Annoyed, Shanti walked a good ten paces ahead of the others. She liked being in the lead, and as she walked, she practiced.
“Hello,” she said, practicing her intonation, because tone was everything. “I am Shanti Singh, Miss California, land of opportunity! I am a junior at Valley High School, where I currently maintain a 4.0 CPA. My parents immigrated to America just before I was born, and I am so grateful to this country for giving me so many great opportunities. I hope to show my gratitude one day by becoming the first Indian-American president. And I also hope to work with children,” she added hastily. “And, um, animals.”
Shanti cursed her verbal clumsiness. Ums were deadly. Hadn’t her handler, Mrs. Mirabov, told her so? Keeping it together under pressure was what separated the winners from the losers. Shanti had been setting goals since she was four and won her preschool’s finger painting contest. By the time she hit middle school, she’d won just about everything there was to win — science fair, debate team, gymnastics, soccer, synchronized Tae Kwon Do. Winning was easy and addictive; the more she won, the more she felt she couldn’t risk failing. It was as if she were in constant competition with herself.
But she couldn’t control everything.
She looked back at Nicole — friendly, easygoing Nicole — with envy and unease. She knew the Top Five would not hold both a black and a brown contestant. No matter what they claimed, the pageants were not multicultural-friendly. It was funny to Shanti how her white classmates could distinguish between several white faces but would get confused when confronted with, say, two Asians, frequently mistaking one for the other as if looking at a spot-the-difference kids’ magazine puzzle and feeling stumped.
To win Miss Teen Dream, Shanti knew she would have to work twice as hard as the other girls. That’s why she’d hired Mrs. Mirabov, whose record was superb and whose drive matched her own. It was Mrs. Mirabov who’d evaluated Shanti through narrowed, steel-gray eyes and made her pronouncement: “Your problem, Comrade Singh, is a lack of likeability. No one wants to be your friend. You are efficient and ambitious, which is good for KGB agent; not so much for teen beauty queen. We must humanize you.”
Shanti had flinched slightly at Mrs. Mirabov’s assessment, as if she’d told Shanti that her personality made her look fat. “Tell me what you can do,” Mrs. Mirabov demanded. And Shanti dutifully recited all her talents. “No, no, no. Not what you can do like trained dog. What you love. What you have special passion for?”
Shanti had stared blankly, feeling a sense of panic as if she were in a dream in which she had forgotten to study for a test. There was one thing Shanti loved, but it was not the sort of achievement that wowed judges. It was a secret passion, and that’s what it would remain: secret.
“No,” Shanti had answered. “Nothing.”
“Well, then. We will have to try on personalities until we find one that fits.”
They tried everything: telling jokes, country and western songs, a ventriloquist act with a lovable fuzzy sidekick, photo ops with terminally ill children. But Shanti wasn’t natural with the kids, whose wary expressions seemed to suggest she’d actually given them cancer. Finally, during a painful roller boogie version of “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” that was supposed to make Shanti appear “quirky, but cute and patriotic,” Mrs. Mirabov had moaned in Russian and begged her to stop. After a long pause, she raised her perfectly coiffed gray head. There was a new gleam in those eyes. “You know, Comrade Singh, there is one thing I learned during my defection: Everybody loves a happy assimilation story.”
An American underdog was born.
Shanti delighted the judges with the Parents, what-can-you-do? anecdote about her dad putting out the life-size, blow-up lawn Santa on the Fourth of July. She charmed them with heartwarming tales of making popadam in her grandmother’s kitchen while simultaneously introducing the old woman to the joys of hip-hop. At regionals, she dazzled the crowd during her Bollywood dance routine. Her likeability scores came back in the high nines. Representing the marriage of old-world traditions with the apple-pie aspirations of the new country, she took crown after crown. It made everyone feel warm and hopeful, and they moved Shanti forward as if reaffirming their beliefs in all they stood for. It was great for everyone. It just wasn’t true. And Shanti wondered if her actual talent was fraud.
Shanti stopped to catch her breath. She had never been so tired. More than anything, she wanted to stop and rest. That was what her grandmother used to say to her all the time. “You work too hard. You should relax and enjoy your life. Maybe play Ragnaroknroll19, like your nani. I made an avatar of myself — I’m Super-Kali-Fragilicious! I just laid waste to the Dungeon Master of Carpathia. It was fun.”