Anita and Me


Meera Syal

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Meera Syal’s novel Anita and Me is set in the fictional English village of Tollington in the 1970s. It follows the life of nine-year-old Meena Kumar, the daughter of Indian immigrants, as she attempts to define her personal identity, marked by her Indian background and the small-town, English society in which she grows up.

At the beginning of the novel, Meena describes her earliest memories as her parents’ arrival in India. However, she then admits that these are not actually her own memories, but that she enjoys this narrative because it makes her feel connected to her Indian background. She concludes that people like her need to lie about their identity to feel as though they belong somewhere.

The narrative then shifts to life in Tollington, as Meena is caught telling a lie to her father. She finally admits that she has indeed taken money from her mother to buy sweets at Mr. Ormerod’s local shop. This scene, which leaves Meena’s father furious, allows Meena to reflect on her family background. Although Meena is close to her parents, who try to give her guidance and support, she often finds herself lying and wanting to rebel. In addition to her parents, her family includes a series of Indian acquaintances whom Meena calls “Aunties” and “Uncles”—friends who are not actually relatives but who come to Meena’s house on a regular basis. Although this community makes Meena feel loved, it also encourages her to conform to a typical image of an Indian girl: pleasant and polite. Meena, by contrast, wants to spend time outdoors and take part in physical activities.

Meena finds an outlet for these rebellious energies in her relationship with Anita Rutter, a local thirteen-year-old girl. Anita is known for being the leader of a group of two friends, Sherrie and Fat Sally. Meena notices that Anita always wants to create rivalries among her friends so that she can have power over them. However, Meena is fascinated by Anita’s capacity to speak her mind openly, however rude or vulgar her thoughts might be, and Meena soon becomes one of Anita’s followers. Meena knows that her conversations with Anita rarely allow her to talk sincerely, but she still considers Anita her friend and is honored to be spending time with an older girl. In addition, Meena finds that Sam Lowbridge, a sixteen-year-old boy who is considered the town rebel, is kind to her, despite their age difference.

In the meantime, Meena enjoys spending time with her family. One day, when Meena’s mother is driving her to another city, Meena hears a driver insult them, calling them “bloody wogs,” an offensive term for non-whites. This represents Meena’s first direct encounter with racism, and she feels a mix of emotions, from fear and anger to utter powerlessness. Although she wants to share this episode with her father, she realizes that he too must have suffered from racism in his life and does not want to burden him.

Weeks later, the day of Diwali arrives, the Hindu festival of lights. While Meena’s mother is preparing the dinner, Meena puts on her mother’s diamond necklace and goes with Anita to the fair. On the way, they pass the Big House, a scary building whose inhabitants no one has ever seen. At the fair, they join Sherrie and Sally and meet a group of boys. Anita seduces one of them, a boy called Dave “The Poet,” while Sherrie and Sally each choose a boy for themselves. Meena then realizes that Anita has not introduced her and that these boys do not even know her name. She also sees one of the boy’s show relief at being stuck with Fat Sally instead of her. This makes Meena feel terrible about herself, both because of Anita’s disregard and the boy’s racist attitude.

Meena comes home to the Diwali gathering, and after her father sings one of his beautiful Punjabi songs, Meena is asked to sing. She does so, but also mentions one of Anita’s vulgar sexual expressions, shocking her entire audience. She is told to go to her room and later hears her mother worrying about her, telling Auntie Shaila, their closest Indian acquaintance, that Meena has been misbehaving a lot. Overwhelmed by all of these events, Meena secretly leaves the house to go back to the fair.

Meena meets up with Anita, and is then shocked to see Anita’s mother Deirdre kiss and run away with Dave, whom Anita had been kissing earlier. Meena and Anita, who did not see what happened, then walk toward the Big House. Anita enters through a hole in the fence and dares Meena to do the same. Although Meena is terrified, she wants to prove to Anita that she is courageous and obeys. As they walk around the dark yard, Meena is shocked to find a hidden statue of Ganesha. Anita and Meena are then chased off the property by an angry dog, and Meena loses her mother’s necklace in the process.

Back at home, Meena expects to be punished for leaving the house but discovers that her mother has had a medical problem and needs to go to the hospital. A few hours later, Meena’s mother gives birth to a baby boy, Sunil.

While her mother is in the hospital, Meena spends most of her time with Anita. The two of them convince younger children to form a gang. Meena initially enjoys their games but one day is shocked to see Anita and other young children pick on Anita’s sister, Tracey, ultimately making her run away and cry. Shocked by this public humiliation, Meena concludes that people cannot be trusted, as they turn on their friends to humiliate them. Before Tracey runs away, Meena notices bruises on Tracey’s thighs, suggesting that she is being sexually abused.

Meena herself soon finds herself involved in a harmful deed. After Meena and her two cousins Pinky and Baby accompany Anita to Mr. Ormerod’s shop, Anita encourages Meena to steal. Meena does so, stealing a tin can of charity money from the counter. When Mr. Ormerod later comes to Meena’s house to ask about the can, Meena tells her father that Baby took the money. Meena initially felt proud to have behaved recklessly and impressed Anita, but she now feels guilty, realizing that she has blamed others for her own misdeed.

When spring arrives, the entire village goes to Fete, a party organized by a rich villager, Mr. Pembridge, who donates the proceeds to charity. Tensions have been rising in the village after it was announced that a new motorway will be built, destroying sections of Tollington. After Mr. Pembridge mentions the motorway in a speech and a local reverend announces that, instead of using Fete’s money for charity, he will use it to repair the roof of the local church, Sam Lowbridge intervenes, loudly criticizing the project. Inspired by the crowd’s approval of his angry speech, he then expresses his hatred of “wogs,” drawing sounds of approval from a few people in the crowd. Meena, who has always had a friendly relationship with Sam, is shocked both by his behavior and by the fact that local villagers would agree with him. She suddenly realizes that some people harbor racist beliefs. As Meena walks away, Anita stops her, commenting on Sam’s good looks. Outraged, Meena calls Anita stupid, an event that causes the two girls to spend time apart.

In the meantime, Meena’s mother has been feeling depressed and overwhelmed by all her domestic duties, and in particular by having to take care of Sunil on her own. Nanima, Meena’s maternal grandmother, soon arrives to help, revolutionizing Meena’s family life. Through Nanima, Meena learns about life in India and discovers that Indian history is dramatic and fascinating. Although Meena has often felt ill at ease in English society, where she wonders if her skin is too brown for her to fit in, she now feels pride at her Indian heritage and wants to explore India for herself. She develops a loving relationship with Nanima, who, unlike Meena’s parents, appreciates Meena’s wild side.

However, Meena is soon reminded of the racist undertones of her own community. One day when Meena, Nanima, and Sunil are walking around Tollington, they run into Sam Lowbridge and his gang. A local Methodist youth leader, Uncle Alan, is remonstrating Sam for his racist attitude, encouraging him to use his energies to fight injustice in other ways. Meena becomes so furious at seeing Sam that she insults him and develops a fever.

After learning that Anita’s mother Deirdre has abandoned her family, Meena has begun to feel pity for Anita, realizing that, despite Anita’s domineering attitude, she might actually need their friendship more than Meena does. However, despite Meena’s efforts to understand her, she soon realizes that Anita is even crueller than she thought. One day at Sherrie’s farm, she overhears Anita tell Sherrie that she took part in a “Paki bashing,” the beating of an innocent Indian man, with Sam Lowbridge, who is now her boyfriend. Shocked, Meena suddenly decides to mount Sherrie’s horse to escape. However, Meena does not know how to control the animal, and she falls and breaks her leg.

This leads Meena to spend months at the hospital, providing her with a period of reflection in which she decides to alter her life radically. She resolves to distance herself from Anita’s bad influence, to focus on her family, and to devote herself to her studies—in particular, the preparation of the eleven-plus exam, which might allow her to go to a good grammar school and move out of Tollington.

At the hospital, Meena also meets Robert, a young boy for whom she develops affection and feelings of love. Over the course of months, the two of them become close friends even though Robert suffers from a serious illness that forces him to stay in an isolation room. After Meena leaves the hospital, Robert’s parents write to her, telling her that their son has died. In the meantime, Nanima has also returned to India. These two events prove traumatic for Meena. At the same time, though, they allow her to realize that the grief she feels at losing these two people is infinitely stronger than any feeling she has ever harbored for Anita. This convinces her that she should separate herself from Anita permanently.

Back at Tollington, Meena isolates herself to study for the eleven-plus exam. However, one night on the eve of the exam, when Meena’s parents are out, Tracey comes knocking on Meena’s door. She urges Meena to follow her, saying that someone is trying to kill her sister. Still worried about her exam the next day, Meena follows Tracey to the Big House. There, she sees Anita and Sam having sex—a physical act that Tracey has interpreted as violence. Unable to contain her rage at discovering that Anita actually wants to have sex with Sam, Tracey attacks her and the two run off, chasing each other.

Sam then calls out to Meena and tells her that he has always had feelings for her. Unable to reconcile this behavior with Sam’s racism, Meena tries to communicate to him that he has hurt her feelings, but Sam argues that he only ever meant to target “others.” As Meena struggles to explain to Sam that racism will inevitably hurt her as well, Tracey suddenly appears, running to attack Sam. In doing so, she accidentally falls in the pond.

Panicked and desperate for help, Meena goes to ring the doorbell of the Big House. When an old woman answers the door, Meena discovers that the woman’s husband, the owner of the house, is an Indian man, who has lived isolated from the community all this time. In the end, Tracey survives her ordeal. When the police later interrogate Meena about what has happened, Meena tells the truth, explaining that it was an accident. She feels as though Sam, Anita, and Tracey have the potential to ruin her life and decides to stay away from them.

By the end of the novel, Meena succeeds at her eleven-plus exam and her family moves out of Tollington. The entire family is happy to move out of this community and to live in a new, more diverse neighborhood. Eager to say a few last words to Anita, Meena leaves her a note, but never receives any response.