal, a profoundly lonely local thug. Each of these characters is compelling and their stories/chapters could stand alone. Mukherjee skillfully weaves these narratives into a complex plot that makes the city of Hrishipur the protagonist. Her novel shows the reader the economic, social, environmental, and familial impacts of the rapid globalization that India’s politicians celebrate. The novel is multi-layered, rich with descriptions, and each character developed with nuance and sensitivity.
Chaitali Sen’s A New Race of Men from Heaven is a collection of 8 short stories that explore character in depth. Sen had previously published a novel A Pathless Sky (2016) in which she had told the story of a couple in an unnamed country torn apart by war and authoritarianism. This new book of short stories shows that she is a versatile writer who can tell us stories about ordinary people navigating everyday life. She writes about a business traveler who travels so much that he finds comfort in anonymous restaurants, and in one such place, he is caught up in the search for a missing toddler. In another story, a department secretary at a university tries to build a relationship with her boss and his wife and tells of their loss and grief with great empathy. In “Uma” Sen narrates the life of a young Bengali widow who moves to the United States to live with her brother and sister-in-law and to begin a new life. The quirkiest story in the collection is probably “The Matchstick, by Charles Tilly” where a fading writer finds his career getting an unexpected boost from someone impersonating him. Each of these stories is to be savored for the richness of psychological detail, the careful explorations of the vulnerabilities of ordinary people, and for the glimmers of hope embedded in them.
Both these books are excellent additions to the growing body of writing by South Asian American writers. We in Seattle will have the opportunity to hear them in person in early March.
Chaitali Sen and Oindrila Mukherjee will read at Third Place Books, Ravenna, on March 10 at 7 PM (in-person event). More information here.