The following are excerpts from my interview with The Library Thing, by Jeremy Dibbell. For the full interview, click here.
Q: “Miss New India bears a resemblance to a long line of other works where a young person from a rural area goes into the big city in search of things new and different: how do you see this work fitting in with similarly themed works set in different times and places, and how is Anjali’s experience different?
BM: The story of Anjali’s belief in her inalienable right to personal happiness and her pursuit of that right, which propels her from her hometown to a far-off, thriving, expanding metropolis is my story as well as that of Anjali, of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. We’re currently witnessing contemporary American versions of that drama as hundreds of thousands of documented and undocumented migrants, yearning a better life, cross our porous borders.
That yearning is universal. But Anjali’s specific response is shaped by her psychological make-up, her cultural upbringing, and the where and the when of her journey of self-discovery. In Miss New India I braided Anjali’s coming-of-age story with the drama of India’s immense self-transformation over the last fifty years.
Where: If Anjali had been raised in a cosmopolitan mega-city, such as Mumbai, she would not have had to migrate in search of jobs. If she had been born in a remote village, she would probably not have had the untested sense of self-worth necessary for breaking with age-old tradition; certainly she would not have had the English-language fluency required of “call-center” employees. At the start of the novel, Anjali is an urban teenager with urban ambitions, stuck—she fears--in Gauripur, a provincial town with a stagnant economy and limited opportunity (other than “arranged marriage”) for a young woman with middling education born into a patriarchal family of modest means. Her impatience with the shabby future that Gauripur can offer her, propels her to seek better quality of life elsewhere.
When: Anjali’s personal quest for self-fulfillment coincides with economic boom-time in today’s India. The global corporate practice of “outsourcing” has transformed Bangalore, which was a “cantonment town” during the British Raj, into an ever-expanding, overcrowded IT-“hub city” with a population of 8.4 million. “Call-centers” attract young women and men, often from provincial towns with sluggish economy, to work the phones as “customer service agents.” The pay is good, and most of the young employees are out of the censorious reach of their traditional families for the first time in their lives. They feel empowered by their financial independence, and are not at all afraid to improvise rules to live happily by. Globalized economy has brought seismic changes to Indian society. Anjali’s quest would not have been feasible if she had been born a generation earlier.
Personality: Though Anjali and her older sister, Sonali, were brought up in the same strictly traditional family, they respond very differently to their desires for a better, happier life. Sonali stifles her dreams, and after a brief protest, submits to an “arranged marriage” to the bridegroom her father has selected. Though this marriage ends in heartbeak, divorce and single motherhood, she values tradition. Anjali gives her father a chance to find her a “suitable” bridegroom, but when her father fails again, she has the guts to take control of her own future, undeterred by the pain and disgrace she knows her middle-of-the-night flight from home will cause her parents.
A significant feature of my mapping the arc of Anjali’s narrative is that I’m writing of a “new India” that is still evolving by the minute. I’m not writing about a fixed moment in history. The joint-story of India and Anjali isn’t over. That’s what’s excites me as a novelist.
Q: The Indian call centers as described seem like fascinating places. Did you visit many in doing the research fir this book, and how did you feel about what you saw there? (Or, if you didn’t visit, can you describe the research process?)