Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Miss New India" by Bharati Mukherjee

Nineteen-year-old Anjali Bose is an ambitious girl born into a traditional lower-middle class family in tiny Gauripaur, India. Successful in school with an aptitude for languages, especially English, Anjali is facing what she has been dreading for a while - an arranged marriage. But Anjali's expat teacher, Peter Champion, sees a spark in Anjali that needs to be nurtured and he encourages her to set off for Bangalore, India's fastest-growing major metropolis.


In Bangalore, Anjali quickly falls into the huge, highly ambitious crowd of other young men and women who have come from all over the country to get jobs as call-centre agents. They spend their time immersing themselves in American culture, shopping and partying, learning the right accents from television shows so they can pass themselves off as American on the phones, meanwhile earning more than their parents could ever have dreamed of.


Anjali sees her opportunity to Bangalore to leave her past behind and reinvent herself, breaking free from the traditions of class, caste and gender. But she quickly discovers that modernity has its dark side and if she isn't careful, it will pull her under.


Miss New India, by Bharati Mukherjee, is a fascinating look at contemporary India, it's place in the world and the young people who are behind it's growth. Bangalore is known as the Silicon Valley of India, a place where many American companies are outsourcing their customer service jobs and because of that is experiencing rapid growth and an influx of people from all over the country in hopes of benefitting from the growth.


The main character, Anjali Bose, is so simple she's complex. Inexperienced and naive, the reader will find her frustrating and fascinating. She's an intelligent girl in book smarts but not in street smarts. She has ambitions but doesn't know how to achieve them. As you discover Bangalore along with her, you'll find yourself wondering why she is making the decisions she does. She quickly makes some interesting and powerful friends in Bangalore and you'll wonder what it is that has attracted them to her. She seems to lack all the qualities that these people would be looking for.


I was expecting this book to be more about the world of call-centre agents, these "Miss New India's." While the contrasts between the old and new India are fascinating, a lot of it seems rushed. Anjali finds herself in some pretty tough situations that seem to be wrapped up rather neatly given their extreme nature.


The book definitely takes a turn I wasn't expecting and veers away from what I thought it would be about. But it is still a fascinating look at a world we know of (don't we all assume that when we call a customer support line, we're calling India?) but don't really know much about. Mukherjee is a fantastic writer and makes India jump off the page.

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