That year, Meena spends a lot of time on her own. She uses exhaustion as an excuse, and watches as the children are forced to take buses to school, which decreases the amount of activity on the street. The village is also overcome by traffic noise on the motorway, and Meena concludes that everything has changed. She notices more strangers spending time in the park, as well as Sam and Anita’s gang smoking and drinking beer. Meena ignores them but watches them discreetly, which she notices Tracey does as well.
The construction of the motorway has deleterious effects on community life. The fact that children are forced to go to school farther away makes the village less lively, decreasing opportunities for children to get to know each other. The increasingly hostile environment in Tollington suggests that this might be a good time for Meena’s family to leave, before it deteriorates further.
Meena removes her cast at the hospital in mid-January, a sad experience since she is still overwhelmed by the grief of losing Robert. Although she is told she cannot do much exercise, Meena begins spending time on her bike. One day, Tracey appears out of nowhere, scaring her. Meena greets her and expects questions about how she has been, but Tracey merely announces that Anita is going out with Sam. She then angrily concludes that Anita is bound to end up like Deirdre, and asks Meena to stop her. However, with a pang of sadness, Meena replies that her friendship with Anita is in the past and that she no longer cares about her.
Once again, the sadness that Meena feels at losing Robert’s company contrasts with her indifference toward Anita. This highlights how superficial the two girls’ relationship was. However, despite everything Anita has done, Meena still feels compassion for her former friend.
By the spring, when Sherrie’s family has moved out and there are plans to turn the old school into a big supermarket, Meena feels peaceful in her own protected world. She begins to behave like a typical Indian girl, studious and serious. One day, she overhears her father complaining about how happy Meena used to be. Mama interjects that Meena is happy, but that she is growing up and it is normal for her to become more serious. Mama adds that she knows Meena will pass the eleven-plus, simply because she is her daughter, and that they should therefore already put their house on the market. However, only Meena’s father understands that Meena has been affected by Robert’s death, as her mother does not believe that Meena is old enough to worry about love and boyfriends.
Even though the community is radically transforming around her, Meena has developed enough strength and self-confidence to rely on herself and her family for happiness—instead of seeking diversion with Anita. Meena’s parents’ debate about their daughter’s happiness once again highlights their commitment to making their family a loving, supportive environment. Mama’s trust in Meena’s capacities serves as an optimistic signal that Meena is likely to have a bright future, thanks to her own talents as well as her parents’ support.
Reflecting on her upbringing, Meena concludes that her parents’ well-meaning efforts to protect her from the outside world only made her more desirous to rebel. Now, though, after having strong emotional experiences such as losing Nanima and Robert, Meena is able to see things with greater perspective and concludes that she is not a bad person. She accepts that she belongs wherever she decides to call home, and that she is strong enough to follow her own path.
Although Meena has always felt bad about not behaving like a typical Indian girl, she knows that her rebellious behavior was a reaction to the closed social world of her family, not an expression of immorality. Meena’s trust in her own virtue gives her the confidence to value her personality (her moral consciousness and compassion) over cultural considerations, such as typical expectations of Indian girls.
Meena spends two intense weeks studying for the eleven-plus. During this time, however, when Tracey is standing guard on the street, Meena is harassed by people calling her, which she believes must be a mix of Anita’s and Sam’s voices. Later, they throw stones at her window and Meena finds that she cannot concentrate. She also receives notes with a strange mix of compliments and insults written on them, one of which makes her laugh because the author tried to spell chapatti and then gave up. Meena becomes worried about how this might all end.
Anita and Sam’s actions make Meena feel threatened and emphasize how little these two youths are investing in their own future. Indeed, while Anita studies for her exam to leave Tollington, it is likely that Anita and Sam will remain stuck there, as the community deteriorates around them. Meena later realizes that Sam wrote compliments to her so that she would want to spend time with them. This suggests that Anita and Sam actually need Meena and benefit from her presence.
The night before Meena’s exam, her entire family is tense. Her parents try not to mention the exam, although she knows that her family’s future depends on her, since her success would justify all the sacrifices they have made for their children and also allow them to move out of Tollington. When the telephone rings, mama learns that Auntie Shaila’s husband Uncle Amman has just had a heart attack. Meena’s parents are very worried and, although they do not want to leave Meena alone, Meena insists that this is the best option. She promises not to open the door to anyone, and her parents set off with Sunil.
The pressure that Meena feels to succeed in school expresses both her own desire to succeed in life and her feeling of responsibility toward her parents. The possibility of leaving Tollington would open up a lot of doors for Meena’s family, potentially allowing them to live in a more diverse community where they could feel safer and more included. Meena’s parents’ departure is ominous, and builds an atmosphere of impending disaster.
That night, when Meena is already in bed, she hears fierce knocking on the door and wakes up terrified. She goes down to the door and sees Tracey. Confident that Tracey is worthy of trust, Meena opens the door and Tracey immediately begins sobbing and yelling. Meena does not understand what is happening and asks her about her dad, but Tracey simply says that he is killing her. Meena believes that Roberto must be beating Anita and concludes that this would explain a lot about Anita’s behavior.
Meena likely intends to suggest that Tracey should not be alone at night, but should be with her dad. Meena’s subsequent misunderstanding about what is happening to Anita proves mistaken, although it does highlight the mysterious atmosphere in Anita’s house, where it remains likely that the girls are suffering from some form of abuse or neglect.
Meena gets dressed quickly and slams the door. She runs after Tracey, who enters the Big House through a hole in the fence. Worried, Meena does not know what is happening and fears the potential dangers lurking around the house. She begins to pray to herself. As she follows an insistent Tracey, she wonders what she could possibly do to stand up to Roberto, and remains obsessed by the fact that she has an exam the next day.
Meena’s concern with her exam becomes a repeated motif throughout this entire episode. It highlights the way in which Meena’s social circle represents an obstacle to her education and her advancement in life, as Anita and Sam only bring trouble.
Finally, they reach the top of a slope overlooking the pond. In a clearing, Meena sees Sam lying and moving on top of Anita, while Anita, on her back, remains motionless. Tracey is sobbing and the two of them wonder if Anita is dead. As Sam stands back up, Meena notices that Sam has a scar on his face and concludes that Sam is evil, behaving violently and enjoying harming others, such as foreigners. Sam calls Anita a “tart” and kicks her in the foot. When Anita remains motionless, Tracey suddenly begins to scream wildly, running toward Sam to attack him. Anita then suddenly opens her eyes, annoyed that her joke did not work.
After hearing Anita speak so much about sex, Meena now catches her in the act. Tracey’s fear of sex reveals how little she actually understands about what is happening, but also suggests that she has been through traumatic experiences that have led her to associate sex with violence. Meena’s thoughts about Sam show how strongly he has disappointed her with his racist comments. Sam’s insulting attitude toward Anita also reveals a lack of gentleness between the two of them.
In the meantime, Meena hides behind a tree and Sam easily picks Tracey up. Anita begins to insult her sister and Sam laughs at Anita, asking if she was immobile because he “shagged” her too much. Tracey explains that she thought her sister was dead and Anita sends her away. Tracey throws a large stone at Anita and the two of them run after each other in the bushes.
Sam’s vulgar description of sex matches Anita, suggesting that they both enjoy taking part in emotion-less sexual acts—an aspect of English society that has fascinated Meena, but that her parents disapprove of. Tracey’s attempt to fight her sister reveals that she is slowly growing to stand up for herself, even if, in this case, she does not actually understand what is going on.
Meena, who is still worrying about her exam the next day, is then terrified to hear Sam call out her name. He says he knows she is there and promises not to hurt her. Meena comes out of hiding, realizing that she gave Tracey her sweatshirt, and Sam asks her where she has been. When Meena ironically notes that he has not yet succeeded in driving her out, Sam seems surprised at her comment. He explains that he wrote nice notes to Meena, whereas Anita wrote mean ones because she is jealous of Sam and Meena’s relationship.
Sam’s interest in Meena seems sincere, but contrasts completely with his racist comments. The fact that Anita might be jealous of Meena puts Anita and Meena’s relationship in perspective. Although Anita has so often been cruel and condescending toward Meena, it now appears that this might not be a sign of power, but proof of Anita’s weakness and jealousy—an effort to humiliate someone she understands is actually stronger than her.
Meena then realizes that Sam has a frustrated, confused attitude, which Meena recognizes from spending time with Anita, who always makes people feel weak. Meena realizes that Sam is a puppet who would never be courageous enough to extract himself form this situation. Meena then asks him about his words at the Fete, but Sam says he never meant to hurt Meena, arguing that his words were directed toward “the others.” However, Meena then confronts him with what he did to the Indian bank manager and tells Sam that she is the others, and that he did mean her.
Although Meena still feels angry at Sam for his racist comments, she cannot help but feel compassion toward him as well. This allows her to realize that Sam might not as dangerous as he appears, but that he is weak and lets himself be manipulated by others. In addition, his ignorance of how his racist words might affect others proves that he has not put much thought into his actions, which derive from frustration and ignorance.
Suddenly, Sam grabs Meena’s wrists and tells her that she has always been her favorite. He adds that Meena will always be able to move on, while he will be stuck in his situation. Then, he kisses her passionately, and Meena is glad to know that whenever he sees an Indian girl on the street, he will remember this moment and feel powerless. However, Anita then steps forward and throws a rock at Sam’s face. Sam prepares to attack her back but Tracey intervenes, running toward Sam, who soon avoids her. Tracey then falls off the ledge into the pond. Anita immediately begins to panic, while Meena runs to get help—still obsessively remembering that she has an exam the next day.
For the first time, Sam expresses a clear frustration at living in Tollington, showing resentment for the opportunities that Meena has to leave the village—and thus proving that he knows that Meena is superior to them in this way. Meena’s joy at thinking that, from now on, Sam might associate all Indian girls with her suggests that one solution to personal racism is to foster close contact between members of separate communities. In this case, Meena hopes that Sam will project feelings of love and desire onto Indian people like her.
In despair, Meena rings the doorbell at the front door of the Big House. When a small woman—who Meena assumes is a witch—answers the door, Meena is shocked to note how much she knows about Meena, such as her name and the location of her house. Meena tells the witch to call the police. The woman then calls out to “’Arry,” explaining that there has been an accident at the pond, as previously happened with Jodie Bagshot. Meena then sees an elegant man appear. He speaks to the woman, whom he calls Mireille, in Punjabi, and Meena cannot believe that the owner of the Big House is Indian.
The fact that Mireille knows about Meena and that her husband is Indian is shocking, since it suggests that, all this time, some of the richest, most powerful members of the Tollington community have been foreigners and could have become Meena’s family’s friends. This brings new prestige to the situation of Indians in Tollington and suggests that Meena’s community is not as vulnerable as it appears, since she benefits from the support of unexpected allies.
Mireille then makes Meena, who is showing signs of exhaustion and nervousness, sit in a study by the fire. Meena admires the house’s rich furniture and beautiful decorations, feeling jealous about the enormous library on the walls. Meena notices the man’s name, “Harinder P. Singh,” on the typewriter and concludes that he is a Sikh, like Meena’s mother. Meena feels completely exhausted, but listens as Mireille explains that she met ’Arry while she came from France to study at Cambridge. When Harinder’s uncle died, leaving him money, they found this house and fell in love with it, finding Tollington a paradise. Meena thus concludes that this must have been a long time ago.
Meena’s mental agitation can be explained by the sudden, violent episodes she has witnessed, as well as her worries about her exam the next day. The contrast between Mireille and her husband’s love of Tollington and the town’s current state again highlights the fact that it makes more sense for Meena’s family to leave than to stay, as the village has clearly lost its charm and peacefulness. Mr. Singh’s similarity to Meena’s mother only accentuates the mystery behind this couple’s decision to remain isolated from village life.
Mireille’s monologue is then interrupted by Meena’s mother frantically calling out for her daughter. When mama finally hugs her, looking both angry and desperate, she says that they found Tracey but that she was worried because the girl was wearing Meena’s sweatshirt. Although Tracey was clinically dead when the ambulancemen found her, they were able to revive her at the hospital.
The fact that Meena could have been Tracey is symbolic. It suggests that Meena’s current situation is partly the result of luck—namely, the fact that Meena was born into a loving, supportive family, so different from Tracey and Anita’s home situation.
Over the next few days, this story soon becomes famous in the press, and reporters invade Tollington. Meena watches all this activity from her window. In emotional shock, Meena suffers from strong shaking. She feels furious, angry at Tracey, Anita, and Sam for making her life so unfairly complicated. She is also angry at herself for giving in to Tracey’s demands and forgetting about her greater duty: passing the eleven-plus.
Meena’s anger at her former friends is, more generally, anger at the asphyxiating atmosphere of the Tollington community, which does not reward diversity and ambition, but encourages young people to focus on narrow goals. Meena’s effort to succeed in school reflects her determination to prove better than her community.
The next morning, Meena receives a letter from Anita asking her to meet with her about last night without talking to Sam. Meena tears the letter up. Her father, though, receives a letter from Harinder P. Singh, asking him to come to tea. Meena’s parents cannot believe that an Indian man has lived in the Big House for so long.
Meena’s decision not to speak to Anita proves that she is finally ready to sever ties once and for all. With regard to Mr. Singh, it remains uncertain why his wife and he would have chosen to live on their own for so long, with no contact with the outside world.
When the police come to Meena’s house that morning, after hordes of reporters have tried to talk to Meena’s parents, Meena feels nervous. Meena’s father tells her that Tracey is accusing either Sam or Anita of pushing her into the pond, and he asks Meena to tell the entire truth to the policemen. Meena feels the temptation to accuse either Sam or Anita, who have caused her so much pain.
Meena finds herself forced to make a moral decision. Although she has lied a lot in the past, she also knows from experience with Baby and Pinky that falsely accusing others ultimately leads her to feel guilt and shame. The decision she is about to make will prove whether or not she has truly changed and learned from her mistakes.
When Meena remembers that the pain she felt for Nanima and Robert was much more intense than any emotion Sam or Anita made her feel, she gives up on her idea of seeking revenge. She tells the policemen the truth, explaining that Tracey fell into the pond by accident. The policemen are surprised by this admission, and Meena concludes that they were probably looking forward to locking up Sam, who already has a long criminal record, and Anita, who was clearly bound to have a child early and be a burden to the state. Meena concludes that her best option is to leave them to themselves and hope that they might change.
When Meena realizes that she cares much more about other people than about Sam and Anita, she concludes that seeking revenge on them would be petty and illogical, and that it is much more useful to invest her energy in other aspects of life. Her decision to tell the truth reveals that she has reached the capacity to make moral decisions in a mature way. The policemen’s disregard for Anita and Sam suggests that these youths are symbolic of the community’s ills and of the difficulty of escaping stifling environments.
The next day, Meena takes the eleven-plus in her headmaster’s office. When she goes home, she sees her father setting up a “For Sale” sign in their front yard. Meena jokes that the exam went okay, but not well enough to immediately sell the house. However, papa makes a gesture that indicates he discussed property matters with Mr. Singh. Mama then explains that Mr. Singh, who owns the entire field across from Meena’s house, will soon turn it into houses. Meena wonders if Mr. Singh too is going to move as well, but her parents don’t know. Papa then hands mama a necklace and mama is shocked to see that it is the diamond necklace she thought she had lost. Papa encourages her not to ask questions and simply accept that it has returned.
As Meena’s parents prepare to leave Tollington, it becomes apparent that the entire community is about to expand and change dramatically, although it remains ambiguous whether these changes are for the better or for the worse. Papa’s advice to not ask too many questions about the necklace implies that he knows Meena has something to do with it, but forgetting and forgiving is sometimes the best strategy, so that one can focus on moving forward and leading a better life—which Meena and her entire family are in the process of doing.
From Tollington, the Kumars invite only Mrs. Worrall to their farewell party. Auntie Shaila gives them a metal “OM” to hang on their door, saying that they are now moving to a pleasant neighborhood, where half of their neighbors will be Hindu. She gives Meena a beautiful pen with a note explaining that Meena will need it at her grammar school. Meena uses it that night to write a note to Anita, saying that she is moving in the next few days and will attend the grammar school, but, as Meena expected, Anita never replies.
The fact that Mrs. Worrall is the only Tollington villager invited to the party reveals how little sincere, deep contact the Kumars have had with anyone else in the village. In a similar way, Meena receives confirmation that Anita is never going to be ready to take part in a sincere, mutual relationship. Meena is thus free to move on, leaving the negative aspects of life in Tollington behind and using her new self-confidence to begin a new life somewhere else.