When Nanima arrives in Tollington, welcomed at Meena’s house by her family as well as Auntie Shaila’s, everyone in the village notices the old woman’s arrival. After Nanima greets Pinky and Baby and then Sunil, she comes to great Meena, who recognizes her mother’s traits in her grandmother’s face and begins to cry when Nanima whispers blessings in Punjabi in her ear.
Nanima’s arrival reveals that the Kumar family is not necessarily as isolated as they may seem, since they benefit from strong support back home. This feels like a life-changing moment for her, reinforcing her ties to her family and her Indian background.
In the house, when Nanima sits down in the chair that always makes leather farting sounds, she begins to laugh uproariously, which makes Meena giggle. Nanima then takes Meena’s chin and tells her that she is a “junglee,” a wild girl. Although papa insists that this is not a compliment, Meena feels ecstatic, because she can tell that her grandmother finds her amusing and is proud of her.
Nanima brings something new to Meena’s life: the mix of family and fun. Instead of punishing Meena for her rambunctious nature, she understands it as a positive quality and wants to celebrate it. This allows Meena to begin to accept that embracing her Indian family and heritage does not necessarily mean erasing the more rebellious parts of herself.
During the rest of the evening, Nanima answers people’s questions about home, though she tells stories about people no one actually knows. Meena’s father translates for Meena, and the young girl notices how happy everyone seems to be in Nanima’s presence, as Nanima reminds them of their own parents. Meena finds her mother cheerful and strong again and, in that moment, promises to herself never to leave her, even if she has to travel around the world with her during her future successful career as a famous actress.
Nanima’s presence reveals how attached Meena’s parents and extended family are to their Indian identity. It also highlights the difficulty of being an immigrant, as one is forced to live with underlying feelings of longing and sadness for the people who are not there. Meena’s promise to stay with her mother underlines her attachment to her family, suggesting that her desire to rebel is not as strong as the love and responsibility she feels toward her parents.
The evening, full of cheer and excited chatter, spills out into the yard, followed by the strong, spicy smells of Indian food. The women who pass by the house give Mr. Kumar many compliments, flirting with him playfully as they usually do, which makes Meena’s father blush but amuses her mother. At one point, while the adults are drinking and smoking, Meena’s father tells her that she should learn Punjabi. This disconcerts Meena, making her feel insecure and confused.
The women flirting with Mr. Kumar mirrors their appreciation of Meena’s mother, who is universally seen as a kind, warm person. This suggests that the Tollington villagers find the Kumars appealing and interesting, and that they are fully integrated in the social community. The idea of learning Punjabi is the first sign that Meena might benefit from immersing herself more in her Indian culture, instead of feeling ashamed about it.
During the party outside, Meena witness two strange events. She sees a man drop Deirdre off near the Big House, and notices that Anita is waiting for her mother at the corner. Meena then realizes she has not spoken to Anita for a long time, because Anita has not forgiven her for what she said at Fete. Anita confronts her mother verbally but Deirdre then attacks her back, making her daughter cry. Although Meena is shocked to see her friend cry for the first time, she is even more stunned to see that there is a large figure in the Big House looking at her family’s party through a window. Meena searches for her father to tell him about it, but when she turns back around, the face is gone.
The strange scene between Anita and Deirdre suggests that Deirdre is probably cheating on Anita’s father Roberto—a hypothesis that will later be confirmed when Deirdre abandons her family to run off with her lover. For once, it becomes clear that Anita, who always surrounds herself with friends, actually suffers from loneliness and the need for actual love and care from her mother. This might explain why she often behaves like Deirdre, preferring to bully others than to reveal her weakness.
When Meena goes up to her room, Nanima is sleeping on one side of her double bed. Although Meena is initially reticent to climb in, she ultimately does. Nanima snores loudly and suddenly emits a loud fart, which makes Meena laugh. Nanima then takes her granddaughter under her arm, calling her Junglee, and falls back asleep. Although Sunil usually never sleeps through the night, Meena wakes up the next day to see him lying happily against Nanima, where mama had placed him that night. Since then, for the first time, Sunil begins sleeping full nights in his cot and sitting on papa’s lap to eat breakfast.
Nanima becomes a symbol of care and protection, allowing the entire family to thrive. Her ability to make Sunil sleep peacefully shows her positive effect on everyone, which will later lead Meena to believe that her grandmother has the powers of a sorcerer. Sunil has finally detached himself from dependence on his mother and is launching a new routine, which might be less exhausting for Mrs. Kumar.
Nanima’s arrival revolutionizes life in Meena’s house. Nanima’s presence has magically allowed Sunil to distance himself from his asphyxiating relationship with mama and to extend his love to other family members, especially Meena. Meena finds herself happy to care for Sunil, whereas she used to hate such tasks. Convinced that Nanima is some kind of sorcerer, she also loves listening to Nanima’s stories, usually sparked by what her grandmother notices on the television.
The love that Sunil shows Meena in turn causes the young girl to want to take care of him. This suggests that love can have transformative effects, generating a desire to care and protect others. This situation puts Meena’s relationship with Anita in perspective, as Anita’s constant desire to humiliate others suggests that she is not capable of giving true love—and, perhaps, that she does not receive any herself.
Through her exchanges with Nanima, Meena learns about British soldiers stealing chickens from her family and sending her grandfather to prison for refusing to fight in the British army. Meena initially wonders if her father (who translates for Nanima) is embellishing these anecdotes to make them seem more adventurous, but she soon realizes that Indian history is in fact full of dramatic events that stimulate her imagination. Instead of feeling shame for her Indian background and the history of India, which is so often described in patronizing terms at school, Meena now begins to feel proud of her identity and longs to discover India for herself.
The danger and violence that Meena perceives in Nanima’s stories only make her more curious about India. It seems that part of Meena’s personality—her turbulent, adventure-seeking side—is in line with her Indian culture, despite her feeling that she does not behave as a typical Indian girl should. Meena’s desire to understand India better partly resolves her identity crisis, suggesting that, instead of hiding her Indian heritage, she should delve deeper into it, so that it might form an organic part of her life.
Meena also discovers some of the less romantic aspects of life in India. After Nanima mentions how difficult it is for the poor to receive an education, mama tells Meena that this was the primary reason behind her decision to leave India: to give her children the opportunity to go to university without having to bribe officials. Meena then realizes that she will need to take the eleven-plus exam next year, which will determine which school she goes to: the fancy girls’ grammar school or the new comprehensive school. Aware of her parents’ sacrifice to invest in her education, she feels the pressure to succeed.
The stories Meena hears about India make the country seem more complex, and real. They make her curious about discovering the country for herself, but also highlight how lucky she is to be growing up in England. This dual idea suggests that Meena should invest in both aspects of her identity: her English education, which her parents have worked so hard to give her, and her Indian background, which makes her feel integrated into a greater community.
One day, at the beginning of Easter holiday, when Meena, Sunil, and her mother come home, they cannot find Nanima. Walking out to search for her, they run into Deirdre and ask her if she has seen her, but Mrs. Worrall then yells to them that Nanima is with her. Mama feels relieved and is about to leave, but Deirdre then asks her if she has stopped Meena from seeing Anita. Both Meena and her mother understand that Deirdre probably feels insecure because mama, despite being a foreigner, is more successful and popular in the village than Deirdre is. Mama thus adopts a conciliatory tone, saying that Anita is always welcome at their home.
Deirdre’s concern for her daughter is surprising, since she seems so uninvolved in Anita’s personal life and never showed any interest in being kind to Meena. Her attitude is both selfish and caring, since her desire to protect her daughter also reflects her indignation at being treated worse than a foreigner. This highlights Deirdre’s insecurity as well as her underlying racist beliefs, seemingly shocked to discover that Meena’s mother can be both dark-skinned and popular.
Meena and her mother then go to Mrs. Worrall’s house, where they are bewildered to discover Nanima speaking in rapid Punjabi with Mr. Worrall, who tries to grunt and gesture to her in response. Meena concludes that the two of them must understand each other beyond language barriers. Mrs. Worrall tells mama that Nanima says she has not left the house much and encourages them to take her out more.
Nanima’s surprising exchange with Mr. Worrall suggests that language and cultural barriers need not be an obstacle to true respect and understanding. This also highlights Nanima’s exuberant, outgoing personality, as she does not mind chatting with someone who cannot actually answer her in her own language.
Ten minutes later, Meena finds herself walking in the street with Nanima and Sunil. Meena attempts to use the few Punjabi words she knows to communicate with her grandmother. When the village women see Nanima, they begin asking Meena many questions about her. Although Meena understands they are trying to be friendly, she does not want them to see Nanima as an inferior and invents that her grandmother speaks four languages, owns mineral mines, and knows how to ride a motorbike. The women are amazed by these anecdotes and admire Nanima.
Meena’s attempts to communicate with her grandmother in Punjabi show that she still has a lot to learn about India, but that she is eager to immerse herself more deeply in her family’s culture. Meena’s lie once again serves an admirable purpose: protecting her family and fighting racism. Despite feeling relatively integrated in the community, Meena remains weary of white people’s feelings of superiority.
When the man whom Meena calls Mr. Topsy arrives, everyone is shocked to hear him speak Punjabi with Nanima. Meena then discovers that his real name is Mr. Turvey, and feels furious about the fact that a stranger speaks Punjabi when she still hasn’t learned it. Mr. Turvey explains that he served in India for ten years and adored the people there, but that what the British did in the colony was cruel and unacceptable.
Mr. Turvey’s surprising linguistic and cultural knowledge suggests that some people in Tollington might prove to be allies in her fight against racism. Mr. Turvey’s condemnatory attitude toward British colonization reveals that some people’s moral principles can prove greater than their nationalistic attachments.
Meena and her grandmother then go to Mr. Ormerod’s shop to buy groceries. Meena, who sees Mr. Ormerod chatting with a member of his church group—the same group that encouraged Sam Lowbridge’s racist comments at Fete—does not want to go in and sends Nanima in alone with a list of groceries. She watches as the man looks mockingly at Nanima, with a mix of curiosity, revulsion, and pity.
The man’s attitude toward Nanima reveals that racism sometimes involves complex, contradictory attitudes. As the mix of curiosity and pity suggests, racism is often born of ignorance—an inability to open oneself to a completely different social and cultural world in a judgment-free manner, without considering one’s own traditions superior.
When Nanima returns, Meena counts the change and realizes that some is missing. Furious, she walks back into the store and angrily accuses Mr. Ormerod of cheating her grandmother because she does not speak English. Meena adds an angry comment about the church roof and Mr. Ormerod, embarrassed, apologizes for that event. However, he explains that the missing money covers the chocolate bar that Nanima bought. Surprised and embarrassed, Meena leaves the store to see Nanima and Sunil gobbling up chocolate. Meena feels tired all of a sudden and begins to push the pram back home angrily.
Like Sam Lowbridge, although Meena’s anger is justified, she too expresses it in a potentially violent way, disproportionate to the situation at hand. Mr. Ormerod seems to know his church has done something wrong, and that he does not necessarily agree with it.
On their way home, they run into Uncle Alan talking to Sam Lowbridge and his friends. Meena overhears Alan tell Sam that he should use his energy to go after the true culprits, the rich and privileged, instead of honest workers trying to live in a dignified way. Uncle Alan greets Meena and tells her that he was having a chat with Sam about the danger of directing one’s anger toward other people instead of recognizing one’s personal frustrations. Meena simply says that Sam is “a prat” and Sam, surprised, asks her if she is angry at him. Meena feels overwhelmed with anger and a headache, but Nanima quietly steps forward and everyone falls silent, though Alan then greets Meena’s grandmother.
Clearly some members of the Tollington community, like Uncle Alan, are devoted to fighting injustice, racism, and intolerance. Alan emphasizes that Sam has more in common with non-whites than he might think, since many immigrants are in the same situation as him: suffering from a larger system that does not allow them economic and social progress. Sam’s surprise at Meena’s anger shows that he does not actually understand who the target of his racist comments is, since he feels bad about hurting Meena but does not regret insulting people of color.
On their way home, Meena keeps on feeling sharp pain in her head. When her mother sees her, she concludes that Meena has a fever. Meena lies down and wakes up hours later to see her father by her side. She asks him for water and her father gives her a special tea that Nanima made. During the night, she asks her father if she can play with Anita the next day. She remembers her friend crying outside her house and cannot get this image out of her mind.
The supportive, loving atmosphere of Meena’s family contrasts with the potentially treacherous outside world, revealing how important it is for Meena to have a safe place where she can feel at home. It seems that she still does not understand how dangerous and hurtful Anita can be, however.
Later during the night, Nanima comes to lie down and whispers sentences to Meena in Punjabi that Meena is surprised to understand. Nanima recalls her short childhood, getting married at sixteen, the death of one of her children, and then the arrival of British soldiers, who took everything away from her. After her husband’s imprisonment, they had nothing left to live on and left for Delhi, where Nanima lived a second life, like a second birth. Mama is now living yet another one, and Meena as well.
Meena’s sudden ability to understand Punjabi gives this scene a surreal quality, but also suggests that Meena might be absorbing more of her Indian culture than she realizes. This conversation allows Meena to understand that people’s harsh circumstances do not impede them from living fulfilling lives.