What was the inspiration for Miss New India? In previous interviews, you had mentioned visiting Bangalore and meeting call center customer specialists … can you elaborate on that? Did the character take shape over time or was it any one person who provided the creative spark?
I visited Bangalore many times. A first cousin of mine also lives there; she used to work for the UN, and later bought some land and built a house in Dollar Colony [ed: a place that is mentioned in the book], a place where people could reserve land only with international currency. Only expats who could afford it would buy there.
I have always been interested in immigration, but what I was witnessing in India now was a seismic social change, in gender relations and in social relations. There is now internal migration in India—people from small towns, like Anjali, who would never go to an IIT, or Yale, but still have the opportunity to strike it big in the metropolises of India.
People like Anjali attend missionary schools, learn English, and want to go places that their parents wouldn’t have even dreamed of. I was witnessing, on these trips, a whole new middle-class emerging—young women from modest backgrounds, whose only escape would have been marriage, moving to a big city, interested in adventures for themselves, with no chaperones, no community to show their disapproval; I got to know a lot of them during my visits. Some stayed at Anglo-Indian boarding houses; some were pooling their resources together and renting apartments. I made several trips to get to know these women. I also got to know the trainers who work at call center training centers. Some trainers whom I’d met on my first trip to Bangalore had already moved on and started their own training business the next time I met them!
What I hope I have gotten across through the book is that there are both winners and losers in the new India. There are the young Anjalis who have significant disposable incomes and seem to be caught up by the wave of consumerism. There is this sense that I have made it, I can go to the mall, and buy a Versace or a Gucci with my salary, my money. Their parents would not have been able to do it.
But there is also corruption and land grabbing. I recently read in the New York Times about the farmlands are being compromised and being sold off for commercial real estate. Also, even though I hadn’t interviewed anybody that was raped I have read about the gang raping of women employed in call centers in places like Gurgaon.
There is both corruption and empowerment. I have tried to capture both in the book.
Was there any one individual in particular whom you’d met that provided the backdrop for Anjali’s character?
There was a young woman who came with her parents for high tea to my cousin’s place. The parents thought I might know of Silicon Valley bridegrooms for their daughter. The conversation was flowing well, until all of a sudden, the father and the daughter started quarrelling. The girl must have been in her late 20s. She told me that she would come back and visit me the next day. She did come back and poured out her story, about her dreams and ambitions, about how she bought a condo for her parents and yet the power dynamics between parents and children had not changed. Parents continue to control their adult children’s social activities. She told me how women of her age were no longer interested in marriage as the only goal in life, but rather as one of many goals. Her story is not Anjali’s story, but hers and the many others that I later encountered on my trips to India provided the initial sparks for Miss New India.
I also interviewed venture capitalists who had started companies in India.
As an essayist or a sociologist, you write about general trends. But as a novelist, you write about a single character that seems ordinary but has extraordinary interests. This is what I tried to do with Anjali.
Minnie is a very interesting character. Miss Minnie Bagehot reminded me of Mrs. Harter, our neighbor in Ooty who lived in an old bungalow. How did this character take shape for you?
Oh, I have known several of them all my life! In Kolkota, where I grew up, there were many such Anglo-Indian ladies. In Bangalore though, they seem to be a dying breed. Again, I wouldn’t say that everything in the book is a perfect reflection of reality. After all, it takes memories and imagination to transform perceived reality into fiction.
Did you actually sit-in on a training session for “accent enhancement” at the training centers?
I didn’t sit through a training session. But I did spend much time with the trainers and got many hours of interviews with them. I also pored through their training manuals.
In your research did you find that the new corporate culture or even the sub-culture of Bangalore erased or disguised class, caste, and communal lines? Would you characterize it as positive or is it merely a superficial thing?
There are seemingly two corporate models in Bangalore—the old traditional business model and the new IT corporate culture, which in turn seems to be a replica of Silicon Valley. The IT city in Bangalore is in fact called Silicon City! There is much more fluidity and interaction between different ranks of people in the new IT culture, which contrasts with the structured tier-conscious culture of the old business model. Also, pay scales today are very different. In the IT corporate culture, it really doesn’t matter where you come from. Caste or class doesn’t matter as much as your ability to get the job done! I found that very striking. But of course, this new corporate culture still has to contend with poor roads, and outdated infrastructure.
What kind of a reaction has the book received so far from the Indian audience in India or in the United States?
Back in May, USA TODAY named it one of 10 must-read books. The book has already been featured on a number of book blogs, clubs, reading groups.
I think what the Indian audience likes about the book is the main characters’ belief in their right to happiness. Also, the book deals with the idea of immigration in reverse. People like Peter Champion, a white American who immigrates to India; or people like Parvati and Auro who move back to India, or even Anjali, who migrates internally, within India. These are themes that resonate with the Indian audience.
Do you see yourself writing more about the new India?
I really couldn’t tell you what sparks the idea for a new novel. Writing a novel is a major undertaking. Currently, I am working on two projects—the very beginnings of a novel and a collection of stories.
Any books that you read recently that have really caught your interest?
I plan to read Solo by Rana Dasgupta. With all the flying that I do between San Francisco and New York, I expect to find some reading time in flight!
I am thrilled that Indian writers in English are now moving on from subjects related to India or the immigrant experience and taking on whole new projects. The trouble, say 15 years ago, was that people treated Indian fiction about India or the immigrant experience as sociology or ethnography. Writers like me had to persuade people to see past the ethnography and treat our work as literature and imaginative work. We had to say, if you want to read about tribes, then read scholarly work.
Is it easier to get published these days if you’re Indian American? How is this different from when you started out?
There is a sense now, and quite rightly so, that very fine literature is coming out of India, and the Indian diaspora. This did not exist when I started out. But at the same time with all the problems that the publishing industry in general is going through right now, I just don’t know if books as we know them will exist anymore. When some publishing companies are being owned by oil conglomerates, who knows what shapes books will take.
I think that we now have a large group of Anglophone writers of Indian origin. English was a foreign language that history bestowed on us Indians. If India had been colonized by Germans, then we would have had Indian writing in German instead. But since London and New York are major hubs of the publishing industry they are able to discover Indian writers who write in English. However, finding a market for translated manuscripts is that much harder because the industry does not seem to be interested.
What kind of advice would you offer fledgling writers amongst the readers of India Currents? What do you tell your students?
I tell my students to read as much as they can and to write with passion; if you don’t have passion, then writing is simply going to be an exercise; it will also end up seeming like an exercise. In my creative writing workshops, I urge my students to read, read, read; you don’t always have to read works of writers who write like you … you can learn from both good books and bad books.
I would like to hear your take on recent debates in India about who can write the big India book? Do you have any comments on that?
I thought India Calling by Anand Giridharadas, [ed: see the August 2011 issue of India Currents] was a very moving book and I enjoyed it very much.
Girija Sankar lives in Atlanta and works in the area of International Development.