If you were to “Google” author Bharati Mukherjee, you would find a plethora of information regarding the Indian-born author. You would find reviews and interviews, critical essays and comments. You would read about her former works (ones praised by Amy Tan), read about how noted and acclaimed Desirable Daughters and The Tree Bride are. You would discover her past, her choice to leave India, her decision to marry while at the University of Iowa’s renowned Writer’s Workshop. You would read about her fascination with immigration and alienation. You would see her interest in India’s juxtaposed culture—one that encompasses shackling traditions and digital transformation.
When I noticed the intriguing cover of Miss New India, I grabbed it almost immediately. The “seductive pull of life in the New India” sounded exotic and exciting, especially as it came from a precise, satirical author like Mukherjee. Unsurprisingly—as Mukherjee is known for cultural suppression—the book addresses the dual-identities of independence-seeking Indian girls.
Anjali, a middle-class girl whose language skills encourage her to move to thriving, pulsating Bangalore, is the protagonist. Cultivated by her American instructor, Peter Champion, Anjali desires to be a part of the “New India,” a culture that denounces tradition. Indeed, within the first third of the book, Anjali leaves her family with the intent to become an employee at a call-center. She develops an alter-ego, an American version of herself whom she calls “Angie.” Her struggle with her own identity is thickly played out, and it isn’t uncommon to see the words, “I felt more like Angie” or “This was a moment for Anjali.” What pestered me about Anjali/Angie, however, was how unemotionally connected she was.
The novel’s characters were always busy, hurried, rushed. Though their lack of depth may be a direct correlation to fast-paced Bangalore—the Silicon Valley of India—I found that I was frustrated with many of the characters. One a terrorist, another a transsexual? There seemed to be no significant back story with which the reader could connect. The character who was most intriguing to me was Rabi, a young photographer who lived in California with his Indian parents. In fact, one of Rabi’s “little wisdoms” becomes Anjali’s mantra—“Nothing in the world is as it seems—it’s all a matter of light and angles.”
Rabi’s words push beyond the text—which, to me, was somewhat dense and awkward—and encourage the reader to think about the cultural change in India itself. It forces one to contemplate the constricting tradition of arranged marriage, while simultaneously looking at the technological revolution Westerners sometimes forget. In the end, I found Miss New India to be an excellent commentary on India and its seismic shift, its call centers and megacities and small cities and ever-impending construction. Mukherjee presents us with all the senses—the feel of crowds, the buzz of cell phones, the scent of flowers, the look of saris. I do not doubt that her other works are just as culturally interesting, just as expressive with issues like social oppression, expatriation, homosexuality and even outsourcing.
In the end, Miss New India was a somewhat-difficult novel to coast through; it is dense in content, but not in character. Anjali—with her struggles for independence and confidence—was a bit scattered and melodramatic. Her cognitive opinions occasionally distracted me from what Mukherjee was most likely trying to portray—the irony in start-ups and avatars, tyranny and contradictory societies. However, my reading experience was just a readership of one and, as we now know, “it’s all a matter of light and angles.”
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publishing Date: 2011
Formats Available: Hardcover, Kindle, Audio