Nineteen-year-old Anjali Bose, the lead character in Bharati Mukherjee’s new novel, is a small-town girl who longs for something more than what her life in Guaripur has brought her. Her parents are hoping to find her a suitable husband and are taking steps to present her to the marriage market. Her teacher, on the other hand, is hoping that Anjali’s knack for American English will help her find a place in the newly thriving city of Bangalore. Anjali herself draws her dreams from Bollywood films and can’t quite decide what path will bring the love, the glamour, the independence, and the joy she sees on the movie screen. For the most part, she lets circumstance guide her steps, and it takes her places she’d never expect in this sometimes madcap look at life in modern India. Mukhergee’s Bangalore is a place of call centers, lively coffee shops, young women with designer clothes, other young women just scraping by, traditionalists clinging to past glories, and modern entrepreneurs looking to make money through legitimate businesses or perhaps something on the shady side.
The success of this book largely rests on the characterization of Anjali, and I thought Mukhergee wonderfully depicted the internal conflict a young woman like her might feel. Anjali is not the smartest woman in the world, but a lot of her obtuseness—often played for comic effect—comes down not to a lack of intelligence but to a lack of experience and education. She’s always taking English-language idioms literally, for example. According to her American teacher, her English is actually very good, but she gets flustered. Anjali is also dangerously naive and tends to take people at face value, which sometimes gets her into ridiculous jams that she only gets out of because others are inexplicably fascinated by her. She’s a frustrating character in the way so many slightly daffy characters tend to be, but she’s also a well-written one. The only thing about her characterization that bugged me was the way so many people seemed to gravitate to her. I couldn’t quite get her appeal to the other characters. I don’t mind reading about someone like her, but I wouldn’t enjoy spending time with her.
On the surface, the book reads as an over-the-top comic coming-of-age story. It’s fun and full of goofy twists, some of which are resolved a little too neatly. There are also some interesting musings about the search for identity and about relations between the sexes. But it’s not particularly deep. I wondered, though, if it might also be read as a metaphor for India itself, if Anjali might represent India as it makes its own transition. The characters in the book frequently talk about the present and future of India. They debate whether it’s good for the Bangalore economy to be so reliant on American industry. And they wonder what it does to the young women of the country to be told they have to hide their accents and cultivate American personas and interests to be acceptable customer service representatives. Anjali does much the same thing to be deemed acceptable to Bangalore society before she ever trains to answer phones. She starts calling herself Angie, sets aside her rural past, and claims a more typical history as a girl from Kolkata.
Anjali’s relationships with men could also be read as similar to India’s relationship with America, as depicted in this novel. She does what men seem to expect of her, but she starts to wonder whether she’s prostituting herself. The men need her for sex, for ego strokes, for their art, and so on—and she gets their help and support in return, but is she losing herself? Is India losing itself? Should some elements of the past—whether it’s Anjali’s past or India’s—be laid fully aside in order to make room for new ways? These questions are complex, and looking at Miss New India through this lens gave the book more depth and interest than I found in a face-value reading. These are the questions that I’ll remember when I think about this book.