Seeking Memory: An Interview with Oindrila Mukherjee
Seeking Memory: An Interview with Oindrila Mukherjee
Oindrila Mukherjee grew up in India and now lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she teaches creative writing at Grand Valley State University. She has been the recipient of fellowships from Inprint Houston, Emory University and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her work has appeared in Salon, Kenyon Review Online, The Colorado Review, Ecotone, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor for Aster(ix), a literary and arts journal committed to social justice. Her debut novel, The Dream Builders, was published in January.
Jennifer Maritza McCauley: What was the process of writing this novel? How long have you been working on it? When did you first get the idea for it?
Oindrila Mukherjee: I honestly cannot point to a precise time when I got the idea for this novel. I used to visit my parents in India every other summer in this city called Gurgaon just outside Delhi that they had relocated to after I moved to the US. I knew I wanted to write a novel about the New India, and the impact of globalization on Indian society. Even though some of the themes were brewing in my mind for years, I began writing the novel in early 2016. I took the first chapter to the Sewanee Writers Conference that summer, where the people in my workshop group read it. They seemed to be quite enthusiastic about it, which encouraged me to keep going. Over the next couple years, I wrote many pages, up until April 2018 when I was on Sabbatical in India. I thought I was making progress on the novel, but in reality, I didn’t have a concrete plot or know my way forward. Towards the end of my Sabbatical, I threw away more than 75 pages and started over, keeping just that one chapter I had taken to Sewanee. And I began to write the novel with a completely different structure and multiple perspectives. And instantly, the plot began to crystallize and move forward. Those several months in India were critical as I was immersed in the daily life of the city that inspired Hrishipur. I saw and experienced several things during that time, like this sign – Trump Has Arrived. Have You? – on a wall advertising a Trump Towers property, that made their way into the novel. After I returned to the States, I took a few months to complete the first draft, and over the next three years I revised it several times. It was finally ready to share with agents and publishers by the end of the summer of 2021.
JMM: Your book is told through a chorus of voices, all from dissimilar walks of life. Can you talk about why you chose to use the third person and to tell this story from multiple perspectives?
OM: Like I said, I changed the structure entirely after working on the novel for a couple of years. Initially I did not have so many perspectives. But ultimately, I wanted to examine the story of this fictional city that epitomized certain things to me – modernity and its costs, progress and development and how they impact people from different backgrounds, and so on. I wanted very much to try and capture the tumultuous and messy life of a large Indian city. I also wanted the city to be a microcosm of the country as a whole. The multiple perspectives obviously help to tell not one story but many stories existing simultaneously and interacting with one another. The individual characters are important on their own, but their lives are interlinked and together they make up this chaotic, teeming world. It’s still not enough of course – just ten people don’t represent all of India. But it was a number that was manageable in terms of the plot and the events that unfold. I should point out that the many perspectives contrast with the very limited and tight timeline of three months. That helps to confine the novel and give it structure and shape. And at the end of the day – or end of the summer – I hope it becomes apparent that while the lives are dissimilar, there are also some things they have in common. The yearning for home, the desire to be loved, the attempt to survive in a changing world.
JMM: I was taken by your deft examination of class in this book. Some characters are stunningly privileged, others are caring for the privileged, all are trying to just get by. When you wrote this book were you thinking of class as a major theme?
OM: Yes. I have long been interested in exploring class divisions in urban Indian society. I was influenced by some of the postcolonial novels I read back when I was at university that were about former British colonies, such as Ayi Kwei Aarmah’s The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Petals of Blood and Nayantara Sehgal’s Rich Like Us. The stories of inequality that persist in postcolonial societies. But I also didn’t want to write a black and white narrative about rich vs poor or try to represent the stereotypical oppressed, poor, lower-caste victim from India. I used to work as a daily news reporter in India. I’m aware of the despair of people’s lives and would never want to gloss over those realities. But a novel is a work of the imagination and from a creative perspective, I was interested in making the characters and their situations more complicated, and in portraying contemporary urban India with nuance. Obviously, there are many privileged people in India and there are many, many, more who have no privilege at all and are just trying to get through each day. The lives of the two groups are far more intertwined than we often realize. The relationship is usually exploitative, and power and privilege are certainly not shared. And yet, they all live in the same country, the same city, separate and unequal but co-existing. I wanted to explore this state of co-existence and how certain events can impact everyone differently but profoundly all the same. As I kept writing draft after draft, the characters began to take over with their stories, personalities, and eccentricities. They are not just representatives of certain groups but also individuals.
JMM: Do you have a favorite character? A character who was easiest to write?
OM: I love all of them! I spent so much time with each one, trying to understand them and their desires. I had to travel with them on their journeys which forced me to learn a lot alongside them. In one regard, the easiest characters to write were the working-class characters, because they were immediately vulnerable compared to the more privileged characters. It’s easier to empathize with the underdog or someone who is struggling to pay the bills. It was more challenging to make the other characters sympathetic.
I have favorites for different reasons. Jessica is a favorite because she’s very interesting. Individualistic, independent, and yet someone who is forced to make compromises too. Someone with responsibilities. I had a lot of fun writing about her – her eclectic clothes and home décor. There’s a vibrancy and energy in her that is the opposite of Ramona who is all understated elegance. But from a creative standpoint, I am really proud of Salil. He was one character who was so unlikeable at first glance that even I couldn’t imagine ever hanging out with him. He seemed obnoxious at first. But gradually, I was able to give him all these layers and make him more and more human. By the end of the book, I thought he was one of the most complex, and he makes some of the most important observations in the book.
JMM: How did you go about structuring this book and managing pacing? I found myself ripping through the pages, wanting to get closer and closer to every character.
OM: Thank you. That’s very gratifying to hear, especially as pacing and plot were not things I would have considered my strengths when I was younger and doing my MFA for instance. I have worked on these for this novel, and somehow at some point, things started to click in terms of the pacing. The structure I chose for this book was ambitious. I knew that it was a bit of a risk writing this way and offering something this unusual to readers. I’m grateful to discover every day that people are enjoying it.
Initially, the chapters read more like individual stories, but as I kept revising, I kept adding little details that foreshadowed future events or connected with things in other chapters. It was quite fun to do this. I would be walking across my campus between classes when an idea would come to me about what should happen somewhere that ended up having major repercussions later in the novel. Even at the very end, before I finished my final draft, I edited the chapter endings to make them more suspenseful and continuous rather than self-contained. I used to think I was a character and setting person rather than plot, but now I am beginning to think I quite enjoy creating intricate plots and trying to figure out how to make the more suspenseful or dramatic.
JMM: Many of your characters are pondering who they are in this New India. Ashok says that men nowadays in India are “Americanized.” Maneka is working in the States and comes back to India. What did you ultimately want these characters to say about where they live?
OM: One of the things I found fascinating after I moved to West Michigan is the apparent role reversal between the India I was visiting and the America I was living in. When I was growing up in India, many of us assumed that life in America was fast-paced and materialistic, that people here were a lot more sexually liberated and so on. We got our ideas from Hollywood movies and soaps like The Bold and The Beautiful. It was India that was supposed to be the country of family values and spirituality. But now I saw a contrast between the more cosmopolitan lifestyles of people in Indian cities and the more sedate life in many parts of the Midwest, where many people are quite religious and family-oriented. When I went to India, I would hear of key parties (which already happened in the 70s in the US.) This reversal means a subversion of expectations. When Indians think of America, they expect New York or LA. They don’t expect a small, quiet town in the Midwest. Hrishipur and Heathersfield epitomize that contrast and its ironies.
Ashok is being ironic too. He’s messing with Maneka a little bit because there’s this assumption – not unfounded — among Indians that the NRI, the non-resident Indian from the diaspora, thinks of the home country as being backward and unchanged from when they left it. Maneka too is guilty of these naïve remarks. Her surprise at some changes is not very well-informed. Like, why are you so startled that something costs five times more now than when you lived here? But this does happen to us. I have witnessed expats going back and feeling shocked by this sort of change. Maneka has to relearn the country because countries are always changing. And people who live in them don’t always notice those changes to the same extent. It feels more sudden to the occasional visitor. Ultimately, I wanted the characters to understand that every place is complicated. That the country they may have imagined visiting some day is not quite what they expect it to be. That their own home is not what they imagined it to be. This is not just about the places themselves – it’s about memory. It’s about what we are seeking.
JMM: What’s next? Are you working on any other projects?
OM: I am working on a short story collection and a novel which is in very early stages so I can’t really say much about it. I’m excited about both the projects because they are very different from each other and also from The Dream Builders.
Jennifer Maritza McCauley is the Fiction Editor for Pleiades. Learn more about her and her work here.