Growing up as a second-generation Indian immigrant in England causes Meena to reflect on her cultural roots. Although she enjoys the atmosphere of Tollington, she realizes that she will never feel fully English because her family background makes her feel connected to India, and she is not accepted as fully English by many of the white people she lives among. At the same time, Meena has never been to India, and it is only once she meets Nanima, her maternal grandmother, that she begins to feel curious about Indian culture and history. As a result of these experiences, Meena defines her identity as a hybrid combination of two cultural backgrounds: English and Indian. The novel thus eschews rigid categories in favor of a more holistic understanding of belonging based on one individual’s unique experience. Meena understands that culture and identity are primarily driven by love—love of her family, her history, and her own self. Through love and confidence, the novel suggests, one is free to define oneself however one chooses.
Meena grows up realizing that her identity is not clear-cut. Although she feels English, her family life is a constant reminder that she is related to another country, India. At the same time, Meena’s ignorance of what India is actually like causes her to create an imaginary identity for herself based on longing and fantasy. Meena sometimes lies to people about her status and origins, telling children that she is a Punjabi princess who owns an elephant. She describes lying as a way for her to create meaning from her immigrant background, which remains mysterious to her. “I’m really not a liar,” she asserts, “I just learned very early on that those of us deprived of history sometimes need to turn to mythology to feel complete, to belong.” Meena thus constructs her cultural identity around a desire to connect with a place she does not fully know. When she hears her father sing in Punjabi, she says, “The songs made me realize that there was a corner of me that would be forever not England.” Meena thus discovers that her identity will always be divided between her Indian family’s life and her English habits.
Nanima’s arrival marks a turning point in Meena’s life, giving the young girl greater pride and love for her Indian background. From this point on, Meena develops a deep yearning to discover India for herself. As Nanima tells stories about their family history, Meena’s attitude toward India shifts from one of shame and fantasy to one of pride and fascination. At school, Meena has learned about Indian history only through the lens of British colonization, as though Indians had no glorious history of their own. By contrast, when she listens to Nanima’s stories, Meena and the rest of the family learn about the British occupation as seen through the eyes of the colonized. Nanima explains that British soldiers once stole her family’s chickens and sent a relative to prison for refusing to fight in their army. Meena becomes captivated by these anecdotes and finds that India “seemed full to bursting with excitement, drama and passion, history in the making, and for the first time I desperately wanted to visit lndia and claim some of this magic as mine.”
This appreciation of India becomes more complex when Meena discovers that her parents harbor equal love and resentment toward their native country. Mama mentions the corruption that keeps poor Indians from receiving a good education, since succeeding at university usually involves bribing officials. Mama considers Britain much better in this regard and feels grateful that her children will benefit from these educational opportunities. This dual vision of India, as a country full of glory and problems, further piques Meena’s interest, making her realize that India is a living, breathing place that she could explore, not a distant fantasy land.
These various events cause Meena to reject traditional categories and to decide that she is free to define her own identity as she chooses, accepting herself as a combination of diverse experiences. Meena often subverts people’s expectations of what it means to be Indian—or what it means to be English. When Robert hears Meena speak, he is surprised by her accent: “yow’m a red Midland wench, our Meena! I thought you’d sound a bit more exotic than this!” His amused reaction highlights that Meena cannot be contained within a single category, and is at once Indian and British.
By the end of the novel, Meena concludes that her love for her family and herself are the main drivers of identity, more than superficial characteristics such as attitude and accent. As she works hard for her eleven-plus exam, she builds crucial self-confidence, making her aware of the infinite possibilities that lie before her: “I now knew I was not a bad girl, a mixed-up girl, a girl with no name or no place. The place in which I belonged was wherever I stood and there was nothing stopping me simply moving forward and claiming each resting place as home.” One’s identity, the novel concludes, is wherever one chooses to call home.
Culture and Belonging ThemeTracker
Culture and Belonging Quotes in Anita and Me
I do not have many memories of my very early childhood, apart from the obvious ones, of course. You know, my windswept, bewildered parents in their dusty Indian village garb standing in the open doorway of a 747, blinking back tears of gratitude and heartbreak as the fog cleared to reveal the sign they had been waiting for, dreaming of, the sign planted in tarmac and emblazoned in triumphant hues of red, blue and white, the sign that said simply, WELCOME TO BRITAIN.
‘You’re so lovely. You know, I never think of you as, you know, foreign. You’re just like one of us.’
My mother would smile and graciously accept this as a compliment. And yet afterwards, in front of the Aunties, she would reduce them to tears of laughter by gently poking fun at the habits of her English friends. It was only much later on that I realised in the thirteen years we lived there, during which every weekend was taken up with visiting Indian families or being invaded by them, only once had any of our neighbours been invited in further than the step of our back door.
But to be told off by a white person, especially a neighbour, that was not just misbehaviour, that was letting down the whole Indian nation. It was continually drummed into me, ‘Don’t give them a chance to say we’re worse than they already think we are. You prove you are better. Always.’
‘I will never understand this about the English, all this puffing up about being civilised with their cucumber sandwiches and cradle of democracy big talk, and then they turn round and kick their elders in the backside, all this It’s My Life, I Want My Space stupidness, You Can’t Tell Me What To Do cheekiness, I Have To Go To Bingo selfishness and You Kids Eat Crisps Instead Of Hot Food nonsense. What is this My Life business, anyway? We all have obligations, no one is born on their own, are they?’
But whatever he did to make money was not what papa really was; whilst my Aunties and Uncles became strangers when listening to him, papa became himself when he sang. My tender papa, my flying papa, the papa with hope and infinite variety. And then one day I made a connection; if my singing papa was the real man, how did he feel the rest of the time?
Papa’s singing always unleashed these emotions which were unfamiliar and instinctive at the same time, in a language I could not recognise but felt I could speak in my sleep, in my dreams, evocative of a country I had never visited but which sounded like the only home I had ever known. The songs made me realise that there was a corner of me that would be forever not England.
I had seen how in an instant, those you called friends could suddenly become tormentors, sniffing out a weakness or a difference, turning their own fear of ostracism into a weapon with which they could beat the victim away, afraid that being an outsider, an individual even, was somehow infectious.
I knew I was a freak of some kind, too mouthy, clumsy and scabby to be a real Indian girl, too Indian to be a real Tollington wench, but living in the grey area between all categories felt increasingly like home.
‘They’ll want cookers!’ giggled mama. ‘Doesn’t he know we were fitting bidets into our houses when their ancestors were living in caves? Oh God!’ and then she went suddenly quiet and looked hard at papa. ‘God Shyam, is that how they see us? Is it really?’
It was all falling into place now, why I felt this continual compulsion to fabricate, this ever-present desire to be someone else in some other place far from Tollington. Before Nanima arrived, this urge to reinvent myself, I could now see, was driven purely by shame, the shame I felt when we ‘did’ India at school, and would leaf through tatty textbooks where the map of the world was an expanse of pink, where erect Victorian soldiers posed in grainy photographs (…).
Mr Topsy/Turvey watched her with devoted eyes. ‘I served in India. Ten years. Magical country. Magical people. The best.’
‘Shouldn’t have bloody been there anyway, should you?’ I muttered under my breath. ‘Who asked you to lock up my grandad and steal his chickens?’
I was by now walking fast, making Nanima puff and trot a little to keep up, but I could still hear him shouting behind us, ‘We should never have been there. Criminal it was! Ugly. You look after your nan! You hear me, Topsy!’
I decided there and then to heal myself, both in body and mind. It was time. I asked mama to bring in all my school books to prepare for the eleven-plus, I would grow my hair long and vaguely feminine, I would be nice to Pinky and Baby and seek out their company willingly, I would write letters to India and
introduce myself properly to that anonymous army of blood relatives, I would learn to knit, probably, and I would always always tell the truth.
I now knew I was not a bad girl, a mixed-up girl, a girl with no name or no place. The place in which I belonged was wherever I stood and there was nothing stopping me simply moving forward and claiming each resting place as home.