- Miss New India
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pp.
Chasing the Bright Lights of Bangalore
In Miss New India, Bharati Mukherjee transports us to the rapid fire development occurring in India as a result of the recent outsourcing phenomenon led by some of the largest Western corporations. The title refers to the new female embodiment aspired to by the main character Anjali Bose – the modern woman working as one of India’s burgeoning number of call-center agents “bearing hope and energy that is infectious.” This modern woman has abandoned the sari for American blue jeans, hangs out at Starbucks, shops at upscale stores, and commutes around town by motorcycle.
Encouraged and financially abetted by her American expat high school teacher Peter Champion, 19-year old Anjali flees her hometown of Guaripur to escape an arranged marriage to an evil man and seek her destiny at “Bang-a-Buck Bangalore” where her bright hopes prove more elusive than once thought. She boards at the Bagehot house, a crumbling mansion that was once a bastion of British imperialism. Full of “unbounded longings,” Anjali sets out to achieve her ambitions through hard work and serendipitous encounters.
A host of new friends and benefactors come to Anjali’s aid, including the proprietor of the call-center training program where she enrolls, and an entrepreneur with whom she has an affair. After many struggles with adjusting to city life and wrestling with the shame she has brought upon her family for abandoning her duty to marry, she returns to her hometown, this time as a guest speaker at her old high school.
Mukherjee achieves many things well. She captures the exhilaration of a rising Bangalore (“Future, future, future!”), yet balances such excitement with intelligently expressed reservations (although these are limited to polite dinner conversation in the novel). Mukherjee did her research well, explaining to her readers the new economic structures being put in place by India’s proliferating elite.
Another bright spot is Mukherjee’s humorous depiction of the training processes in India’s call center operations where trainees must learn “to sound acceptably American.” American materialism is funnily mocked through the “Culture” training manual, consisting of a long list of American fast food chains and product labels. Trainees must also watch American TV shows, and Anjali’s failure to find any enjoyment in Sex and the City further parodies the cultural intermingling that must inevitably result from the transnational enterprise of outsourcing.
Also convincing is Mukherjee’s depiction of Anjali’s gradual arrival into a mature self-awareness as she struggles between her past and her new alter ego “Angie.” Through it all, the new Anjali/Angie transforms herself from a naïve provincial transplant to a savvy city girl who is current with pop culture, adept at getting her way with men, and brazen enough to give in to various temptations. She is also more cognizant of the different realities resulting from hierarchies of class and gender, which she increasingly begins to ponder as they relate to her aspirations.
But some aspects of the novel feel underdeveloped. Mukherjee’s nod toward India’s colonial past, to “suspicious, impoverished, humiliated India” in the form of British boarding home owner Minnie Bagehot seems merely perfunctory. There is one scene where Anjali chances upon some of Bagehot’s old photographs and finds herself “swelling with rage, then venom,” and realizing “the dazzling new Bangalore as a city of total amnesia.” But the foray into India’s present-day contradictions and its relationship to its past pretty much starts and ends here.
Further, Anjali’s teacher Champion’s later realization of his ethnocentrism, his “smugly superior” faith in Anjali’s better chances at profiting from Western development as opposed to remaining in Guaripur, is all too cursory. Western values and ideas of “progress” are certainly questioned, but to a narrow extent. There is also a minor storyline involving Champion’s homosexual relationship but it isn’t clear how this enlarges the book’s themes or plotline.
Perhaps the biggest stretch in the novel comes in the form of a plot twist involving a wrongful imprisonment. Although the violence and brutality inherent in self-invention is a common trope in Mukherjee’s writings, the climax in Miss New India seems highly improbable and contrived. And more disappointing, it even entertains some dangerous stereotypes offensively imposed upon South Asians.
Miss New India is a departure from Mukherjee’s previous novels in that the diasporic relations explored remain within India rather than traversing North America. Mukherjee herself is a product of such diasporic developments. Born into a Hindu family, she first immigrated to the United States to complete an MFA program at the University of Iowa, then moved to Canada with her husband where she lived for over a decade (she was not too fond of the experience by firsthand accounts). She then moved to the U.S. and became a naturalized citizen. She came into larger public view when her collection Middleman and Other Stories won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988. Since then, she has become a professor at UC Berkeley, and a staple subject among literary critics, her works analyzed within the rubrics of postcolonialism, race politics, and gender studies.
To be sure, Miss New India will provide much new material for academics to investigate and wrangle over, and in this way, is likely to be an enduring work among intellectual circles. But whether the novel will have mass appeal is another question. The general reader might enjoy the novel’s certain fairytale quality and largely optimistic view of India’s future. But others may find the book to be a slow read, too ambitious about exploring different aspects of modern India while failing to do so in depth. First-time Mukherjee readers are better off reading her most popular novel Jasmine rather than her newest creation.
Abigail Licad grew up in the Philippines and immigrated to the U.S. at age 13. She received her bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley and her master’s degree in literature from Oxford University. Her poetry and book reviews have appeared in “Calyx,” “The Critical Flame,” “Borderlands,” and “Smartish Pace.” She is a books editor at “Hyphen,” an Asian American culture and politics magazine based in San Francisco, www.hyphenmagazine.com.