Set in the fictional English village of Tollington in the 1970s, Anita and Me explores the relationship between Meena Kumar, a nine-year-old girl whose parents are recent Indian immigrants, and Anita Rutter, a twelve-year-old white girl, born and bred in Tollington. Meena grows up in a tight-knit family composed of Mama, Papa, and her young brother Sunil, as well as an extended “family” of Aunts and Uncles—fellow Indian immigrants who are not related to Meena’s family but who spend most of their time with them. Growing up, Meena is often resentful of expectations that she behave like a typical Indian girl: polite and quiet. Meena enjoys spending time with Anita in large part because the older girl’s family seemingly allows her to live more freely. However, over time, Meena realizes that her own family’s rules and discipline are an expression of love, providing her with the support she needs to become a successful adult, whereas Anita’s lack of family guidance leaves her on her own and with few prospects. By highlighting the two girls’ divergent paths, the novel illustrates the importance that family can have in a person’s life: family can provide the foundation for an individual to achieve success, or, on the other hand, it can undermine children from reaching their full potential.
Encouraged to behave in a way that her parents and their Indian friends approve of, Meena often feels stifled in her own family. Her father, for instance, criticizes her for finding Indian girls boring, even though they are “polite and sweet and enjoy spending time with their family.” Meena, by contrast, finds these girls’ restrained behavior unappealing. Unlike them, she enjoys spending time outdoors, taking part in physical activities and exploring nature, and is unafraid to get her clothes dirty.
Anita, meanwhile, is exactly the opposite of what typical Indian girls are supposed to be. She spends most of her time outside her house, takes part in harmful, potentially illegal activities, and uses vulgar language. This can be seen as a reproduction of her family environment, as Anita imitates her mother Deirdre’s offensive language—her mother calls their family dog “Nigger”—and reckless sexual behavior. Although Meena does not understand much about sex, she is attracted to Anita’s life, which seems so exciting in comparison to her own.
These two environments clash when Meena uses a vulgar sexual expression in front of her entire Indian circle. Although Meena does not understand what the expression actually means, since she is merely repeating Anita’s words, her family’s shock and anger make Meena feel ashamed. Meena’s shame suggests that she knows that aspects of Anita’s life are morally reprehensible, and that her family might be right in setting limits to what can be said and done. Meena eventually realizes that though her family’s discipline might feel oppressive at times, it actually has helped her become a better person. By contrast, as Anita’s family falls apart, it becomes apparent that she does not benefit from any adult’s support. The girls’ life paths ultimately demonstrate the powerful role that family can play in young people’s lives.
Meena knows that Mama and Papa’s worries are not motivated by a desire to keep their daughter from enjoying her freedom but, rather, by a concern for her well-being and happiness. Papa often worries about Meena turning from a happy child into “some rude, sulky monster.” Meena also realizes that even her Aunts and Uncles’ recriminations make her feel “safe and wanted,” even if she does not necessarily agree with their various critiques. By contrast, Anita and her sister Tracey’s home is defined by violence and neglect. One day, Meena notices bruises on the inside of Tracey’s thighs that show the imprint of ten fingers. These signs indicate the presence of violence—and probably sexual violence—in the young girl’s life. Later, when Anita and Tracey’s mother abandons them to run away with another man, Deirdre’s actions prove how little concern she has for her daughters’ well-being. This combination of abuse and neglect marks Anita and Tracey’s lives. While Tracey’s reaction is to be extremely shy and fear anything that has to do with sex, Anita reacts in the opposite way, by taking part in reckless sexual behavior. Both girls’ behaviors reflect how little guidance and support they have.
By the end of the novel, Meena realizes that her family’s loving environment will allow her to escape Tollington and lead the life she chooses. After breaking her leg and spending time in hospital, Meena decides to focus on her studies, preparing for the eleven-plus exam. She benefits from her family’s full support in this decision. Mama has no doubt that Meena will succeed and resolves that they should use this opportunity to leave Tollington to move closer to Meena’s future school. Ultimately, Meena learns to embrace the attitude of a typical, studious Indian girl, while concluding that this does not necessarily involve abandoning her personality. Rather, she understands that this is the first step in working hard to build a successful, fulfilling life for herself—something her family has been encouraging her to do all along.
Ultimately, Meena realizes that her parents’ love has benefited her more than it has harmed her. By the end of the novel, Meena is moving on—out of childhood, out of Tollington, and into the future. Anita, by contrast, seems bound to remain within the narrow confines of Tollington and her low ambitions: she remains obsessed with sex and having a boyfriend, and is commonly judged as likely to soon have children of her own—thus propagating her unstable family legacy instead of breaking away from it.
Family Discipline and Guidance ThemeTracker
Family Discipline and Guidance 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.
I rarely rebelled openly against this communal policing, firstly because it somehow made me feel safe and wanted, and secondly, because I knew how intensely my parents valued these people they so readily renamed as family, faced with the loss of their own blood relations.
‘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?
I wanted to tell him about the old lady, but then I looked at his face and saw something I had never seen before, a million of these encounters written in the lines around his warm, hopeful eyes, lurking in the furrows of his brow, shadowing the soft curves of his mouth. I suddenly realised that what had happened to me must have happened to papa countless times, but not once had he ever shared his upset with me. He must have known it would have made me feel as I felt right now, hurt, angry, confused, and horribly powerless because this kind of hatred could not be explained.
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.
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!’
Sherrie did not even know that her parents were thinking of moving, Sherrie and Anita did not know what I suddenly realised now, that Deirdre had no intention, ever, of buying Anita a horse. Sorrow flooded me until it rose up to my eyes and made them sting. Anita, the same skinny harpy who had just narrowly missed gouging out another girl’s eyes, was now whispering lover’s endearments into a fat pony’s ears. She needed me maybe more than I needed her. There is a fine line between love and pity and I had just stepped over it.
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.