At nineteen, Anjali Bose was a tall girl, one hundred and seventy-three centimeters - five foot eight - taller than most boys in her college. She was on the girls' field hockey team. She smiled readily and when she did, she could light up a room like a halogen lamp. The conventional form of Indian femininity projects itself through long-lashed, kohl-rimmed, startled black eyes. Modest women know to glance upward from a slightly bowed head. Anjali did not take in the world with saucer-eyed passivity. Her light, greenish eyes were set off by high cheekbones and prominent brows. Her face resolved itself along a long jaw and generous mouth, with full lips and prominent teeth. Her parents, looking to the day they would have to marry her off, worried openly about her overly assertive features. But the rare foreigners who passed through town, health workers or financial aid consultants for international agencies, found her looks striking and her boldness charming. Speaking to them, she sometimes claimed a touch of Burmese or Nepali ancestry. She told many stories, all of them plausible, some of them perhaps even true. She always made an outstanding first impression.
On any street at market hour in the provincial town of Gauripur, in the state of Bihar, there could be a dozen Anjalis - "offerings to god" - but no man not a relative would dare call them by name. Most of those other Anjalis would be married, hobbled by saris, carrying infants or clutching the hands of toddlers while their husbands haggled for fish and vegetables. To be hailed from the street by a man on a scooter would be scandalous. The call had to be for her, the strider in jeans and a T-shirt advertising the maiden tour (Hamburg, Stuttgart, Köln, Basel, Zürich, Wien, Bratislava - she loved the umlauts) of Panzer Delight, a German punk-rock band, some few years back - the young woman who could wait to be called by the name she preferred, Angela, or better yet, Angie. A rusty old Lambretta scooter, the kind that had been popular with Gauripur's office workers way back in the 1960s, braked to a wheezing stop; its driver waved and nudged it toward her through the blue diesel smoke from buses and trucks, the dense clutter of handcarts and bicycles: swollen, restless India on the move.
She was standing outside Gauripur Bazaar, known locally as Pinky Mahal, the town's three-story monument to urban progress. When Pinky Mahal was being built, bricks had been carried, one by one, by dozens of child laborers hired by the day. Rows of women workers had threaded their way along single planks, balancing bowls of cement on their heads and then dumping the contents into plastic buckets. During the construction a corporate billboard had stood on Lal Bahadur Shastri (LBS) Road, an epic portrait to feed a credulous public: a magnificent, five-story office tower behind a small landscaped forest of shade and flowering trees, lawns, fountains, and sundials. On the billboard turbaned doormen greeted the gleaming row of imported cars pulling up at the building's entrance. And above the turbaned heads floated two legends: your new corporate hdqs in beautiful, exciting gauripur! and act now! commercial space going fast!
Fanciful renderings of a future that would never come.
The office tower, with three stories instead of the advertised five, was completed in a year, but within six months of its ceremonial opening the pink outer plaster had begun to crumble, leaving long veins of exposed brick. The contractor claimed that the pink paint was sour and had reacted to the sweet plaster. Acid and alkaline, the developer explained to the press, then absconded to the Persian Gulf. And so Pinky Mahal, its two top floors unoccupied, its ground floor leased and subleased by owners of small shops who put up with fluctuating electrical service and no air conditioning because of the low rent, had become an eyesore rather than a proud monument in the center of town.
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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