A Parable of the New India

Book Review, The New York Times Book Review

MISS NEW INDIA
By Bharati Mukherjee
328 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $25.

Nations are narratives. Every country is shaped by its particular set of ideas and myths. Inevitably these are simplifications, often clichés, but they hold a country together, imposing a certain coherence on diverse populations.

The narrative of modern India has changed over the last few decades. For much of its post-independence history, India epitomized the concept of the Third World. It was a land of desolate poverty and immutable hierarchy — “an area of darkness,” in the memorable title of V. S. Naipaul’s first book about the country; a place of “heat and dust,” in the only slightly less dismal title of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s 1975 novel. But now India is moving on, and so is the Indian narrative. The country has grown rapidly since the early 1990s, when its stultified socialist economy began to be reformed. Today, as India has become an increasingly confident world power, the old stories are being replaced by new ones — many equally clichéd — about boundless opportunity, tremendous wealth, social mobility and technological prowess.

Bharati Mukherjee’s eighth novel indulges in many of these new clichés. The heroine of “Miss New India” is a young woman, Anjali Bose, who escapes the constrictions of small-town Bihar, one of India’s most backward states, for the promise of Bangalore, one of the country’s (and the world’s) fastest growing cities. There she works at a call center, falls in love, meets dynamic young entrepreneurs and marvels at the fortunes being made all around her. She encounters her share of hardships — police brutality, real-estate sharks — but ultimately succeeds in reinventing herself.

As its title suggests, then, “Miss New India” is a kind of parable for the new nation. This parable is not without its pleasures: Mukherjee’s writing can be evocative, even poetic. Her descriptions of Anjali’s cultural dislocation are often marked by a keen psychological acuity. The problem is that the novel’s plot unfolds in an almost wholly predictable manner. Mukherjee’s often fine prose style is ill-served by a certain thematic and narrative conservatism, an apparent inability to look beyond the received and by now broadly disseminated platitudes that have come to define the “New India” (itself something of a platitude, since the nation remains a churning and often bewildering mix of the old and the new, the archaic and the modern).

Mukherjee’s tendency to rehash conventional wisdom is most evident in her descriptions of Bangalore, a city that in the popular imagination, both domestic and foreign, has come to represent something of an ur-metaphor for 21st-century India. Mukherjee’s Bangalore (or “Bang-a-Buck,” as one character insists on calling it) is an all-too-familiar caricature. It is “roaringly capitalistic,” “the new center of the universe,” a “go-for-broke, rule-bending, forget-about-yesterday, and let’s-blow-it-all” place populated by tech-savvy, “hyperconfident” young Indians who speak in exaggerated American accents and have replaced the abstemiousness of an earlier generation with the titillations of casual sex, alcohol and nightclubs.

These portrayals aren’t wholly inaccurate. (Although the book does contain the occasional error: Starbucks, a company whose “wondrous” logo excites visions of sophistication in Anjali, has not yet set up shop in India.) Bangalore is indeed an impressive place, but Mukherjee’s shining, prosperous version of the city is a gross simplification, a tiny slice of the modern Indian experience. It is also a little facile in a country where millions remain hungry and in poverty, and where a majority is still shut out from the tremendous wealth and opportunity being seized by a tiny elite. (Consider, for example, that in a country of almost 1.2 billion people, only around two million are employed by the technology and outsourcing sectors, industries whose success has recently shaped public perceptions of the society at large.)

Fortunately, the novel improves as Mukherjee shifts her attention from social commentary to the particulars of Anjali’s experiences in Bangalore. In earlier novels like “Jasmine” and “Desirable Daughters,” Mukherjee has written movingly about the migrant experience, and she is clearly on familiar (and firmer) ground when charting Anjali’s struggle to orient herself in a world unlike the one she has known before. Anjali’s complexity, gradually revealed as the novel progresses, belies the predictability and superficiality of the fictional landscape she inhabits.

“She’d seen this movie a hundred times,” Mukherjee writes early on, soon after Anjali arrives in Bangalore. It’s an apt — if curious — summary of the novel as a whole, which often feels a little rehearsed, a recitation of the middle-class fantasies and myths that have increasingly defined India. That kind of mythmaking is well suited to the project of nation building. The tremendous optimism and energy of modern India are to a significant extent strengthened by the country’s self-regarding illusions. But literature should go deeper — below the surface of conventional wisdom, beyond the simple (and simplistic) stories that nations like to tell themselves.

Akash Kapur’s nonfiction book about India, “India Becoming,” will be published next March.

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