Mr. Champion was in high teaching mode, in full confessional self-display. He was, he said, a man in love.
"So that explains the woman's touch," she said. "But where is she?"
"Angie, Angie." He tut-tutted.
She wondered for a moment if she herself was the woman he'd chosen and if the next words from his mouth would be "I love you, Angie, I always have, and I won't let you leave until you agree to go to America as my bride..." She had a romantic nature; she assumed any man could love her.
Bravely, she asked, "So who is this person you want me to meet?"
"You've met him, Angie."
She was left in the dark, still smiling. She hadn't seen anybody, and there was no place to hide.
"It's too late for me to leave," he said, "but for you I want the best." Is this a proposal, she wondered, and almost asked out loud, trying to help him. I'll do it! I'll make you happy! Then he said, "You must try a larger city." She'd always imagined herself in Bombay or maybe on the beaches of Goa, and so she mentioned those possibilities to him. Eventually, even in America, she thought, though she dared not say it for fear of inviting the evil eye.
"Bombay?" He laughed. "You've been seeing too many bad movies. Bombay is yesterday. It's a hustler's city. Bangalore's the place for a young woman like you."
She wondered, Is that where he's taking me? Why not? I'll go. Then: What kind of girl am I?
She knew nothing of Bangalore, a southern city as alien to her as the snows of Kashmir. Mr. Champion was back in teaching mode. He explained that for two hundred years Bangalore had been a British army base, a cantonment, and the Britishers had left a few scars - golf courses and racetracks and private gymkhanas - that moneyed Indians adopted a little too enthusiastically. But now it's a hopping place. And he had contacts in Bangalore, people who would listen to his recommendations. The call centers, luring thousands of young people from all over the country, people like her, the new people.
Ali returned with a box of sweets.
"In Bangalore," Mr. Champion said, "if you've got the talent, there's a market."
This time she asked the question that was always on her mind. "And what is my talent, Mr. Champion?"
"Peter, please. Don't you know what your talent is?"
"I haven't the p'oggiest."
"Foggiest, Angie. Initial f-sound, not p. Initial w-sound, not v, and vice versa. Wedding, not vedding. Vagaries, not wagaries. Not wice wersa. Develop, not dewellup. Keep practicing."
She could cry. They'll always find you out.
"Your talent, Angie? You have the passion. You're not satisfied. But you're still very innocent. Innocence is appealing in a young girl, but not blindness, not ignorance. Look at us." She smiled at his way of including her, but then he said, "Look closely at us, Angie, take a long look at Ali and me."
At the mention of his name, Ali smiled and began to dance. The boy was a good dancer; he must have seen a hundred movies. And then Peter stood and put his arm over Ali's shoulder, and Ali nestled his head against Peter's cheek.
A clash of emotions met the dawn of consciousness: she could have screamed, but instead she whimpered, barely above a breath, "Oh."
Peter went on about places in Bangalore where she could stay. He knew old women from the British days who let out rooms in old mansions in the middle of the city, houses that could have been sold for crores of rupees (and leveled, their tangled gardens hacked down for parking lots and swimming pools), but where would the old women go? Old Anglo-Indian women whose children had fled to Australia or Canada, whose grandchildren would never see India, dotty old women whose sense of decorum reached back to pre-Independence days and who ("Believe me!" he laughed) would never be sympathetic to India's freedom fighters and independence, but who nevertheless offered rooms and breakfasts of tea and toast and suppers of mutton stew at 1970s prices. Much was forgivable in such women. A place in Kew Gardens or Kent Town, that's what Angie needed. And he knew the women who ran the new money-spinning call centers were always looking for girls with good English and soothing voices who could fool American callers (I can do that? she was about to ask. I'm good enough to fool Americans?) into thinking they're talking to a girl in Boston or Chicago.
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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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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