Anjali Bose is a small town girl with big city dreams. In defiance of her parent’s wishes for her to be married soon after high school, Anjali seeks bigger and better things. Her aspirations and her journey from small town Gauripur to Bangalore, 21st century India’s city of hopes and dreams, is writer Bharati Mukherjee’s final offering in a trilogy dealing with the clash of contemporary and traditional India, following Desirable Daughters and theTree Bride.
Fast paced, and with too many characters clamoring for the reader’s attention at times, Miss New India attempts to capture the zeitgeist of a young, modernizing country through Anjali’s journey, both literally and figuratively.
In Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, Anjali finds a place to stay at Ms. Minnie Bagehot’s, an Anglo-Indian landlady and certainly one of the more colorful characters of the book. Every setting in the book offers contrasting views of India. In Miss Bagehot’s house, Mukherjee portrays the old fading India of the Raj era. The Dollar colony, the ersatz American suburb transplanted in Bangalore, functions as the symbol of the new India. Anjali’s parents represent the old guard of custom, tradition, and family honor while her new friends in Bangalore represent the dynamism of the modern generation.
But Mukherjee expects the reader to accept that small town values are perforce contradictory to big town sensibilities, an assumption not even her central character seems to maintain consistently. Anjali’s characterl, despite being the focus of the story, is not well developed. Everything, from Anjali’s decision to acquiesce to being seen by prospective grooms, her bus journey across the country, her new friendships and new life in a big city, seem rushed. Her naiveté and apparent lack of confidence in some areas and brazenness in others contributes to a very foggy portrait of the character. And the many partially developed side plots—the cantankerous landlady, the gay mentor, the young American photographer friend, the roommate with dangerous liaisons—dilute the central plot and with, the character of the protagonist.
The story ends through a serious of rapidly unfolding events, some more contrived than others.
Miss New India, in trying to portray all that is happening to India—the rapid social, economic and cultural changes—perhaps offers too little in the process, quite like a 13-day 14-country tour of Europe. It might work for some, but others might prefer a meandering 7-day trip through just one country instead.
Mukherjee, however, excels in her detailed portraits of the social life and work culture in Bangalore. The reader gets a ringside seat into the everyday operations of call centers and the closely related language training institutes.
Miss New India is a primer on 21st century India to readers who are unfamiliar with the country and its culture. One gets a sampling of the traditional family mores and values, the small town mentality, and the still-present gender bias. But one also gets a good helping of the newness in Bangalore, and the fast -talking call center operators.
While offering nothing new in its story arc, Miss New India lends credence to the idea that 21st century India is the perfect muse for a story teller with all its dynamism, internal contradictions, and a billion stories within.