The very first time Anjali showed up for Mr. Champion's Saturday conversation class, she had been severely disappointed with how little he owned in the way of furniture and appliances. No refrigerator, no television, no air conditioner, no crates of carbonated soft drinks. He owned a music system, professional-looking tape-recording equipment, and a bulky laptop and printer. Wooden office chairs and a pile of overstuffed cushions served as extra seating. Dozens of Indian books in every language were stacked on a brick-and-plank bookcase. A divan that surely doubled as his bed was pushed alongside a wall. Anjali had expected a professor's home to be shabby, but a shabby portal of learning, crammed with leather-bound books by world-renowned authors.
Anjali had been the only girl in those classes. She had been brought up to revere her elders and teachers, but whenever she visited Mr. Champion's place, she'd imagined his shame: the rooms were so barren, so like a servant's quarters. Some Saturday afternoons the sheets on the divan still looked mussed. She was embarrassed to be in a room with a man's bed, with his clothes hanging from pegs on a wall as though he had undressed in front of her. His apparent loneliness depressed her; his exposure agitated her. The silence of Mr. Champion's room made the beehive drone of an Indian family seem less insane. She was not much of a homebody - according to her mother's complaints - but if it hadn't seemed too forward a gesture by the only girl student, she would have brought her teacher small house gifts, a flower vase or just a wall calendar, to make the room look cozier.
Now terra-cotta pots of blooming flowers lined the narrow walkway to Mr. Champion's back staircase. Vines hung over the stairwell, and the stairs themselves were fragrant with flowers she couldn't name in any language. Could it be the same place
"Mr. Champion! Have you gotten married?" She laughed, and from the top of the stairs he turned to her with a smile.
"Some difference, wouldn't you say?"
The door was painted bright blue. It opened inward before he could even insert the key. By then, Anjali had gained the top step, and there she faced a young man wrapped in a lungi, bare-chested, rubbing his eyes. "Jaanu," he said in a low voice, and Mr. Champion said a few words in what sounded like Urdu. Angie made out the universal "tea" and "biscuits" and maybe a version of her name.
There were cut flowers on a round table, a colorful tablecloth, and paintings nailed to the walls. There were two comfortable-looking cane chairs and a floor lamp. An old wooden almirah now held the clothes that had been hung on pegs, and bookcases ran along every wall, right up to the sleeping alcove. The bed was not made, almost as though the boy had been sleeping in it. She didn't see his sleeping mat. "Angie, this is Ali," said Mr. Champion. Then he added, "He is my friend."
Americans can do that, she thought: make friends of village Muslims. Young Ali, Mr. Champion's jaanu, his life (if the Hindi and Urdu words were congruent in meaning), a handsome enough boy if nearly black, with long hair and flaring cheekbones, had painted his fingernails bright red. He opened the almirah to find a shirt for his half-naked body. Either the shirt had been donated by Mr. Champion but still hung in the master's closet, which was cheeky enough - or else the two men shared closet space, which to her was unthinkable.
Mindful of parental wrath if she was to return home on the back of a man's bike, Anjali insisted that she would stay only a few minutes and then take a bus back. If Baba or the nosy neighbors saw her get off the bus at the stop close to home, they would suspect nothing. She wasn't ready for a screaming match with Baba. But she stayed an hour, speaking more freely of her longings than she did with her girlfriends. She didn't want marriage. Her classes were dull. She wanted something exciting, life-changing, to save her from the tedium of Gauripur. "I understand," Mr. Champion said. Ali was sent off to buy sweets. Angie had been Peter Champion's fondest project, someone very much like him, he said, who couldn't live in the small town of her birth. What a pain it is, to know that one is somehow fated to set sail for the farthest shore. "What a calling it is for someone like me," he joked, "to fill that ark with passengers."
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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