When Pinky Mahal failed, the spirit of Gauripur was crushed.
Then the call came again, slightly revised: "Angie!"
Mr. Champion pulled his scooter into the safety of the gutter, and Anjali towered above him, standing on the high edge of the cracked sidewalk. She hadn't seen much of her former teacher in the twelve months since she'd graduated from Vasco da Gama High School and enrolled in Vasco da Gama College's B. Comm. program. During that time he'd grown a reddish beard speckled with gray. A patched book bag was slung over his shoulder, and he still wore his trademark handloom cotton kurta over blue jeans. From her elevated vantage point, she saw that his hair was thinning. Mosquitoes buzzed over the bald spot. They landed, but he appeared not to notice.
He had to be over fifty, considering that he'd been in Bihar for nearly thirty years, but was still so slim and energetic that he seemed boyish. All American men - within the tiny compass of her experience - seemed boyish. Her father, a railway clerk, was younger than Mr. Champion but looked older. It was impossible to think of her stout father, with his peremptory voice and officious manners, in anything but the role of upholstered patriarch. He would never wear a wrinkled shirt in public or shirtsleeves to the office, and he had never owned blue jeans.
"I thought you were leaving," the American said. Then, with more emphasis, "In fact, I thought you told me you were leaving, and that was months ago."
When in doubt, smile. She smiled. "I like your beard, Mr. Champion."
"I'm not your teacher anymore, Anjali. You can call me Peter."
"Only if you call me Angie."
She'd had a secret crush on her teacher her last three years at Vasco da Gama High School, though, like all other da Gama students speaking to teachers, she'd addressed him as sir and Mr. Champion to his face, and as "the American" behind his back. He was the only layman under sixty and the only white man in the school run by Goan and South Indian priests.
"Angie, why are you still here?"
It was a question she often asked herself. She could more easily visualize herself in a fancy Mumbai café overlooking the Gateway of India, stirring a foamy pink falooda with a long spoon in a frosty glass, than nibbling spicy savories from a street vendor in Gauripur, something she had been about to do when Mr. Champion startled her.
"I might ask the same of you, sir - I mean, Peter," she retorted, grateful that her lips and chin weren't greasy from eating deep-fried pakoras.
"Same as you, Angie. Studying."
It was their special joke: although he earned his living as a teacher, one in fact openly admired for having introduced a popular course on U.S. business models and advertising strategies with supplementary units on American culture and idiom, he considered himself "a perennial student." But not like typical Indian students, those driven rote learners with one obsessive goal: admission to an Indian Institute of Technology. A lifetime of prosperity and professional success or poverty and shame depended on how relentlessly they crammed for national entrance examinations.
"I thought you said you had to get out if you wanted to stay sane."
"There were weddings." She lied. "My sister got married. I couldn't just pick up and leave." A spontaneous untruth; it just slipped out.
He frowned and she felt a liar's momentary panic. Maybe she'd already used the wedding excuse, and forgotten. Family weddings and funerals are the incontestable duties and rituals of Indian life. There's always a sister or cousin being married off, an ailing uncle being nursed, a great-uncle being mourned.
Truthfully, Angie had a sister. Her name was Sonali, and she had been married five years before to a bridegroom whose ad and picture in the matrimonial column of a Bangla-language local newspaper had met Sonali's, and their father's, approval. Now Sonali was a divorced single mother, living with her four-year-old daughter in a one-room flat in Patna, the nearest large city, and working as steno-typist-bookkeeper for the stingy owner of a truck-rental company. The bridegroom was discovered, too late, to be a heavy drinker and philanderer. But when Sonali had finally got up her nerve to institute divorce proceedings, their father had turned against her for wreaking on the Bose family the public shame of divorce.
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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