Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Pub date: 17 May 2011
Source: ARC from Publisher via NetGalley
This is the story of on young girl who runs away from home to the city where her dreams can come true – Bangalore. Reading about a subject that I am geographically and emotionally close to makes it difficult for me to do either one of the following: 1. objectively view the story or 2. completely immerse myself in it. But thanks to Mukherjee’s expert story-telling – immerse myself I did.
Synopsis (From NetGalley)
Anjali Bose is “Miss New India.” Born into a traditional lower-middle-class family and living in a backwater town with an arranged marriage on the horizon, Anjali’s prospects don’t look great. But her ambition and fluency in language do not go unnoticed by her expat teacher, Peter Champion. And champion her he does, both to other powerful people who can help her along the way and to Anjali herself, stirring in her a desire to take charge of her own destiny.
So she sets off to Bangalore, India’s fastest-growing major metropolis, and quickly falls in with an audacious and ambitious crowd of young people, who have learned how to sound American by watching shows like Seinfeld in order to get jobs as call-center service agents, where they are quickly able to out-earn their parents. And it is in this high-tech city where Anjali—suddenly free from the traditional confines of class, caste, gender, and more—is able to confront her past and reinvent herself. Of course, the seductive pull of modernity does not come without a dark side…
This was a completely engrossing read. The author is a masterful story-teller with great attention to detail. She introduces wonderful characters to us and I love that so many of them have been written with so much meat to them. I could identify with them easily – both within the reality of this story and in a more universal sense. The theme that Mukherjee has tackled in this story is also something that most Indians will see as important for various reasons. The outsourcing boom that led to lots of job opportunities opening up a whole new world to India’s youth is a well-known story. In New Miss India, we follow the adventures of one of these young women, Anjali, who ran away from an arranged marriage to find her fortune.
Small town Anjali had a lot to learn before she could fit in with the crowd – not only are all the young people in the city living double lives – Jyothi/Jennifer, Dharmendra/Darren – they also have to live their lives sort of as outsiders, the migrants. Having lived in Bangalore all my life, I have seen it change from small sleepy town to trying to be a big city. These young pioneers who have come from all over the country have made the economic progress and development possible.
This novel tells a coming of age story – not just Anjali’s growing up, but also a coming of age of Bangalore and India in a sense.
And Anjali’s sense of culture shock is what made me realize the different ways in which life has changed in what is no longer a sleepy cantonment town.
Coming back to the wonderful characters I mentioned earlier – we meet two distinct types and a whole slew in between.
The young people who have moved here are far from family. They have a lot of spending power. Rather removed from anything that can give them grounding, they are each trying to find meaning and entertainment in different ways. Partying, hanging out, dating multiple partners, having the latest in fashion – these seem to be the petty goals of many of the characters in the story.
On the other hand, there are those who have come far away from home to earn money and send it back home. There are also the highly ambitious and professional people, who have taken advantage of the burgeoning opportunities to set up meaningful businesses.
I liked Anjali for her spirit and determination. The family that takes her in towards the end of the book and become a second family to her are also among my favorite characters. Anjali comes across as petty and manipulative at times. But she did get under my skin and I was rooting for her to both grow up and find her footing in a world that could not be easy for her.
My personal knowledge of the set-up of this story makes me extremely nit-picky. And while some of the portrayal of people and stereotypes did not sit well with me, this is a story with its own merit.
My biggest issue with the story is that it can’t really be placed in time accurately. At times it feels like the initial boom time (about 10-15 years ago) and at others it feels more contemporary (today). There are some factual errors which also rankle a bit. There is some mention of driving past Starbucks – there is no Starbucks in Bangalore, in fact I think, anywhere in India. There are a few other small issues like this one, and any Bangalorean who reads the book will catch them immediately.
I have to say that I haven’t heard any of the BPO/call center crowd talk in quite the fashion that the author has portrayed. The lingua franca is more usually Hinglish (a mix of Hindi and English). People tend to get together with other people who speak their language. But I’m glad that the book did not imitate that style of speech since I find it painful to read.
New Miss India is a thought-provoking read and found myself thinking of it for quite some time after I finished it.
Definitely recommended read for any fan of literary fiction. Especially highly recommended for anyone who is interested in contemporary Indian stories.
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