Miss New India

by Bharati Mukherjee

Hardcover, 328 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $25 | purchase

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Miss New India
Author
Bharati Mukherjee

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Book Summary

Taken under the wing of an expat teacher for her ambition and talent, Anjali Bose hopes to escape unfavorable prospects and falls in with a crowd of young people in Bangalore, where she endeavors to confront her past and reinvent herself. By the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author of India: In Word and Image. 25,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: Miss New India

1 At nineteen, Anjali Bose was a tall girl, one hundred and seventy-three centimeters—five foot eight—taller than most boys in her college. She was on the girls’ field hockey team. She smiled readily and when she did, she could light up a room like a halogen lamp. The conventional form of Indian femininity projects itself through long-lashed, kohl-rimmed, startled black eyes. Modest women know to glance upward from a slightly bowed head. Anjali did not take in the world with saucer-eyed passivity. Her light, greenish eyes were set off by high cheekbones and prominent brows. Her face resolved itself along a long jaw and generous mouth, with full lips and prominent teeth. Her parents, looking to the day they would have to marry her off, worried openly about her overly assertive features. But the rare foreigners who passed through town, health workers or financial aid consultants for international agencies, found her looks striking and her boldness charming. Speaking to them, she sometimes claimed a touch of Burmese or Nepali ancestry. She told many stories, all of them plausible, some of them perhaps even true. She always made an outstanding first impression. On any street at market hour in the provincial town of Gauripur, in the state of Bihar, there could be a dozen Anjalis—"offerings to god"—but no man not a relative would dare call them by name. Most of those other Anjalis would be married, hobbled by saris, carrying infants or clutching the hands of toddlers while their husbands haggled for fish and vegetables. To be hailed from the street by a man on a scooter would be scandalous. The call had to be for her, the strider in jeans and a T-shirt advertising the maiden tour (Hamburg, Stuttgart, Köln, Basel, Zürich, Wien, Bratislava—she loved the umlauts) of Panzer Delight, a German punk-rock band, some few years back—the young woman who could wait to be called by the name she preferred, Angela, or better yet, Angie. A rusty old Lambretta scooter, the kind that had been popular with Gauripur’s office workers way back in the 1960s, braked to a wheezing stop; its driver waved and nudged it toward her through the blue diesel smoke from buses and trucks, the dense clutter of handcarts and bicycles: swollen, restless India on the move. She was standing outside Gauripur Bazaar, known locally as Pinky Mahal, the town’s three-story monument to urban progress. When Pinky Mahal was being built, bricks had been carried, one by one, by dozens of child laborers hired by the day. Rows of women workers had threaded their way along single planks, balancing bowls of cement on their heads and then dumping the contents into plastic buckets. During the construction a corporate billboard had stood on Lal Bahadur Shastri (LBS) Road, an epic portrait to feed a credulous public: a magnificent, five-story office tower behind a small landscaped forest of shade and flowering trees, lawns, fountains, and sundials. On the billboard turbaned doormen greeted the gleaming row of imported cars pulling up at the building’s entrance. And above the turbaned heads floated two legends: your new corporate hdqs in beautiful, exciting gauripur! and act now! commercial space going fast! Fanciful renderings of a future that would never come. The office tower, with three stories instead of the advertised five, was completed in a year, but within six months of its ceremonial opening the pink outer plaster had begun to crumble, leaving long veins of exposed brick. The contractor claimed that the pink paint was sour and had reacted to the sweet plaster. Acid and alkaline, the developer explained to the press, then absconded to the Persian Gulf. And so Pinky Mahal, its two top floors unoccupied, its ground floor leased and subleased by owners of small shops who put up with fluctuating electrical service and no air conditioning because of the low rent, had become an eyesore rather than a proud monument in the center of town. When Pinky Mahal failed, the spirit of Gauripur was crushed. Then the call came again, slightly revised: "Angie!" Mr. Champion pulled his scooter into the safety of the gutter, and Anjali towered above him, standing on the high edge of the cracked sidewalk. She hadn’t seen much of her former teacher in the twelve months since she’d graduated from Vasco da Gama High School and enrolled in Vasco da Gama College’s B. Comm. program. During that time he’d grown a reddish beard speckled with gray. A patched book bag was slung over his shoulder, and he still wore his trademark handloom cotton kurta over blue jeans. From her elevated vantage point, she saw that his hair was thinning. Mosquitoes buzzed over the bald spot. They landed, but he appeared not to notice. He had to be over fifty, considering that he’d been in Bihar for nearly thirty years, but was still so slim and energetic that he seemed boyish. All American men—within the tiny compass of her experience—seemed boyish. Her father, a railway clerk, was younger than Mr. Champion but looked older. It was impossible to think of her stout father, with his peremptory voice and officious manners, in anything but the role of upholstered patriarch. He would never wear a wrinkled shirt in public or shirtsleeves to the office, and he had never owned blue jeans. "I thought you were leaving," the American said. Then, with more emphasis, "In fact, I thought you told me you were leaving, and that was months ago." When in doubt, smile. She smiled. "I like your beard, Mr. Champion." "I’m not your teacher anymore, Anjali. You can call me Peter." "Only if you call me Angie." She’d had a secret crush on her teacher her last three years at Vasco da Gama High School, though, like all other da Gama students speaking to teachers, she’d addressed him as sir and Mr. Champion to his face, and as "the American" behind his back. He was the only layman under sixty and the only white man in the school run by Goan and South Indian priests. "Angie, why are you still here?" It was a question she often asked herself. She could more easily visualize herself in a fancy Mumbai café overlooking the Gateway of India, stirring a foamy pink falooda with a long spoon in a frosty glass, than nibbling spicy savories from a street vendor in Gauripur, something she had been about to do when Mr. Champion startled her. "I might ask the same of you, sir—I mean, Peter," she retorted, grateful that her lips and chin weren’t greasy from eating deep-fried pakoras. "Same as you, Angie. Studying." It was their special joke: although he earned his living as a teacher, one in fact openly admired for having introduced a popular course on U.S. business models and advertising strategies with supplementary units on American culture and idiom, he considered himself "a perennial student." But not like typical Indian students, those driven rote learners with one obsessive goal: admission to an Indian Institute of Technology. A lifetime of prosperity and professional success or poverty and shame depended on how relentlessly they crammed for national entrance examinations. "I thought you said you had to get out if you wanted to stay sane." "There were weddings." She lied. "My sister got married. I couldn’t just pick up and leave." A spontaneous untruth; it just slipped out. He frowned and she felt a liar’s momentary panic. Maybe she’d already used the wedding excuse, and forgotten. Family weddings and funerals are the incontestable duties and rituals of Indian life. There’s always a sister or cousin being married off, an ailing uncle being nursed, a great-uncle being mourned. Truthfully, Angie had a sister. Her name was Sonali, and she had been married five years before to a bridegroom whose ad and picture in the matrimonial column of a Bangla-language local newspaper had met Sonali’s, and their father’s, approval. Now Sonali was a divorced single mother, living with her four-year-old daughter in a one-room flat in Patna, the nearest large city, and working as steno-typist-bookkeeper for the stingy owner of a truck-rental company. The bridegroom was discovered, too late, to be a heavy drinker and philanderer. But when Sonali had finally got up her nerve to institute divorce proceedings, their father had turned against her for wreaking on the Bose family the public shame of divorce. How could she explain to Mr. Champion how difficult—how impossible—it was for a daughter in a family like hers to just up and leave town except as the bride of a man her father had hand-picked? Why did family honor and fatherly duty involve his shackling her to a stranger when he had already proved himself so fallible? It was her life he was threatening to ruin next. Her father had a simple explanation: "It is not a question of happiness, yours or ours. It’s about our name, our family reputation." Even at nineteen, Anjali was determined not to yield her right to happiness. Mr. Champion, oblivious to what she had to contend with at home, was back to smiling. Maybe all Americans were inscrutable in that way. You couldn’t tell what they really thought. Maybe he hadn’t noticed her little lie; maybe he’d noticed but forgiven her. She sailed through life with a blithe assumption that she would be forgiven. "Remember what I told you. India’s leaving towns like this in the dust. You’ve got prospects." He shifted a heavy jute shopping sack strapped to the back seat of his scooter and patted the empty space. An overripe orange tumbled out of the bag into the gutter. Two crows and a pariah dog zeroed in on the smashed fruit. "Hop on, Angie." If Gauripur was that doomed, why hadn’t he left? "I’ll give you a ride to your house if you don’t mind stopping off at my place while I put this stuff away." He retightened the strap around the jute sack. "There’s fish at the bottom." She liked the idea of not having to go right back home to her father’s bullying and her mother’s tearful silence. They were obsessed with finding a respectable son-in-law who would overlook negatives such as green eyes, a stubborn personality, and a nominal dowry. Her father blamed her for his lack of matchmaking success. Usually he pointed to her T-shirts and jeans: "What you wear, how you talk, no wonder! What good boy is going to look twice?" Plenty, Baba, she could have retorted but didn’t. She was not lacking for admirers. Boys were attracted to her, though she did little enough to encourage them. She knew what her father meant, though: prospective bridegrooms—"good boys" from good families—would back off. With her sandaled toe, Angie traced a deep dent on Mr. Champion’s scooter. The strappy sandal was the same shade of lilac as her painted toenails. She knew she had pretty feet, small, high-arched, narrow. He had to have noticed. "Looks like you need a new set of wheels, Mr. Champion," she teased. The American wiped the passenger seat with the sleeve of his kurta. "Don’t wait until it’s too late." He didn’t understand her struggles; how could any aging, balding American with tufts of nose hair do so? She had one, and only one, legitimate escape route out of Gauripur: arranged marriage to a big-city-based bridegroom. That B. Comm. degree would increase her stock in the marriage market. "Okey-dokey, Mr. Champion." She laughed, easing herself in place beside the jute sack on the passenger seat. Let the sidewalk throngs stare; let the crowds part for the young unmarried woman on the back of the bachelor American’s scooter. When the word got out, as it inevitably would, that Anjali Bose, daughter of "Railways Bose" of Indian Railways, sister of a working-woman divorcee, was riding off in plain sight, with her arms around the stomach of a foreigner, her parents would find it harder to make a proper-caste Bengali matrimonial match for her. So be it. "And I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet," he said. "You are inviting me to go to your flat, Mr. Champion?" She tried not to sound shocked. It would not be her first visit to her teacher’s home. Mr. Champion offered an English conversation course on Saturday mornings, and an advanced English conversational skills course on Sunday afternoons, at his apartment. Anjali had completed both courses twice, as had a dozen ambitious male da Gama students hoping to improve their chances of getting into professional schools in engineering or medicine or business management. A few of Mr. Champion’s students were now doctors in their early thirties, waiting for immigrant visas to Canada or Australia. The very first time Anjali showed up for Mr. Champion’s Saturday conversation class, she had been severely disappointed with how little he owned in the way of furniture and appliances. No refrigerator, no television, no air conditioner, no crates of carbonated soft drinks. He owned a music system, professional-looking tape-recording equipment, and a bulky laptop and printer. Wooden office chairs and a pile of overstuffed cushions served as extra seating. Dozens of Indian books in every language were stacked on a brick-and-plank bookcase. A divan that surely doubled as his bed was pushed alongside a wall. Anjali had expected a professor’s home to be shabby, but a shabby portal of learning, crammed with leather-bound books by world-renowned authors. Anjali had been the only girl in those classes. She had been brought up to revere her elders and teachers, but whenever she visited Mr. Champion’s place, she’d imagined his shame: the rooms were so barren, so like a servant’s quarters. Some Saturday afternoons the sheets on the divan still looked mussed. She was embarrassed to be in a room with a man’s bed, with his clothes hanging from pegs on a wall as though he had undressed in front of her. His apparent loneliness depressed her; his exposure agitated her. The silence of Mr. Champion’s room made the beehive drone of an Indian family seem less insane. She was not much of a homebody—according to her mother’s complaints—but if it hadn’t seemed too forward a gesture by the only girl student, she would have brought her teacher small house gifts, a flower vase or just a wall calendar, to make the room look cozier. Now terra-cotta pots of blooming flowers lined the narrow walkway to Mr. Champion’s back staircase. Vines hung over the stairwell, and the stairs themselves were fragrant with flowers she couldn’t name in any language. Could it be the same place? "Mr. Champion! Have you gotten married?" She laughed, and from the top of the stairs he turned to her with a smile. "Some difference, wouldn’t you say?" The door was painted bright blue. It opened inward before he could even insert the key. By then, Anjali had gained the top step, and there she faced a young man wrapped in a lungi, bare-chested, rubbing his eyes. "Jaanu," he said in a low voice, and Mr. Champion said a few words in what sounded like Urdu. Angie made out the universal "tea" and "biscuits" and maybe a version of her name. There were cut flowers on a round table, a colorful tablecloth, and paintings nailed to the walls. There were two comfortable-looking cane chairs and a floor lamp. An old wooden almirah now held the clothes that had been hung on pegs, and bookcases ran along every wall, right up to the sleeping alcove. The bed was not made, almost as though the boy had been sleeping in it. She didn’t see his sleeping mat. "Angie, this is Ali," said Mr. Champion. Then he added, "He is my friend." Americans can do that, she thought: make friends of village Muslims. Young Ali, Mr. Champion’s jaanu, his life (if the Hindi and Urdu words were congruent in meaning), a handsome enough boy if nearly black, with long hair and flaring cheekbones, had painted his fingernails bright red. He opened the almirah to find a shirt for his half-naked body. Either the shirt had been donated by Mr. Champion but still hung in the master’s closet, which was cheeky enough—or else the two men shared closet space, which to her was unthinkable. Mindful of parental wrath if she was to return home on the back of a man’s bike, Anjali insisted that she would stay only a few minutes and then take a bus back. If Baba or the nosy neighbors saw her get off the bus at the stop close to home, they would suspect nothing. She wasn’t ready for a screaming match with Baba. But she stayed an hour, speaking more freely of her longings than she did with her girlfriends. She didn’t want marriage. Her classes were dull. She wanted something exciting, life-changing, to save her from the tedium of Gauripur. "I understand," Mr. Champion said. Ali was sent off to buy sweets. Angie had been Peter Champion’s fondest project, someone very much like him, he said, who couldn’t live in the small town of her birth. What a pain it is, to know that one is somehow fated to set sail for the farthest shore. "What a calling it is for someone like me," he joked, "to fill that ark with passengers." Mr. Champion was in high teaching mode, in full confessional self-display. He was, he said, a man in love. "So that explains the woman’s touch," she said. "But where is she?" "Angie, Angie." He tut-tutted. She wondered for a moment if she herself was the woman he’d chosen and if the next words from his mouth would be "I love you, Angie, I always have, and I won’t let you leave until you agree to go to America as my bride . . ." She had a romantic nature; she assumed any man could love her. Bravely, she asked, "So who is this person you want me to meet?" "You’ve met him, Angie." She was left in the dark, still smiling. She hadn’t seen anybody, and there was no place to hide. "It’s too late for me to leave," he said, "but for you I want the best." Is this a proposal, she wondered, and almost asked out loud, trying to help him. I’ll do it! I’ll make you happy! Then he said, "You must try a larger city." She’d always imagined herself in Bombay or maybe on the beaches of Goa, and so she mentioned those possibilities to him. Eventually, even in America, she thought, though she dared not say it for fear of inviting the evil eye. "Bombay?" He laughed. "You’ve been seeing too many bad movies. Bombay is yesterday. It’s a hustler’s city. Bangalore’s the place for a young woman like you." She wondered, Is that where he’s taking me? Why not? I’ll go. Then: What kind of girl am I? She knew nothing of Bangalore, a southern city as alien to her as the snows of Kashmir. Mr. Champion was back in teaching mode. He explained that for two hundred years Bangalore had been a British army base, a cantonment, and the Britishers had left a few scars—golf courses and racetracks and private gymkhanas—that moneyed Indians adopted a little too enthusiastically. But now it’s a hopping place. And he had contacts in Bangalore, people who would listen to his recommendations. The call centers, luring thousands of young people from all over the country, people like her, the new people. Ali returned with a box of sweets. "In Bangalore," Mr. Champion said, "if you’ve got the talent, there’s a market." This time she asked the question that was always on her mind. "And what is my talent, Mr. Champion?" "Peter, please. Don’t you know what your talent is?" "I haven’t the p’oggiest." "Foggiest, Angie. Initial f-sound, not p. Initial w-sound, not v, and vice versa. Wedding, not vedding. Vagaries, not wagaries. Not wice wersa. Develop, not dewellup. Keep practicing." She could cry. They’ll always find you out. "Your talent, Angie? You have the passion. You’re not satisfied. But you’re still very innocent. Innocence is appealing in a young girl, but not blindness, not ignorance. Look at us." She smiled at his way of including her, but then he said, —"Look closely at us, Angie, take a long look at Ali and me." At the mention of his name, Ali smiled and began to dance. The boy was a good dancer; he must have seen a hundred movies. And then Peter stood and put his arm over Ali’s shoulder, and Ali nestled his head against Peter’s cheek. A clash of emotions met the dawn of consciousness: she could have screamed, but instead she whimpered, barely above a breath, "Oh." Peter went on about places in Bangalore where she could stay. He knew old women from the British days who let out rooms in old mansions in the middle of the city, houses that could have been sold for crores of rupees (and leveled, their tangled gardens hacked down for parking lots and swimming pools), but where would the old women go? Old Anglo-Indian women whose children had fled to Australia or Canada, whose grandchildren would never see India, dotty old women whose sense of decorum reached back to pre-Independence days and who ("Believe me!" he laughed) would never be sympathetic to India’s freedom fighters and Independence, but who nevertheless offered rooms and breakfasts of tea and toast and suppers of mutton stew at 1970s prices. Much was forgivable in such women. A place in Kew Gardens or Kent Town, that’s what Angie needed. And he knew the women who ran the new money-spinning call centers were always looking for girls with good English and soothing voices who could fool American callers (I can do that? she was about to ask. I’m good enough to fool Americans?) into thinking they’re talking to a girl in Boston or Chicago. "Finally, a chance to use those regional accents I taught you," he said. "You’re very good, Angie, you’re the best student I ever had." "That’ll be five dallars," she said, remembering. Chicago o’s sound like a’s. So do Boston r’s. "I told you at graduation you had to leave this place before you got trapped in a rotten marriage. I’m telling you again, let that happen and you’re as good as dead." Why do they say as good as dead? Why not as bad? But this was not the time to ask. He seemed about to put his hand on her arm and she felt excited. "I have dreams for you. You get married to some boy from here, and the dream dies. You’ll never see the world." He studied her T-shirt. "No . . . Dortmund, no Bratislava. You’ll have kids and a husband who’s jealous of your intelligence and your English and won’t let you out of the house, and that would break my heart." This time, he did put his hand on her arm—"You understand?" Ali snapped up the plate of sweet crumbs as though it was crawling with ants and noisily dumped it into a bowl of soapy water. He was jealous of her! He was just a child. He lifted his dripping fingers to eye level and glared at a chip on a painted fingernail. "All I’ve done is give you a start. The rest is up to you." In the movies, there was a moment of accounting. She wouldn’t be allowed to leave her benefactor’s house, not without a favor, or worse. The rest is up to me? The door would be blocked. He’d reach for her hand, then close in on it, like a trap. But Peter was her teacher and a teacher’s help had purity and noble intentions behind it. It came from his heart because she had earned it honorably. Peter was smiling and even Ali was smiling, and Peter held out his hand to her and said, "Good luck, Angie." She took his hand. Ali thrust out his, which confused her: shake a servant’s hand? Up close, she could see a fine line of kohl limning his eyes. In that moment of confusion she saw Peter’s arm reach around Ali’s waist and pull him close. "I hope you’ll find happiness too," he said. More words followed, in Urdu, and Ali laughed and said in English, "Good luck, Anjali." Then he walked her to the bus stop.