How could she explain to Mr. Champion how difficult - how impossible - it was for a daughter in a family like hers to just up and leave town except as the bride of a man her father had hand-picked? Why did family honor and fatherly duty involve his shackling her to a stranger when he had already proved himself so fallible? It was her life he was threatening to ruin next. Her father had a simple explanation: "It is not a question of happiness, yours or ours. It's about our name, our family reputation." Even at nineteen, Anjali was determined not to yield her right to happiness.
Mr. Champion, oblivious to what she had to contend with at home, was back to smiling. Maybe all Americans were inscrutable in that way. You couldn't tell what they really thought. Maybe he hadn't noticed her little lie; maybe he'd noticed but forgiven her. She sailed through life with a blithe assumption that she would be forgiven.
"Remember what I told you. India's leaving towns like this in the dust. You've got prospects." He shifted a heavy jute shopping sack strapped to the back seat of his scooter and patted the empty space. An overripe orange tumbled out of the bag into the gutter. Two crows and a pariah dog zeroed in on the smashed fruit. "Hop on, Angie."
If Gauripur was that doomed, why hadn't he left?
"I'll give you a ride to your house if you don't mind stopping off at my place while I put this stuff away." He retightened the strap around the jute sack. "There's fish at the bottom."
She liked the idea of not having to go right back home to her father's bullying and her mother's tearful silence. They were obsessed with finding a respectable son-in-law who would overlook negatives such as green eyes, a stubborn personality, and a nominal dowry. Her father blamed her for his lack of matchmaking success. Usually he pointed to her T-shirts and jeans: "What you wear, how you talk, no wonder! What good boy is going to look twice?"
Plenty, Baba, she could have retorted but didn't. She was not lacking for admirers. Boys were attracted to her, though she did little enough to encourage them. She knew what her father meant, though: prospective bridegrooms - "good boys" from good families - would back off.
With her sandaled toe, Angie traced a deep dent on Mr. Champion's scooter. The strappy sandal was the same shade of lilac as her painted toenails. She knew she had pretty feet, small, high-arched, narrow. He had to have noticed. "Looks like you need a new set of wheels, Mr. Champion," she teased.
The American wiped the passenger seat with the sleeve of his kurta. "Don't wait until it's too late."
He didn't understand her struggles; how could any aging, balding American with tufts of nose hair do so? She had one, and only one, legitimate escape route out of Gauripur: arranged marriage to a big-city-based bridegroom. That B. Comm. degree would increase her stock in the marriage market.
"Okey-dokey, Mr. Champion." She laughed, easing herself in place beside the jute sack on the passenger seat. Let the sidewalk throngs stare; let the crowds part for the young unmarried woman on the back of the bachelor American's scooter. When the word got out, as it inevitably would, that Anjali Bose, daughter of "Railways Bose" of Indian Railways, sister of a working-woman divorcee, was riding off in plain sight, with her arms around the stomach of a foreigner, her parents would find it harder to make a proper-caste Bengali matrimonial match for her. So be it.
"And I've got someone I'd like you to meet," he said.
"You are inviting me to go to your flat, Mr. Champion?" She tried not to sound shocked.
It would not be her first visit to her teacher's home. Mr. Champion offered an English conversation course on Saturday mornings, and an advanced English conversational skills course on Sunday afternoons, at his apartment. Anjali had completed both courses twice, as had a dozen ambitious male da Gama students hoping to improve their chances of getting into professional schools in engineering or medicine or business management. A few of Mr. Champion's students were now doctors in their early thirties, waiting for immigrant visas to Canada or Australia.
Excerpted from Miss New India by Bharati Mukherjee. Copyright © 2011 by Bharati Mukherjee. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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