Miss New India

  • By Bharati Mukherjee
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 328 pp.

Looking beyond the shallowness of imitation for a take on the contemporary, vibrant nation.

Miss New India is like Bollywood in print. No dancing, no singing, but replete with themes that animate the highly popular Indian films cranked out by the hundreds each year throughout the Desi belt. The novel features dysfunctional families, failed arranged marriages, sexual, psychological and social violence, and attempts to preserve some modicum of what is commonly perceived as “traditional Indian values” in the midst of the encroachment of imitations of Western — particularly American — social and cultural fads, both among the young and the old in India’s middle class. Unlike Amulya Malladi’s The Mango Season, a more sedate yet equally contemporary look at a modern Indian woman’s rejection of parental decisions on the “suitable boy” (and its often more believable story line), Mukherjee’s novel, while interesting, is encumbered by too many issues only superficially explored. She flits from one problem to another without any depth or believability, like the escapist scripts of Indian cinema.

Anjali Bose, a young Bengali girl raised in the northern state of Bihar by a lower-middle-class domineering father and an insecure mother, finds, in the “imported” Goan and other South Indian teachers of her Vasco da Gama High School and the tutorials of American expatriate Peter Champion, an enticement to leave her home town of Gauripur, with its small-town pretenses and the confines of tradition. Her move to Bangalore, India’s fifth-largest city and an IT center in the southern state of Karnataka, is hastened by her father’s attempts to arrange a marriage for her to a young man who sexually assaults her and tries to diminish her sense of worth as an Indian woman. She flees to her older sister in Patna, but finds no haven. The sister, whose marriage has crumbled, is prostituting herself to support her young child. Anjali quickly purchases a bus ticket for an arduous ride south to a promising life in Bangalore’s call-center cyber paradise, where she hopes her future will be more secure.

What she discovers, however, is not a redemptive future but a collection of similarly adrift, insecure and shallow men and women who may have found employment in the economic boom that is Bangalore but who still do not know who they are or what their lives are becoming beyond their rejection of India’s traditional values. In the boarding house to which Champion has sent her, she encounters a landlady who is unable to live beyond her own imaginarily constructed past and thus cannot help Anjali begin to cope with the present. Despite some setbacks in her first weeks in the city of “cyber hope,” she musters the courage to enroll in a private call center  training school, also recommended by her expatriate teacher in Gauripur. While failing to “achieve” the pseudo-Western, imitative standard expected of Indians who answer calls from Americans and Europeans needing assistance for their computer problems, banking dilemmas and other customer service snafus ad nauseum, she does discover in the school’s director a successful Indian woman who sees in Anjali personal and professional possibilities that reach far beyond what Anjali sees in herself or in those around her.

While I may have been piqued with shallowness in the characters and the story, there is a redemptive, and more serious, thread that courses through Miss New India. The novel is a scathing critique of India’s contemporary culture, both traditional and “modern,” as it tries to come to terms with what it wants economically, socially and politically. It examines the uncertainties and insecurities that many young Indian adult men and women feel when their culture fails to give direction. As India comes of age as a growing major player in the world’s economy, it continues to struggle, as a nation and as a sensitive collection of 1.2 billion citizens, with how to preserve its culture while adjusting to changes in the larger world. These pressures cannot be kept at bay given the tools of instantaneous communication that challenge identities and traditions — both those thousands of years old and those only an hour or two old.

As an extpatriate herself, in Britain, Canada and the United States, Mukherjee is keenly aware, in this and her other writings, of the sense of alienation in the lives of Indian women in India and elsewhere. This sense of alienation haunts Anjali wherever she goes, not knowing who she is, what she must do, or how she must respond in uncertain and complex situations. Mukherjee names her protagonist “Anjali,” which means hands folded in a gesture of greeting. Her name fits her as she goes from moment to moment in her perplexing young life, tentatively greeting culturally confusing twists and turns, not unlike India has done in its maturing as a nation these past 63 years.

In the end, Mukherjee moves beyond the shallowness of the “Bollywood script.” Anjali, like contemporary India often does, revisits her home town and sees its possibilities. With her new maturity she has learned that she does not have to reject the past while looking forward to the hope of a redemptive future.

J. Daniel White is professor of South Asian studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is a frequent consultant and lecturer on South Asian topics both in the United States and abroad. His current research is focused on the sacred literature and architecture of the Mewar dynasty in Rajasthan, India.

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