The next time Meena runs into Anita Rutter is in late October, by which time her mother’s tummy has already grown visibly. Meena has seen Anita around. She has noticed that Anita always locks arms with one friend at the time, leaving the other to walk behind, thus creating a rivalry between friends. Meena has also seen Tracey with their new dog, whom she discovers Deirdre has called “Nigger.” When Meena first told her parents about this, they both laughed wholeheartedly, criticizing the English’s ignorance and their lack of concern for using such words in front of children.
By observing Anita’s behavior from the outside, Meena has few illusions about Anita’s obsession with having power over other people. However, this does not keep Meena from wanting to be Anita’s friend—she, too, wants to enjoy Anita’s influence. Her parents’ laughter at the dog’s vulgar, racist name reveals that they consider Deirdre—and the rest of Tollington—ignorant but innocuous. This will later change when some people become more openly racist.
From that moment on, Meena's mother decides to treat Deirdre coldly, showing her only a polite façade, at odds with the warm conversations she has with other neighbors. Meena knows that this also makes her friendship with Anita more problematic. One day, though, Anita knocks of Meena’s door to see if Meena wants to see workers unload trucks.
Meena’s mother’s decision to change her relationship with Deirdre is a form of punishment and self-protection, revealing that she will not tolerate people’s racist views, even if she does not feel the need to confront Deirdre directly.
That day, Meena’s mother has been cooking for weeks to prepare for Diwali, what she refers to neighbors as their version of Christmas, unwilling to explain the details concerning the Hindu Festival of Light. Meena is shocked by the village’s indifference to Diwali and understands why her mother makes it a point to celebrate Christmas, so that Meena might not feel left out.
The holidays reveal to Meena how unusual her cultural upbringing is in this small English village. She wishes to be part of the norm and share her celebrations with everyone, instead of having to enjoy them only within the narrow circle of her own family. Her frustration highlights the isolation that being part of a cultural minority can entail.
Meena’s mother tells her that all religions coexist peacefully in India, and that religions all lead to the same god. Meena’s father never had a religious upbringing because of Dadaji’s communist beliefs, and is frustrated by what people do in the name of religion, arguing that he always acts in the name of humanity. Meena, though, wishes her family had an elegant shrine, like her Auntie Shaila’s. Auntie Shaila, the most boisterous of all the Aunties, once told Meena that people’s bad behavior affects them in their next life, and Meena, who knows that she lies a lot, came home crying. Her father simply told her that she should listen to a little voice in her head, her conscience, and she will always find her way to God.
Meena’s understanding of religion and tolerance derives from her parents’ open-minded attitude. Instead of focusing on religious doctrine, they instill in Meena respect for cultural differences and an emphasis on behaving well in the name of the human community—that is, reflecting on how one’s actions affect others. This emphasizes that people should learn to live peacefully together instead of focusing on their differences. It also suggests that everyone is capable of knowing what is morally right and wrong, regardless of their religion.
The day after this, Meena’s mother took her to the gurudwara in Birmingham, the Sikhs’ place of worship. This was surprising both because mama is not very religious, and because she is a terribly slow driver and this would be her first time driving alone. Although the journey initially went according to plan, they reached a difficult crossroads on a very steep slope. After they missed the green light and were forced to brake, mama soon yelled at Meena to go tell the bus driver behind them to move back, because their car was moving backwards.
Meena’s mother takes her daughter to a place of worship because she understands that Meena is interested in issues of morality, or at least in understanding the consequences of her misdeeds. The fact that the gurudwara is so far away contrasts with the presence of the church in Tollington itself, underlining the difficulties that immigrants who want to remain connected to their culture and institutions face.
Meena exited the car and apologetically asked drivers to go back. She had expected aggressiveness, but noticed that people behaved courteously, with an expression that signaled that they expected this kind of behavior from people like Meena, as though this were an act of charity on their part. However, the woman in the last car nonchalantly began insulting Meena, calling her a “bloody stupid wog”—an offensive term for non-whites. Meena feels as though she has been punched and runs back to her car.
However gentle people’s reactions to Meena’s demands might be, their charitable attitude is a form of racism. These drivers seem to expect foreign immigrants to be inferior, perhaps less intelligent or capable than English natives. The woman’s direct insults might be harsher and more distressing, but they build on this atmosphere of underlying superiority, turning it into blunt hostility.
Meena was so shocked by the woman’s words that she could not concentrate on the prayers and rituals and does not remember much about that day. Back home, when her father asked her about her day, she almost told him but then realized that her father must have had these kinds of experiences countless times and knows the same feelings of anger, confusion, and powerlessness that she was experiencing. She decided that, in the same way her father did not share these painful moments with her, she would not make him preoccupied, and so does not tell him what happened.
This represents Meena’s first personal experience with direct racism. It makes her feel powerless and confused, because the woman’s insults have little to do with who Meena actually is, only with how she appears externally—something that does not affect her actual personality and over which she has little control. Meena’s desire to protect her father reveals her love and commitment to her family, as well as her emotional maturity.
On Diwali, Meena’s parents organize a mehfil with the Aunties, Uncles, and their children. Meena, who wishes she received presents on this occasion like she does at Christmas, decides that she will treat herself by going to the fair with Anita. Her mother tells her to be back by five o’clock. On the way there, Anita tells Meena that she is going to receive a pony for Christmas and that she will later live in a shared apartment with Sherrie in London, which makes Meena feel jealous.
Anita’s bragging and boasting serve, as many of her actions do, to pit her friends against each other and feel as though they need to compete for her attention. In this case, they also reveal one of Anita’s weaknesses: her childlike belief in certain promises, such as the fact that her mother has enough money—and cares enough about her desires—to buy her a pony.
When Meena and Anita pass by the Big House, Anita crosses herself, saying that a witch lives there. She mentions Jodie Bagshot, a four-year-old girl who went missing a few years ago and was found to have drowned in the water-filled old mine. Anita tries to scare Meena by telling her that the witch can see into Meena’s bedroom.
Anita’s efforts to scare Meena are playful, but also highlight her need to have power over others and make them feel weak and vulnerable. The Big House thus becomes a terrifying place for Meena, at odds with her later discovery that it is inhabited by people just like her.
When the two girls reach the fair, Meena reflects on the fascinating, romantic life that the fair people must lead, as they move constantly from one place to the next. They run into Sherrie and Fat Sally, who have a lot of make-up on their faces and are wearing very short clothes. When the group notices three boys nearby who have stopped work to look at them, Anita walks toward them and begins to chat, after saying that the tall one is hers. Meena is fascinated to see Anita make the boys—who in other occasions Meena would have done her best to avoid—laugh.
Meena’s interest in these nomadic workers reflects her imagination and curiosity, as well as an early, open-minded interest in the possibility of leaving Tollington and discovering the rest of the world. Anita’s capacity to make the boys laugh reveals her charisma and social intelligence, which leads most people to remain fascinated by her, even if she is often less interested in the people themselves than in her own entertainment.
By the time Anita invites the other girls over, Dave “The Poet” has put his arm around her. Sherrie chooses to stand by a boy called Tonio, which leaves Fat Sally and the last boy, Gary, to stay together. Meena sees the boy’s disappointment about being stuck with Fat Sally change into relief when he notices Meena, as though Meena were so unattractive that Fat Sally, by contrast, looked beautiful.
The fact that Gary judges the girls on their appearance reveals the superficial nature of these relationships. His relief at not being stuck with Meena adds racism to this superficiality, suggesting that, in his eyes, having brown skin equals ugliness. These kinds of experiences make Meena lose confidence in herself.
When Dave says something in Anita’s ear, Anita pulls the girls aside and begins to whisper to them, finally admitting that he said he wanted “to shag the arse off me.” Meena, who until then has felt completely invisible, concludes that this must be a compliment. Noticing Meena’s puzzled face, Anita says that this means he really loves her. The girls then return to the boys and Meena realizes that Anita has never introduced her, which means that the boys don’t even know her name.
Anita’s appreciation of vulgar sexual expressions clashes with Meena’s education and family values, which have sheltered her from anything related to sex. The fact that Anita has not introduced Meena proves not only that Anita is probably not a true friend, but that she too might see foreign Meena as an inferior acquaintance, someone not even worth mentioning.
When Meena arrives home, she pretends that she is fine. She looks at herself in the mirror while wearing a traditional Indian outfit and puts on some of her mother’s make-up. She also grabs her mother’s gold necklace, with a diamond in the center, but hides it underneath her vest, even though she assumes her mother would not be bothered to know she borrowed it. When Meena opens the door, Auntie Shaila reproves Meena for her make-up, accusing her of trying to look older, and Meena finally accepts to take it off at her father and her Auntie’s insistence.
Meena’s lie about being fine reveals her confusion about being treated badly by the other children at the fair. It suggests that there are some aspects of life, such as sex, that she does not feel she can easily discuss with her parents, who might be shocked. Meena’s desire to wear make-up highlights her efforts to become like Anita and her friends—that is, to feel accepted and popular.
After Meena comes back down and notices the various groups that have formed, she realizes that her mother’s tranquility and elegance will always make her feel insecure, since, by comparison, she is too awkward in her own body. Meena’s father then begins to sing, and Meena is deeply moved by the music, feeling as though she is reconnecting with a country she does not know but which forms part of her identity. After her father is done, everyone asks Meena to sing. She knows that, however much she refuses, she will have to give in, because it is customary for Indians to understand “no” as a form of modesty. Meena recalls an anecdote in which her mother politely offered their neighbors the Mitchells a ride, expecting them to refuse, but they accepted, thus forcing her to drive them to the shops.
Meena suffers from insecurity whenever she compares herself to other people—be it her mother or people like Anita and Sherrie. It is only at the end of the novel that Meena will have the confidence to trust in her own self, regardless of the opinions of people like Anita. Meena’s confusion about her cultural identity derives in part from being considered a foreigner while not actually knowing India, yet still sharing so many Indian customs with her parents. It is only once she meets Nanima that she will feel her Indian identity coalesce into something tangible.
Meena thus finds herself forced to sing. As Meena sings in Punjabi, though, she notices people giggling and hears Auntie Shaila say that she sings in Punjabi with a Birmingham accent. Embarrassed and confused, Meena interrupts her singing and decides to sing an English pop song, with a dance routine, which her audience welcomes enthusiastically, applauding Meena for her charisma. Meena then explains she loves the song so much that she “could shag the arse off it.” This comment leads to the adults’ sudden, shocked silence. Meena’s father angrily asks her to repeat what she said but Meena, suddenly ashamed, does not. She fears for a second that her father might hit her and runs upstairs as soon as her mother suggests it.
Auntie Shaila’s comment is not necessarily meant to harm Meena, but it does increase the young girl’s insecurities about the issue of belonging. Later in the novel, Meena wishes she had grown up speaking Punjabi and could immerse herself more fully in Indian culture. In this episode, though, she affirms another aspect of her identity: her British culture. Although Meena’s comment is vulgar and sexual, the adults’ reaction seems disproportional, since Meena is clearly confused and doesn’t know what she’s actually said.
In her room, Meena changes out of her Indian outfit. She goes back down after a long time, though no one sees to notice her, because everyone is so busy eating or getting food ready. Meena thinks of offering to bring people water, even though she hates how the men never even look at her, merely expecting for their water to be refilled, but she then overhears her mother talking to Auntie Shaila about her. Her mother complains about Meena’s frequent bad behavior, and Auntie Shaila says that she is probably seeking attention. Mama then enumerates Meena’s various lies and misdeeds. At one point, Meena interrupts the conversation by saying hello. Embarrassed, mama asks her if she wants to eat, but Meena says she is going to use the toilet.
Although Meena enjoys the moments when her Indian acquaintances are all together, she does criticize the inequality she notices in some of these events’ dynamics, such as rigid gendered roles, which she perceives as unfair and rude. Her mother’s worries reveal her desire to protect Meena and allow her to grow up into a good person, but they also make Meena feel judged and alienated. Part of the problem lies in the fact that Meena does not actually mean to disappoint her parents, but that she feels attracted to the kind of exciting, rebellious attitude that Anita demonstrates.
After stepping outside, Meena heads toward the fair instead of their outdoor toilet. She notices Sam Lowbridge and his friends. When Sam sees Meena, he offers to teach her how to shoot a gun. Meena feels honored to feel Sam so close to her, helping her make the right gestures to shoot the gun. When they succeed in shooting a target, Sam places their prize, a plastic bracelet, around Meena’s wrist.
Paradoxically, instead of reassuring her mother about her behavior, Meena adds a lie to her long list of misdeeds, revealing her need to escape what she perceives as the stifling atmosphere of her home. Sam’s affectionate behavior toward Meena suggests that he is perhaps not as scary as he seems.
Meena then walks toward Sherrie and Tonio. She sees a bruise on Sherrie’s neck and does not understand why Sherrie seems so happy about it. She wonders if such abuse is a normal feature of spending time with boys. Meena then sees Anita and her mother Deirdre get out of a ride. Choosing to forget what happened earlier, Meena waves at her and, after waving back, Anita immediately kisses Dave, which Meena understands is meant to impress her.
In this case, Meena’s mention of abuse is misguided, since Sherrie’s behavior suggests that anything she has done with Tonio is consensual (the bruise is probably a hickey). Meena’s willingness to forget about Anita’s earlier disdain without mentioning anything to her reveals how little actual trust and accountability exists between the two girls.
Anita then yells at Meena that she is going to buy some food and Meena agrees to wait for her. Once Anita is gone, Meena is shocked to see that Deirdre, who has taken off her heels, is running with the Poet toward the caravans. Meena sees them kiss wildly before Deirdre drags him inside a caravan.
Deirdre’s behavior is shocking in its sexual recklessness, but also in Deirdre’s utter lack of concern for her daughter’s feelings. Instead of behaving like a protective mother, Deirdre behaves like Anita’s romantic rival.
When Anita returns, Meena decides that she will not leave the girl alone. She lies to Anita that Deirdre has walked toward their home and suggests they go on a ride. Meena notices that Anita is impressed by Meena’s local accent and the fact that she is alone at the fair at night, without her parents. Without offering Meena any French fries, Anita gobbles them up and the two of them walk toward the rides.
Meena’s lie here serves a good cause: keeping Anita from pain and humiliation. This reveals that Meena truly has Anita’s well-being at heart, even if Anita is more interested in merely asserting her authority over her. It also suggests that some lies actually serve good causes, and are not always morally condemnable.
When the girls finally get off their last ride, hours later, after Anita has screamed to Gary to tell the Poet to call her tomorrow, Meena once again tries to keep Anita away from the caravans. However, Anita leads Meena past the caravans toward the Big House. Meena is shocked and frightened to see Anita open a section of the fence and walk into the Big House’s yard. Meena tells her that they have dogs, but Anita replies that she has never seen any and that she thought that Meena wanted to hang out with her. Meena, who is still wearing her mother’s necklace, holds onto it as though it might bring her good luck.
The episode with the caravans reveals how fragile peace in Anita’s family is, as Anita could easily discover her mother’s treachery. The girls’ entrance in the Big House shows that Meena is choosing to obey Anita’s natural authority instead of her instincts and sense of prudence. This suggests that Anita is potentially capable of manipulating Meena into taking part in other misdeeds, using Meena’s loyalty to her benefit.
Meena decides to follow Anita, who shows her Hollow Pond, where Jodie Bagshot drowned years ago. Meena knows never to swim there, because it is made of many tunnels in which one could easily get lost and drown. Meena is terrified, which only makes Anita laugh. The two of them walk in the yard and Meena looks through the house’s windows, where she notices a diamond chandelier. Anita then points to her secret spot, an object a few steps away that looks like a statue in a dome with marble pillars. Meena wants to see what it is and walks toward it, fighting vegetation and spiders. Finally, she reaches the dome and pulls at the plants covering the statue. Suddenly, she realizes that the statue is a representation of Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god.
Although nothing happens to the girls that night, the pond remains a symbol of danger and death, as Tracey will later experience. Anita’s disregard for her friend’s fear again shows how little interest she has in other people’s feelings. Meena’s fascination with the luxury of the Big House suggests that its inhabitants must be much wealthier than her, and thus out of her reach, but the Ganesha statue shows a surprising affinity between Meena’s most intimate cultural traditions and the Big House. This mystery will later be solved when Meena meets its Indian owner.
The sudden sound of Anita running interrupts Meena’s moment of fascinated stupor, and Meena realizes that an angry dog is following them. Completely panicked, the two girls run as fast as they can, and when Meena finally slips through the fence, into Anita’s arms, Anita closes the fence again. In her panic, Meena has hit herself and is now bleeding on her face. Her clothes are also torn. As the girls walk back home, Meena dreads what the adults will say to her. She also realizes that she has lost her mother’s necklace. However, when Anita asks her what the statue was, Meena says it was nothing.
This episode has the potential to make the two girls bond over a shared dangerous event, but it merely highlights the gap between the two girls’ family lives. Anita is left free to wander around, while Meena’s, parents are more inclined to maintain discipline to ensure Meena’s safety. Meena’s unwillingness to tell Anita about the Ganesha statue also highlights the cultural divide between them, as Meena is not yet ready to share an intimate part of her Indian culture and family life.
When Meena reaches her home, which is still brightly lit and full of activity, she is surprised to see that no one is paying much attention to her and notices that the adults look scared and sad for her. Auntie Shaila drags her into the kitchen and, as Meena tries to decipher people’s expressions, she hears an ambulance. She then sees her mother on a stretcher, in pain. The neighbors are there, and Mrs. Worrall offers to do a rotation to make sure that Meena and her father eat. Meena goes to stand by a girl named Clara Mitchell, who is known to have mental problems, and hears the girl sing to herself.
For once, Meena does not have to lie to get out of an unpleasant situation, as it is only much later that her mother will realize that she cannot find her necklace. The confusing situation at Meena’s house suggests that her mother has probably had an accident and will need to stay at the hospital for a while. Clara’s singing highlights the surreal nature of this entire evening—from the strange atmosphere at the fair to the Big House and now this mysterious medical event.