Bangalore Chick Lit Review: New Miss India

The New Miss India Winners 2011
Is it me, or is there something a bit creepy about the photo at left?  Those are the winners of the 2011 Miss India contest, announced a month ago.  Kanishtha Dhankhar, at center with the big tiara, is Miss India World 2011.  She's in good company- Lara Dutta, Priyanka Chopra, Dia Mirza, Sushmita Sen, and of course, Aishwarya Rai are all alumni of the Miss India beauty pageant.  I digress into beauty pageants only slightly.  Having just returned from vacation with plenty of time to read on long flights, I checked out the new book of one of my favorite authors, Bharati Mukherjee.  When I was googling to find a cover image for New Miss India I stumbled upon coverage of the Miss India pageant.  

New Miss India follows the path of Anjali Bose, who uses her striking beauty and English language skills to escape from Gauripur, Bihar.  After a spate of family drama, abuse by a potential suitor, and recognition of the lack of a future in her hometown, she makes her way to Bangalore.  Although New Miss India is about Anjali and the historical circumstances that make it possible for her to leave her home, family, and caste relations to make a career for herself (with the possibility of making more money then her parents could have dreamed of),  Mukherjee is trying to map out what it means for India and Indian female identity that call centers in places like Bangalore exist.  At times she masterfully bridges both the personal and the cultural; at times it descends into good old fashioned chick lit.  But we'll make that Bangalore chick lit- this story couldn't exist in London or LA.

Mukherjee's New Book
Anjali is a punchy, spunky character with a solid case of naivete tempered only by relentless optimism.  Generally she's likable (although primarily engrossed with finding a cute boyfriend, hence the chick lit classification).  Struggling with a metaphorical case of split personality (Anjali when she's feeling Indian and provincial, Angie when she's feeling worldly and confident), she finds an excellent mirror in the city of Bangalore itself.  The book hosts an interesting cast of characters- the gay expat teacher who gets Anjali to Bangalore, her fellow Bangalore roommates (a crazy bunch also suffering from split personality), the decaying legacy of the British Raj who happens to be the woman running Anjali's boarding house, the upper class Bangalore family looking to rescue her from herself, and the requisite terrorist.  There are some younger men too- they're mostly looking to get laid.

One of Anjali's flirtations is a columnist; his articles frame the book's major themes.  He describes those who win the Miss India contest and are destined for Bollywood as rather useless, "Bollywood has no use for India's women, apart from ornamentation."  These beauty-pageant-Bollywood-heroines are a totally different breed from the young women he sees flooding into Bangalore, "They don't simper, they don't dance... our torpid institutions-- like Bollywood standards of compliance-- will try to beat them down, but that train has already left the station" (189).  He is looking for, and has fallen for, women like Anjali.  

Although Anjali has a solid education and important friends in the right places, she primarily uses her beauty as a way to attract attention and influence people.  Moreover, she sees her beauty as her greatest asset, not recognizing that her feisty character and ability to think on her feet are the two things propelling her through difficult circumstances.  She is also habitually rescued by well-meaning people (mostly men).  I shouldn't complain, really- I'm the one who defined this as chick lit in the first place.  

But for an engaging summer read to take to the beach, this is a go-to.