As Mr. Kumar drags Meena down the street, past the posh mansions, and toward the center of Tollington and Mr. Ormerod’s grocery shop, Meena screams that she is not lying. Meanwhile, she admires the countryside, noticing the industrial town of Wolverhampton in the distance, and wishes that she had not gone to Sunday school, which has taught her that what she is currently doing—lying—is sin. She wonders if she should confess and looks around her for help. From a distance, she sees her mother in a Punjabi suit, her brown skin and colorful clothing standing out among people’s white laundry.
This episode reveals that Meena knows that she is doing something wrong but cannot stop herself from doing it. Despite such moments of weakness, it is this consciousness of wrongdoing that differentiates Meena from people like Anita, as she will ultimately prove committed to fighting injustice. The fact that Meena’s mother’s appearance sets her apart from the rest of the village serves as an early indication that Meena’s family might experience problems for being conspicuously different from others.
Meena and her father pass the Big House, a mysterious, closed-off house that always looks deserted. The house stands on a former mine, which used to provide most of the area’s employment until it closed down in the 1950s. Since then, someone has bought the mine. That person leads a mysterious life, never appearing in public but proving that they probably live there because a van sometimes come to the house to deliver groceries.
The Big House brings an element of mystery to Tollington. Its inhabitants’ disinterest in forming part of the Tollington community is an early indication that, like Meena’s family, they are culturally different from everyone else. Unlike what the house’s appearance might suggest, this difference is neither hostile nor threatening.
Meena notes that everyone’s front yards are filled with flowers and gnomes, but that her own yard makes her feel embarrassed because her mother only uses it to grow fresh herbs that she uses in her Indian cuisine. She passes by Mr. Topsy’s house. She calls him Mr. Topsy because he calls her “Topsy,”—he says he cannot pronounce her name. While Mr. Kumar stops to chat with Mr. Topsy, Meena uses this opportunity to eat a piece of candy she has in her pocket.
Meena’s hostility to her mother’s garden does not reflect a disregard for her cooking, but a simple desire to fit in and be like everyone else, at least on the outside. Mr. Topsy’s inability to pronounce Meena’s name is one of various instances in the novel in which people are happier changing Meena’s name instead of making an effort to pronounce it correctly, thus showing disregard for her actual identity.
When Mr. Kumar and Meena reach Mr. Ormerod’s shop, Meena recalls speaking to Anita Rutter and her closest friends, Sherrie and Fat Sally, a few days earlier. That day, Anita told Meena that the sailor on a commercial for cigarettes on Mr. Ormerod’s shop was her father Roberto, who received medals for serving in the Navy. Anita’s two friends then giggled and whispered to each other. Meena, who felt embarrassed because she was wearing a dress her mother had forced her to put on, tried to communicate silently with Anita that she was more rebellious than the dress implied. She felt gratified to see Anita laugh before heading off with her two friends. Nine-year-old Meena felt impressed that Anita, who was three years older, would take the time to talk to her.
Meena never realizes that Anita lied about the person on the commercial to make her family life seem more exciting than it actually is. Anita’s lie aims to impress her friends Sherrie and Fat Sally and, perhaps, also to test Meena’s credibility, ridiculing her in front of older girls. This first interaction with Anita thus sets the tone for Anita and Meena’s future relationship, which will remain marked by Anita’s efforts to dominate and humiliate others. Part of the reason why Meena goes along with this is because she is flattered to spend time with older girls, without realizing that Anita will never allow it to become an equal friendship.
The day after Anita told Meena about the poster, Meena saw Roberto at the bus stop and asked him about his time in the Navy. Roberto did not want to talk about it, as the episode seemed to bring him pain. Suddenly, when the bus arrived, Roberto called out loudly for the ladies to come and women immediately started exiting their houses, chatting animatedly with each other. Meena explains that these women all work at a factory together, having replaced men as the main people employed in the village since the mine’s closure. Now that the women have this important economic role, Meena notes that their husbands have become insignificant, staying at home while their wives leave for work. When the women pass by Meena, they say hello to her and comment on how pretty and cute she is. Meanwhile, Meena admires Roberto for being a tortured soul.
Although Meena interprets Roberto’s silence as pain, it remains ambiguous what Roberto actually thinks of his experience in the war. The women’s friendly attitude toward Meena suggests that the young girl is wellliked the village. This makes the presence of racism and resentment in Tollington all the more surprising, since no one seems to harbor actual hostility toward the Kumars. The mention of past economic downturns explains the impression of stagnation that emanates from Tollington, fuelling the social and economic frustration that people like Sam Lowbridge experience.
By the time Meena and her father reach Mr. Ormerod’s shop, Mr. Kumar confronts his daughter again, asking her if she is finally going to tell him the truth or if he should go ask Mr. Ormerod what happened. Meena knows that this is an empty threat because Mr. Ormerod always talks so much, trying to convince people to join or donate to the Methodist church. Mr. Kumar asks her again if Mr. Ormerod truly gave her candy for free or if she took the money from her mother’s bag. Meena is furious, arguing to herself that her mother should simply have given her the money in the first place. However, she fears her father’s angry look.
Although Meena perceives her father as restricting her freedom, her family plays an important role in building in her a sense of accountability and an understanding of morality. In the heat of the moment, Meena is more focused on avoiding humiliation than in admitting her misdeeds. This will prove a common pattern, as Meena usually understands the consequences of her actions only after the fact, when she has time to reflect.
Meena recalls getting into trouble once, after a boy at school said that this region was called the Black Country because so many “darkies” lived there. Meena had said nothing at the time but had later kicked the boy in the face, leaving him with a bloody nose. The teacher had beat Meena on the legs as punishment, while Meena defiantly argued that her family was the only Indian family in Tollington and that the country looked green to her.
Unlike the scene with her father in which Meena is trying to hide a bad action, Meena is capable of defying authority for good reasons, such as punishing someone for making a racist comment. Although Meena’s violence is not necessarily justified, the teacher’s reaction is equally cruel, as she punishes the young girl without trying to understand to her motives.
Meena knows that she should tell the truth to her father before they walk into Mr. Ormerod’s shop and thus make her embarrassment public. She hears a door slam shut and concludes that people must be watching her exchange, since Tollington residents always watch others, having so little to do. When Mr. Kumar pushes open the shop door, Meena finally admits that she was lying. She sees the disappointment on her father’s face. He lets go of her hand and walks toward their house without saying a word.
In this situation, Meena only admits the truth once she is faced with the threat of personal embarrassment. Therefore, she does not act out of moral necessity but out of a desire to protect herself. Moments such as these reveal how difficult it is to behave in a perfectly righteous way, as admitting one’s mistakes often comes with a cost. This emphasizes the fact that behaving morally involves effort and self-sacrifice, which Meena will have to learn.