After Meena’s brother Sunil is born, she decides that she immediately hates him, although she is surprised by the wisdom that she perceives in the little boy’s eyes. Years later, Meena’s mother tells her daughter about feeling the baby’s placenta fall out and receiving a cesarean at the hospital before the anesthesia was fully working. When mama complained to the nurse, the nurse simply told her to shut up. Mama also recalls that, when Meena was born, the nurse told her that Asians have a low pain threshold.
Meena’s hatred for her brother clearly relates to personal feelings of jealousy, not to anything her brother has done. Later in the novel, Meena will learn to love her brother for who he is. The fact that Meena’s mother only told her about the racial discrimination she suffered at the hospital years later reveals her efforts to shield her daughter from injustice and negativity.
Once Meena’s brother Sunil enters their household, everything changes. During the weeks when mama is in the hospital, Meena lives alone with her father and feels free to see Anita as much as she wants. She discovers that Deirdre too is in the hospital. Anita says that her mother claims her father Roberto beat her up, but that Deirdre is lying and hurt her arm with a dart to sustain her lie. Meena wonders if Roberto discovered what happened with the Poet. When Meena asks Anita about Sherrie and Fat Sally, Anita angrily replies that Fat Sally’s mother does not allow her to go out anymore. Meena understands this as a signal that Fat Sally’s mother thinks of Anita as a bad influence and finds this exciting.
The details of Anita’s family situation remain largely unexplained. Although there is evidence of abuse in the household, it is unclear whether Roberto hit Deirdre—in which case Anita might be covering up for him—or Deirdre actually tries to make her life more dramatic than it is. Either way, the lack of trust between Anita and her mother is obvious. It is possible that, if Robert discovered his wife’s adulterous behavior, Anita too might have discovered that her mother had sex with the boy she liked.
When mama returns home, she spends most of her time taking care of Sunil, and Meena decides to spend most of hers with Anita. The two girls decide to start a gang, like Sam Lowbridge and his friends. They team up with younger children and establish their headquarters in an old pigsty in the yard. Meena brings some old objects from her bike shed and Anita brings Jackie, a teenage magazine aimed at girls. Meena is fascinated to read about how girls should behave in relationships with boys, though Meena realizes that all the girls in the magazine are pretty and look like Anita or Sherrie.
Anita’s efforts to behave like Sam Lowbridge’s gang are an early indication of her desire to become close to him. This will later have deeply negative consequences, as she takes part in hateful actions such as the beating of an innocent Indian man. Meena’s discomfort with the girls’ magazine is cultural and racial. Meena knows that she does not fit what society typically expects of a beautiful, white English girl.
Anita and Meena call their gang the Wenches Brigade. The two girls plan their future life in London together and Meena follows along as Anita leads the entire group on strolls through the village. Anita buys sweets at Mr. Ormerod’s shop and the two of them talk, though Meena notes that this consists of her listening while Anita shares her thoughts. Meena admires Anita greatly, feeling as though her irreverent comments allow her to express a part of her personality that she has never been able to explore.
Despite the fact that Meena and Anita created this gang together, Anita’s desire to monopolize authority is obvious. The inequality between the two girls extends to personal matters, as Anita shows absolutely no interest in Meena’s life. Although Meena initially accepts herself as Anita’s silent listener, she will later become aware of the superficiality of their relationship, and realize that she doesn’t actually need Anita to still express her own wild, creative side.
Anita always ends up talking about sex. One day, she leads the group to spy on Karl, one of their young followers, while he is urinating. Karl shrieks when he notices that everyone has seen him pee. His twin brother Kevin then says he can hit a nearby clover patch with his pee. Meena feels underwhelmed by the sight of the boys’ penises, which she compares to mushrooms. Anita then says that the girls should take part in the competition. After one girl runs away in fear, Anita decides to go first. She swiftly takes off her underwear, throws it to her confused sister Tracey and reaches the target.
If Anita enjoys making others feel embarrassed or humiliated, she also wants to prove that she herself can’t be humiliated—in this case, by demonstrating that she is not scared to pee in front of everyone. This mix of coercion and recklessness serves to impress others, making them both fear and admire her. Meena’s disappointment in the boys’ penises shows that, unlike Anita, she has little interest in sex.
Then, Anita forces Tracey to participate. She tells her to take off her pants. Shaking, Tracey does so. Meena notices how thin the girl’s legs look and begins to feel very uncomfortable. She wants to stop the game there and leave Tracey alone, but Kevin and Karl then begin laughing, saying that Tracey has poop on her behind. Instead of defending her sister, Anita joins in, mocking her. Crying, Tracey tries to put her pants back on. In the meantime, Meena tries to forget what she has seen: thick bruises on the inside of Tracey’s thighs, showing the mark of ten fingers.
Anita’s bullying grows crueler when it affects her own sister, who one might assume she should take care to protect. Meena’s sudden discovery of Tracey’s bruises is even more disturbing. Even though Meena does not mention it again, perhaps not perceiving the gravity of this situation, the evidence of abuse is undisputable. This reveals a dark side of sex and makes Anita’s obsession with sex seem more perverse, as it remains ambiguous whether or not she knows about Tracey.
Meena decides that she needs to act quickly if she does not want Anita to start picking on her. She takes off one leg of her pants and begins to pee, though it falls down her leg and into her shoes. Anita complains that Meena should have taken off her pants completely but Meena ignores her comment and begins to behave in a clown-like manner, to make everyone laugh. However, she remains secretly disturbed about what happened to Tracey. She concludes that even one’s friends can suddenly prove cruel and hateful, creating a group hostility aimed at excluding and humiliating others.
Despite following Anita around, Meena is highly aware of the dynamics that exist between Anita and the other children. Meena also proves strong and courageous in exposing herself, yet doing so to limit embarrassment and humiliation. Her discovery of the dark side of group dynamics serves as a prelude to the lack of trust she will later feel toward the Tollington community, as she realizes that some people are capable of turning on others for no apparent reason.
Reflecting on these events, Meena realizes that she has recently noticed such behavior among Tollington’s adults as well. After the villagers learned that a new motorway would pass through Tollington, they began complaining to the authorities, with little success. Meena noticed that people’s reaction was to begin whispering about any stranger who appeared and dividing up into groups criticizing other people, such as Anita’s mother Deirdre. This led Meena to conclude that the village is not as tranquil and tight-knit as she has always thought. In addition, while authorities attempt to revive industry in the region, life in Tollington remains the same: teenagers grow up, get married, and move to find a job.
Although the villagers’ hostility does not yet affect Meena personally, Meena notices that people’s hatred, directed toward people such as Deirdre, has nothing to do with the actual cause of their frustration: the construction of a new motorway. She understands that this type of hostility is fueled by feelings of powerlessness, which have to do with structural problems related to industry and employment, and not with local people’s actions—even if locals might be the first ones to suffer.
After the peeing competition, Anita sits down with Meena and tells her about sex, finishing her talk by noting that, afterwards, the woman needs to wash herself with gin and vinegar to avoid pregnancy. Meena then realizes that her parents must have had sex to have Sunil, and feels disturbed. She also does not understand why adults are so critical of sex when they take part in it themselves.
Despite all her boasting, Anita’s knowledge of the concrete and health-related aspects of sex is clearly limited, since she believes that washing oneself is sufficient to avoid pregnancy. Such erroneous beliefs are potentially dangerous, as they keep young people like Meena from protecting themselves adequately.
Though Meena finds the idea of sex disgusting, she also wonders if anyone will ever find her attractive. After reading the questions that readers send to Jackie, full of angst and suffering, she decides to send an enquiry of her own. She explains that she is brown but does not wear thick glasses and wonders if she will ever attract a boy. The answer tells her to wear make-up, that Michael Jackson is doing fine, and that Meena should simply be herself. Meena is disappointed by this answer. She concludes that the girls writing to Jackie will soon overcome their problems, whereas Meena will forever be stuck in a brown body. Overcome with shame, Meena begins to avoid mirrors, stop wearing Indian clothing, and keep a safe distance from her parents in the street.
Meena’s worries about her looks have little to do with the actual features of her body, and mostly with racial discrimination. By reading so many magazines, she has absorbed English society’s harmful belief that being a person of color equates with being unattractive. The magazine’s answer only reinforces such ideas. Instead of telling Meena that skin color should be irrelevant to people’s judgments and to her own sense of self, they encourage her to cover up her skin with make-up. This only makes Meena feel more insecure and out of place.
During this troubled period, Meena celebrates her tenth birthday. She tells her parents she wants neither presents nor a party, but she still receives clothes from her mother and books from her father. That Saturday, her parents throw a party for her. Mama, who thinks that Meena might be jealous of all the attention Sunil is receiving, asks papa to talk to her. Meena and her father go for a walk, during which papa asks her if something is bothering her. He says that she used to be happy and that she no longer talks to him. Confused and scared, Meena wonders if her relationship with her father truly depends on the exchange of words and not on a greater bond.
Meena’s parents’ efforts to make Meena feel loved and celebrated reveal their commitment to their daughter. Their belief that she would benefit from presents and a party despite her professed wishes also shows that they do not necessarily believe Meena always knows what is best for her, and want to give her the guidance she needs. Meena’s fear that she might lose her strong connection with her father underlines the importance of this relationship in her life, despite her fits of rebellion.
When Meena explains that she now has her own friends, her father asks her why she spends so much time with Anita Rutter instead of Auntie Shaila’s daughters Pinky and Baby, whom Meena used to enjoy. Meena replies that they are boring. She knows that these two girls represent the typical Indian girl that she should be: polite, discreet, and kind. Meena, by contrast, wants a wilder life, full of outdoor adventures.
Despite papa’s frustration and worries, he doesn’t realize that Meena’s frustration with what is expected of her does not involve wanting to take part in actual harmful behavior. Rather, Meena simply wants to be given the freedom to be a child. Implicitly, Meena is also rebelling against rigid gender rules, which force girls to be gentle instead of adventurous like boys.
Instead of longing to be something she is not, Meena then concludes that she is neither a Tollington native nor a full Indian girl, and that she is beginning to accept this feeling of being stuck in between two identities. She also concludes that Anita recognizes what the two of them have in common: a rebellious soul behind a seemingly dutiful attitude. Meena’s father, though, says that she should help her mother more with domestic tasks instead of spending all her time with her friends.
In trying to define her cultural identity based on personality traits, Meena does not yet realize that there are myriad ways to be “Indian” or “English,” beyond the narrow definitions she is used to. It is only at the end of the novel that Meena will realize that she is free to call any place her own, as long as she stays herself.
That evening, Auntie Shaila brings her two daughters to Meena’s birthday party. Although Meena used to enjoy Pinky and Baby’s presence, she now finds them too tame and childish. Therefore, when Anita comes to the door, Meena decides to follow her, taking her two cousins along. When the group reaches Mr. Ormerod’s shop, Anita seizes the opportunity to steal candy from the counter while Mr. Ormerod is not looking. The cousins, who have assisted in the entire scene, are frozen in place, terrified.
Even if Meena does not necessarily want to harm others, she is attracted by a certain rebelliousness that is connected to illegality. However, the guilt Meena later feels, as well as her general distaste for violence, distinguish her from Anita, who enjoys taking part in exciting, dangerous actions as well as harming others.
Anita then challenges Meena to steal as well. However, Meena is too scared to behave quickly enough, and Mr. Ormerod appears while Meena is about to grab marzipan bananas. To keep from getting into trouble, Meena places a marzipan banana on the counter. Suspicious, Mr. Ormerod looks at Anita and asks her if she plans on buying anything. He knows that she has probably stolen something but, in the end, he avoids confrontation and asks Meena for a penny.
Mr. Ormerod’s suspicious attitude toward Anita shows that the young girl already has a reputation for misbehavior, whereas he still sees Meena as an innocent girl. This shows how dangerous it could be for Meena to keep spending time with Anita, as taking part in misdeeds could spoil her reputation, severing the trust that the community has in her.
Stuck in this situation, Meena has the idea of asking Mr. Ormerod to grab some polish for her mother. While Mr. Ormerod is gone, Meena steals a jar on his counter that contains donations for babies in Africa, emptying out its contents in her skirt. Unable to get the coins out quickly enough, Meena puts it into Baby’s jumper. She keeps Baby from making any sound by threatening her with death. When Mr. Ormerod returns, he notices that Baby is crying but Meena invents an excuse and the four of them exit the shop, after asking for a few extra marzipan bananas.
Meena’s act of lying and stealing is marked by symbolism, as she is not only taking money away from Mr. Ormerod, but also from the community (the people that contributed to the jar) and the children who might receive charity. This reveals that one’s actions have consequences on the entire community—something that Meena will soon discover through Sam’s racist words, which are both personally and universally harmful.
On their way home, the cousins protest about what has happened but Meena forces them to keep quiet by saying that she could easily tell the police they were accomplices in this crime. Anita is so impressed with Meena’s attitude that she offers for her to co-lead their gang, and Meena is overwhelmed with pride, as well as a feeling of freedom from what she has just done. She decides to take her cousins back home and promises Anita to keep the tin so that they can buy things in the future.
Meena’s aggressive attitude toward the girls is moved by personal necessity—namely, keeping her parents from finding out what she did and punishing her. The fact that Anita is impressed with Meena suggests that Meena is on a dangerous path to become more like her friend. Meena’s belief that Anita might actually keep her promise and make this relationship more equal soon proves to be nothing but an illusion, though. Apparently that nothing she does can actually bring Anita to be more open and generous.
Later that evening, Mr. Ormerod comes to the Kumars’ house, after Meena has opened her presents and eaten happily, free of guilt. After Meena’s father talks with the shopkeeper, he takes Meena aside and asks her if she knows anything about a tin that has gone missing from Mr. Ormerod’s shop. In that moment, Meena finally realizes that she has done something horrible. However, instead of telling the truth, she accuses Baby of taking the money to buy sweets. Meena retrieves the tin from where she hid it. Her father insists on giving Mr. Ormerod ten shillings to cover the missing money, even though that is much more than what the girls took.
The consequences of Meena’s lies on other people finally become apparent. Not only does she shamefully accuse someone else instead of being accountable for her actions, thus exposing Baby to punishment, but she also causes her father to spend his own money to repair her actions. However, Meena’s guilt is a positive sign of moral consciousness. This makes her less likely to take part in a similar action in the future, since she will already know that stealing and accusing others makes her feel bad.
After convincing Meena’s father to talk, Auntie Shaila discovers what has happened and decides to leave the house at once. Meena watches as Auntie Shaila hits Baby on the head before entering the car, and both girls begin crying. That night, Meena cannot sleep. She hears her father’s footsteps and realizes that he cannot sleep either. The next morning, he does not look at his daughter and leaves the room as soon as Anita comes to call Meena at the back gate.
Meena is clearly troubled by what she did, as being confronted by Pinky and Baby’s pain keeps her from ignoring the consequences of her actions. Her father, too, senses that something is not right, and that Meena might have lied to him. He also understands that it’s likely all of this has something to do with Anita’s bad influence.