“Miss New India” contains the story of Anjali (Angie) Bose, who grows from sheltered nineteen-year-old in a backwater India town into a sadder but wiser young woman with growing skills and ambition. It embraces a much larger canvas, though, nothing less than the dizzyingly rapid modernization of the second most populous nation on Earth. Angie Bose’s journey opens this transformation before our eyes, cutting a clear slice for us and laying it on a slide for our microscopes.
Growing up quietly, steeped in traditional middle-class (and middle-caste) Indian virtues, Anjali, from the northeastern Indian state of Bihar, learns good, accentless American English, and shows a spark of intelligence. She gets an associate degree in business and hopes the husband her father finds for her can be intelligent, good-looking, and kindly. Unfortunately her betrothed young man mistreats her badly - criminally - in their one brief meeting, and she escapes to modern, bustling, 21st-century Bangalore. Things don’t go very much better for her in the big city, though: at rock bottom she ends up in a holding cell in a Bangalore jail, facing every manner of threat and menace.
What a creation is Miss Anjali Bose! Pretty, innocent, lucky, unlucky, endlessly engaging, unforgettable. Author Bharati Mukherjee draws such a realistic girl; she’s nineteen going on thirteen, it seems, for much of the book. I kept waiting for her to grow up a little, get some perspective, make a mature choice for a change! Then I would cast my mind back to her origins, and the scant weeks since her emergence from her sheltered existence, and I reflect that she’s perfect. She has the exact worries, hopes, and reactions that such a girl would in real life. Congratulations and laurel wreaths to Ms. Mukherjee on her perfect creation.
Through this endearing and frustrating heroine, the author shows us the wrenching changes now contorting India and changing its face. In graphic detail: the closed, insular town with its backward-looking mores, the mod big-city aspirations, and the mod-big-city criminality. The flooding of India with apparently limitless new rupees (lakhs and crores of them!) brings with it every new convenience and technology, and unfortunately every new kind of venality, too. Some plot elements seem, on surface, over-contrived – Angie’s falling in with a vastly wealthy family, the spurious international terrorist roommate, her serendipitous relationship with the entrepreneur Girish, the looting of the crumbling Raj-era estate – but these chances and drawbacks represent the new chances that India is taking with itself. May she ride a hot streak to glory!
It’s been quite a while since I met a character as charming and demanding of our attention as Angie Bose. I trust she will make thousands more readers as besotted with her as I am. Watch for this publication in May, and don’t let it go by. It will clearly be worth your attention for its great virtues: its unblinking look into modern India, and its main achievement, the quirky, delicious heroine.