When Meena later reads about the Sixties, she realizes that Tollington had no real sexual revolution of its own. In this global historical context, her family was even less noticeable. Meena recounts her family’s excitement every time a brown or black face appears on television, even though the characters they depict are usual stereotypical and unrealistic. Her family members also complain about discrimination during the job-seeking process, as employers dismiss their potential as soon as they see their face. Meena concludes that truth matters little in the official narratives of history.
Later in her life, Meena attempts to understand Tollington and her childhood both through her personal experiences and through larger social and historical developments. Meena concludes that the society she grew up in was conservative, racist, and potentially oppressive in sexual terms (as Anita’s superficial understanding of sex suggests). Meena’s conclusion that her parents’ or Anita’s experiences do not fit the official narrative of history suggests that history does not necessarily encapsulate the experiences of more vulnerable, marginalized populations.
In Tollington during the spring, Mr. Pembridge and Mrs. Pembridge, who live in the posh section of the village road, organize a town-wide party called Fete. They ask local stalls to come sell products and use the benefits to serve a charitable cause. Most villagers are awed by the Pembridges’ wealth and enjoy going to Fete to take part in the family’s elegance.
The inequality between the Pembridges’ wealth and the rest of the population serves as a backdrop for the frustration that people like Sam Lowbridge feel about their socio-economic status and their lack of opportunities.
Meena’s mother does not want to go to Fete with Meena and her father. Meena explains that mama has been overwhelmed by having to care for Sunil. To solve this problem, Meena once suggested that her mother could drop Sunil off at the orphanage so that she could get more sleep, which led her mother to be shocked and her father to force Meena to feed Sunil that day. Meena, though, notes that Sunil’s problem is that he is too attached to mama, who in turn assents to his every desire, leading even relatives such as Auntie Shaila to suggest that Sunil should learn to be more independent.
Meena’s parents’ reactions to her proposal reveal their fear that Meena might feel completely detached from her brother and not yet understand that he is a permanent part of the family—one that she should love and cherish. Despite Meena’s shocking attitude, she is correct in noting that her mother is overworked. Mama’s later breakdown will confirm that she wishes she received more help in taking care of her son.
At Fete, Meena hears Uncle Alan argue with Mr. Ormerod, telling him that he believe Africans should be free to follow whichever religion they want, instead of being forced to receive Bibles as charity, since having enough money to live a dignified life is an expression of God’s will. Mr. Ormerod is so shocked by Uncle Alan’s ideas that he avoids him for the rest of the day.
Unlike Ormerod, Uncle Alan does not consider himself superior from different cultures. Mr. Ormerod, by contrast, believes that conversion equates with moral salvation. This perspective essentially ostracizes anyone whose religious beliefs might be different from his own.
Meena recalls another time her father and she overheard Mr. Ormerod discussing Uncle Alan’s ideas with another woman. Mr. Ormerod told the woman he believed it was the English’s role to bring foreigners culture and civilization, instead of simply giving them material objects. When Mr. Kumar later told his wife what had happened, both of them erupted in laughter, though mama suddenly went quiet, wondering if Mr. Ormerod’s opinions expressed how the English actually saw Indians: as uncivilized people desperate for modern utensils. Papa simply replied that the Tollington villagers have accepted them and never given them any trouble. Mama then angrily began recounting people’s so-called compliments to her when they say she is “so English.”
Mr. Ormerod has a racist, condescending attitude toward other cultures. He is unable to understand that English norms are not universal, and that other people should be given the freedom to express their culture however they please. His attitude is reminiscent of colonial beliefs, which constantly subordinated the natives’ well-being and desires to the dominating powers’ decisions. In this sense, although colonization has ended, it appears that people like Mr. Ormerod have learned nothing from history.
Meena also recalls the story of one of their friends, an Auntie, who was attacked by an anonymous white person, even though she had done nothing wrong. Troubled by a possible relation between Mr. Ormerod’s words and violent, discriminatory deeds, as well as what she has witnessed in Anita’s gang, Meena begins to feel suspicious about the difference between strangers and friends. Fete, she explains, will soon reveal the presence of strangers among the people she knows.
Meena’s recollection of this violent episode is scary, but remains detached from her life. Meena does not yet realize that she will soon be confronted by such a horrific episode herself, when Sam Lowbridge and his gang take part in the beating of an innocent Indian man. Meena realizes that violent deeds and racist comments are all part of a single ideology: the belief that certain groups of people are superior to others.
At Fete, Mr. Pembridge makes a speech about the Tollington community. Sam Lowbridge, who Meena is shocked to see has cut his hair close to his scalp, interrupts him. Accompanied by his group of friends, he screams some vulgar comments to Mrs. Pembridge, who is much less elegant than her husband and has a miner’s accent. Mr. Pembridge attempts to pursue his speech, arguing for uniting against the construction of the road through Tollington. People then rush through the gates to buy anything they can.
Sam Lowbridge’s attitude can be seen as a rejection of the wealth that the Pembridges represent—that is, an expression of his frustration at not having many economic opportunities himself. His hostility toward Mrs. Pembridge suggests that he wants to humiliate her for not behaving in line with her social class. The fact that people’s accents are capable of determining their social status suggests that there are cultural as well as economic barriers to social mobility.
When Meena reaches Sandy’s stand, she sees that the woman is selling home-made, shapeless stuffed animals, which look clumsily like various animals at once. Meena is sad to notice other people laughing at Sandy’s creations until Hairy Neddy then arrives. He calls Sandy’s animals “Space Gonks,” loudly saying that all the other shops in Wolverhampton that sell these hybrid animals are out of stock. He then explains to the curious women nearby that these are famous educational toys meant to stimulate children’s imagination. Hairy Neddy’s speech is so convincing that people flock to Sandy’s stand to buy these previously mocked toys.
Meena’s sadness for Sandy once again reveals her empathy for those in a vulnerable position. Hairy Neddy’s speech, which is nothing but a big lie, serves a good purpose: to allow Sandy to sell her stuffed animals. In doing so, Hairy Neddy not only helps his girlfriend, but also prevents people from mocking her. The threat of gossiping and mockery is constant in Tollington, and Hairy Neddy’s ability to stop it at least temporarily reveals that people’s passions can be directed toward positive goals instead of negative ones.
Hairy Neddy then passes a note to an overjoyed Sandy, and Meena realizes that he is proposing to her. As Sandy begins to cry and everyone applauds, Meena concludes that this is the most romantic moment she has ever witnessed. Her father, though, is listening to an argument between Uncle Alan and Reverend Ince, the church vicar. After the discussion ends in a tense manner, Alan joins Meena and her father. When he asks Mr. Kumar what he thought of Mr. Pembridge’s speech, Meena’s father says that he does not particularly like Mr. Churchill—whom Mr. Pembridge mentions—because the English leader spoke of Gandhi in a patronizing way. Alan agrees with him.
This romantic moment between Sally and Hairy Neddy shows that Meena’s parents are not necessarily the only ones in Tollington who have a loving, healthy relationship, and that not all English abide by standards of emotion-free love. As the reader later discovers, this discussion between Uncle Alan and Reverend Ince concerns the allocation of the money raised. While Alan would want it to go to a charitable cause, the reverend is self-interested and prefers to use it for the renovation of his own church. Mr. Kumar’s distaste for Churchill is a reminder that history is subjective, as its interpretation depends on one’s national and cultural perspective.
Meena then leaves her father, who wants to go gambling. Her father loves to gamble, even though he is also very prudent, having experienced poverty enough to know that he does not want to put his livelihood at risk. Meena sees Anita talking animatedly with a fortune teller who looks mysterious. Meena agrees to give a demanding Anita her entire spending money to pay for this activity.
Mr. Kumar’s mix of gambling with prudence shows his sense of responsibility toward himself and his family, as he enjoys taking part in playful activities but remains conscious of ther repercussions on other people. Meena gives Anita all her money, once again bowing to Anita’s demands without protest.
Taking Meena’s hand, the fortune teller tells her that her mother will soon have health problems but that they will receive help from overseas. She also mentions that, although Meena is intelligent and bound for success, she is under a bad influence and will need to lose everything before she can have a new start. Meena wonders if the fortune teller has been able to read her thoughts and see her tendency to lie, and quickly removes her hand.
The fortune teller will prove particularly accurate in her predictions. The help from overseas is Nanima, who comes to help her daughter take care of Sunil. Although the bad influence is evidently Anita, Meena’s admiration for Anita keeps her from understanding this.
Anita then gives the fortune teller her hand, looking serious. However, after taking it in hers, the woman refuses to read it. Anita yells at her to do her job and the woman resignedly tells her that her mother is gone and that Anita will marry young and have babies early. Irritated by Anita’s complaints about this reading, the fortune teller reproves the young girl for always being in a hurry and tells her that an accident will happen in a few years. While Anita might get lucky, this depends on her efforts not to spoil the good things that come to her. Furious, Anita insults the fortune teller and leaves, taking the money with her. Afterwards, Meena tries to apologize for her friend’s behavior, but the woman ironically asks her if she truly thinks Anita is her friend.
This fortune reading puts many aspects of Anita’s life in perspective. The woman’s refusal to read Anita’s hand suggests that Anita is affected by very serious problems, which might make her feel bad. Anita’s problems with her mother and her predicted future put Meena and Anita’s lives in stark contrast, revealing how bleak Anita’s life actually is, despite her efforts to seem in control. Although this might make one feel pity for Anita, the fortune teller warns Meena that Anita is too self-interested to be her friend. Her judgment makes it seem as though there is little hope for Anita to change.
Meena spends the rest of the afternoon following Anita from a distance, since she knows not to interrupt Anita’s fits of anger. She finds the positive and negative aspects of Anita’s personality deeply seductive, and understands why people might be drawn to her. The girls then run into Sherrie and, after discussing wearing a bra—which Meena knows Anita doesn’t, despite her claims—Anita asks Sherrie about her new horse, revealing underlying jealousy. Sherrie feels compelled to ask Anita to come ride it, and Anita says that Meena should come along, which makes Meena feel proud.
Meena’s decision to follow Anita from a distance mirrors the very first day they spent time together, when Meena accepted to stay behind because she felt honored to be spending time with an older girl. This repetition of behavior suggests that the two girls’ relationship has not evolved much, even though they spend most of their time together. Anita’s moments of kindness still do not come from a desire to connect with others, but as a potential form of manipulation.
As the afternoon draws to an end, everyone waits around to hear Mr. Pembridge’s speech. Meena notices her father waving a whiskey bottle at her, which he won by gambling. Mr. Pembridge then announces that Tollington raised the most money of all the villages in the region and lets Reverend Ince speak, while Uncle Alan, by his side, has difficulty containing his anger. The reverend announces that, instead of sending money for the missionary project in Africa, like Uncle Alan did last year, he wants to use it at home, to build a new roof for the chapel.
The reverend’s announcement is clearly opportunistic, as he forgoes an opportunity to help others, preferring to serve his own interests. This stance is all the more shocking because of the man’s role as a religious leader, which should encourage him to consider the well-being of others before his own desires. In contrast, Uncle Alan is actually interested in helping others.
The crowd expresses its discontent for such a disappointing way to spend money, and Sam Lowbridge, at the gate, suddenly intervenes, insulting the reverend’s idea. He says that this project has nothing to do with Tollington residents. The crowd pays visible attention to Sam’s words, and he continues to yell, arguing that the reverend should try to stop the diggers for the motorway. Uncle Alan tries to intervene and use Sam’s energy for a good cause, arguing that everyone could vote about what they believe would be best, but Sam interrupts him, saying he wants this money to go to them, not to some anonymous “wogs.”
Sam’s intervention initially seems legitimate, as he expresses the discontent that the entire crowd feels and thus serves as a representative for the villagers. However, his anger about the motorway already suggests that the real source of his anger is probably not the money itself, but larger, unrelated problems in Tollington. Finally, his attribution of the source of these problems to non-white people turns valid criticism into a gratuitous expression of hatred, no longer in line with his actual grievance.
At these words, Meena remains frozen in place. Though everyone suddenly becomes uncomfortable and looks at Meena and her father, Anita, by Meena’s side, gives her friend no comfort. Meena is then horrified to hear a couple of people loudly agree with Sam. When she turns toward the direction of these voices, she is shocked to see that they are part of Mr. Ormerod’s group, though the shopkeeper looks flustered. Meena does not understand how Sam, who has always liked her, could say such things. Finally, though, she hears people insulting Sam and telling him to go away.
Anita’s inability to give Meena support suggests that she either does not care enough about Meena to do so or that she does not understand the gravity of the situation and the fact that people can be personally hurt by racist comments. Although there are only a few voices in the community that support Sam, this is enough to make Meena lose trust in her fellow villagers, as she realizes that even people she knows might harbor racist ideas toward people like her.
Sam finally drives off on his moped, and Meena sees people offer support to her father. As she begins to walk toward him, Anita holds her back, telling her how alluring Sam looked. Shocked, Meena tells Anita that she is stupid and walks away. As they walk home, her father tells that she should always say something back to insulting comments, and then come talk to him.
The community’s show of support toward Mr. Kumar reveals that most people, unlike Anita, understand the gravity of the situation and want to protect this man who is one of them. Meena’s harsh words to Anita represent her first act of defiance, as Meena proves strong enough to stand up for her principles even to her so-called best friend.
When they arrive home, Meena can tell that something is wrong. They find her mother in the living room, with a sleeping Sunil on her lap. Mama begins to talk about how much she misses India, where she would have so many family members to help her out with domestic tasks. Meena walks up to her room to let her parents talk in peace, and wonders about the fortune teller’s predictions. She feels frightened by everything that happened during the day and concludes that change is often unsettling.
Mama’s reaction is a mix of exhaustion, homesickness, and loneliness. Her desire for her Indian relatives to be present reveals how central family is to her. This contrasts with her current situation of isolation and, more generally, with what she perceives to be an English focus on independence and individualism.
The next day, Meena sees Anita and Fat Sally take a detour by her house to show her that they are walking to Sherrie’s farm. Meena, however, is surprised to note that she does not care about their behavior. She falls back asleep, overcome by new emotions, and when she wakes up her father announces that her maternal grandmother Nanima is coming to England next week for a visit. Meena is then appalled to realize that the fortune teller’s predictions are all coming true.
Anita’s behavior with Fat Sally only confirms what the fortune teller told Meena: that Anita is not a true friend, since she prefers to make Meena jealous and replace her with another girl than to actually solve the problems between them. Meena’s indifference is a positive sign, showing that she is beginning to prioritize herself over Anita’s desires.