A savvy former street child working at a human rights law office in Mumbai fights for redemption and a chance to live life on her own terms in this fresh, propulsive debut novel about fortune and survival. Named a Loan Stars Top Ten Pick, a CBC Canadian Fiction title to watch, one of Audible's Best Debuts of 2022, and an Amazon Best Book of 2022.
Rakhi is a twenty-three-year-old former street child haunted by the grisly aftermath of an incident that led her to lose her best friend eleven years ago. Constantly reminded she doesn’t belong, Rakhi lives alone in a Mumbai slum, working as a lowly office assistant at Justice For All, a struggling human rights law office headed by the renowned lawyer who gave her a fresh start.
Fiercely intelligent and in possession of a sharp wit and an even sharper tongue, Rakhi is nobody’s fool, even if she is underestimated by everyone around her. Rakhi's life isn't much, but she's managing. That is until a fading former Bollywood starlet tries to edge her way back into the spotlight by becoming a celebrity ambassador for Justice For All. Steering the organization into uncharted territories, she demands an internship for her young Canadian family friend, Alex, a Harvard-bound graduate student. Ambitious, persistent, and naive, Alex persuades Rakhi to show him "the real" India. In exchange, he’ll do something to further Rakhi’s dreams in a transaction that seems harmless, at first.
As old guilt and new aspirations collide, everything Rakhi once knew to be true is set ablaze. And as the stakes mount, she will come face to face with the difficult choices and moral compromises that people are prepared to make in order to survive, no matter the costs. Reema Patel’s transportive debut novel offers a moving, smart, and arrestingly funny look at the cost of ambition and power in reclaiming one’s story.
About the author
REEMA PATEL holds a B.A. from McGill University and a J.D. from the University of Windsor. After working in Mumbai in the youth non-profit sector and in human rights advocacy, she has spent the last ten years working in provincial and municipal government. Such Big Dreams is her first novel, and an excerpt from the novel won the Penguin Random House Student Award for Fiction at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies. She lives in Toronto, where she currently works as a lawyer.
Excerpt: Such Big Dreams: A Novel (by (author) Reema Patel)
From Chapter 2:
Gauri Ma’am’s husky voice thunders from across the office. “Rakhi! Have you cleaned up the empty desk for the new intern?”
“Ji, Ma’am. Almost done.”
With a damp blue towel, I wipe specks of dirt from what’s supposed to be Alex’s computer mouse. Bombay grit gets everywhere. It blows through the windows daily, caking furniture, lodging itself under your fingernails.
She calls out to me again. “Where did he go?”
“Sitting in the waiting area.” I peek out from behind the computer to see him standing before a faded prisoners’ rights poster by the front door, stroking his chin. We printed those posters a few years back, when we still had money to waste on things like that.
Gauri Ma’am grunts something about how the new intern was supposed to arrive much later in the morning. “So eager, these Canadians.”
I set down the mouse, now several shades lighter than how I found it. A vinegary scent swells as I wring the towel out in the morning light. Last Monday, one of our other foreign interns, Saskia, found five newborn kittens taking shelter beneath her desk. I used this same towel to scoop the kittens up while a raging Saskia shrieked about everything that was wrong with India. I left the kittens outside on a piece of cardboard behind a parked bicycle, hoping their mother would turn up before the rats.
Showing the foreign interns around when they first arrive is one of my jobs. This year, we have Saskia and Merel, two Dutch graduate students who have been with us since the middle of May. For Saskia, the office is too hot, the tea is too sweet, and she complains of employee abuse whenever one of the senior lawyers asks her to go to court to file documents. Merel is always taking photos of herself with her digital camera. A few weeks back they returned from a mini holiday in Rajasthan, and Merel showed everyone pictures from their trip: Saskia winking beside two villagers in bright pink turbans; Merel raising an eyebrow and frowning into a beer bottle by the hotel pool in Udaipur; both girls in the middle of the desert, riding creaky old camels dripping with faded multicoloured pompoms.
I work the musty towel over the computer screen, leaving sideways streaks that won’t go away no matter how hard I wipe.
Startled, I turn around to find Alex behind me. Who told him to come in?
“Are there other interns working here? Or is it just going to be me?”
“Yes,” I say. “Two girls.”
He lowers himself onto an office chair a few feet away. It’s off balance, so he tilts down on one side. In his starched white shirt and shiny leather shoes, he looks like he should be working at a bank with sparkling white tiles and glass doors. Not a human rights law office cluttered with lopsided chairs and stacks of yellowing papers bundled with string, and dusty cobwebs fluttering from the ceiling fans.
“Where are these girls?” he asks, fiddling with the knobs under his seat.
I shrug. How should I know where they are? I haven’t spoken to Merel and Saskia since the kitten drama. “Pata nahin,” I mutter to myself.
“Sorry,” he says with a laugh. “My Hindi’s a little rusty. Can you say that in English?”
How do I reply? I am not know? I do not know? “I . . . no know,” I offer.
Alex gives me one of those polite nods that’s meant to show he understands, even though he doesn’t. Firanghi classic.
Lately, Merel and Saskia have been showing up three days a week only. A year ago, Gauri Ma’am might have cared. These days, though, she has more to worry about than a couple of unpaid interns bunking off. Her funding agency in England is only giving her half the money she needs for the next year. Back in April, after everyone had left for the evening, I overheard Ma’am on her phone. “I understand you want us to make cuts,” she said, her voice straining, “but the need for our work is critical—I simply cannot scale back.” The conversation ended soon after, and Ma’am stayed at her desk for a long time, rubbing her temples. The next morning, she fired three of the junior lawyers, shut down our satellite offices in Assam, Gujarat, and Tamil Nadu, then lectured everyone else about something called “efficiency.” I didn’t bother asking what it meant.
“Rakhi,” Gauri Ma’am shouts from her office. “Show him around the office, na? Do I have to tell you how to do everything myself?”
“Ji, Ma’am,” I call back. Turning to Alex, I stand up. “You come? See office?”
“Sure, that’s great.”
“Building old. Lift no working,” I say, opening the doors leading into the corridor. “Men’s toilet this way.”
He peeks his head out into the hallway.
I lead Alex back through the waiting area, past the interns’ desks, and into the lawyers’ workspace, a U-shape formation of desks pushed up against the wall at the front of the office. It’s separated from the interns’ workspace—a unanimous request from the lawyers once Justice For All started hiring firanghis to work for free.
“All lawyers working this space,” I say, and a few of them turn their heads toward us, eyeing him.
I’ve steered Alex back to his workstation and left him there when Bhavana, the lead lawyer in Justice For All’s anti-human-trafficking cases, calls me to her desk. “So,” she says in a low voice. “Who’s that guy?”
“I don’t know. Some firanghi.”
She studies me carefully, flipping her shoulder-length hair to reveal a grey streak that grows wider every week. “Arre, you were talking to him, weren’t you?”
“He’s an intern from Canada, I don’t know anything else.”
“The interns always start in May. Why would Gauri Ma’am hire one in July?” Bhavana asks, resting a finger on her chin. “And why wouldn’t she tell any of us?”
How should I know?
“Riveting ... With a captivating arc and solid character development, the story highlights the impact of greed in a poverty-stricken Mumbai. It’s a powerful debut.”
—Publisher’s Weekly (STARRED REVIEW)
“Such Big Dreams charts the ambitions, disappointments, and dreams of two people who are improbably thrust together as they try to find their way in—and make their mark on—a bustling Mumbai that’s indifferent to their struggles. Unflinching and unsentimental, yet written with compassion and insight, Such Big Dreams is a richly textured and powerful novel that, like Mumbai itself, pulsates with humanity. Reema Patel is a writer to watch. I absolutely loved this book.”
—Bianca Marais, author of Hum If You Don’t Know the Words and If You Want to Make God Laugh
“From the very first page, Such Big Dreams grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. Reema Patel’s prose jumps with energy, plunging the reader into a page-turner of a story that doesn’t shy away from exploring hard and painful truths about the way people navigate the systemic conditions of society. With assured writing, Patel explores themes ranging from societal elitism to the nuances of interpersonal betrayal and never loses sight of pacing. Visceral and kinetic, Such Big Dreams is a splash of a debut.”
—Zalika Reid-Benta, author of Frying Plantain
“Mumbai has inspired many great novels about the city, and now we can add Reema Patel’s Such Big Dreams to that list. Her portrayal of Mumbai is fresh and vivid and personal, in part because of the novel’s charming and perceptive narrator, Rakhi, whose daily life straddles the city’s distinct social and economic classes and geographies. I left the book with a sigh of regret, feeling already the loss of Rakhi and the gift of Patel’s Mumbai.”
—Shyam Selvadurai, author of Funny Boy
“An astonishingly gifted storyteller, Reema Patel writes with a confidence, insight, and skill that belies her status as a debut novelist. Such Big Dreams is a book that examines how we treat society’s most vulnerable, and leaves us questioning our own perception of the ideas of freedom, safety, charity, and humanity—but it’s also a gripping and emotional story of a young woman who is fighting to live her life on her own terms. A smart, haunting, compulsively readable novel with a tightly woven plot and an unforgettable narrator, Such Big Dreams is a novel you’ll want to simultaneously race through at breakneck speed, and slow down to savour every word.”
—Amy Jones, author of We’re All in This Together and Every Little Piece of Me
“An appealing debut. . . . Cynical, street-smart Rakhi is . . . a sharply drawn protagonist [who] gives this novel power and zest.”