Nine-year-old Meena’s life changes radically when she develops a friendship with Anita Rutter, a local girl who is three years older than her. Although Meena initially benefits from spending time with Anita, she soon discovers that this older girl is more interested in dominating others than in establishing sincere, reciprocal relationships. It is only once Meena meets Robert, a young boy she falls in love with, that she realizes that genuinely meaningful relationships are based on mutual care and respect, not on self-interest and subordination. The novel thus shows that relationships fraught with competition and inequality can never be true friendships.
When Meena first gets to know Anita, she believes that the two of them have traits in common that predispose them to become friends. However, over time, Meena realizes that Anita will never treat her as an equal, and that her relationship with Anita will always involve bowing to the older girl’s desires. Meena initially describes her relationship with Anita as grounded in mutual recognition. Meena believes that Anita looks at her with “the recognition of a kindred spirit, another mad bad girl trapped inside a superficially obedient body.” Anita thus gives Meena the opportunity to express an aspect of her personality that she cannot develop in the occasionally stifling atmosphere of her own family. Together, they seem bound to lead a joyous, rebellious life.
However, Meena soon realizes that Anita’s friendships always involve domination and exclusion. When Anita walks around with Sherrie and a girl everyone calls Fat Sally, her two closest friends, she always makes sure to lock arms with only one of them while the other is forced to trail behind, thus “play[ing] one girlfriend against the other.” When Meena joins their group, she often experiences this exclusion herself. After the group meets some boys at a fair, Anita introduces Sherrie and Fat Sally to them but does not bother to present Meena, thus making the young girl feel excluded and forced to leave. This domineering behavior allows Anita to manipulate the people around her into wanting to win her favor. Anita thus proves more interested in bossing people around than in engaging in heartfelt, committed friendships.
Nevertheless, like Sherrie and Fat Sally before her, Meena finds herself bowing to Anita’s demands. She spends her time listening to Anita instead of expressing her own thoughts and learns to adapt to Anita’s mood swings, some of which erupt into full-blown anger and a desire to cause others harm. When Anita publicly humiliates her sister, forcing her to pee in front of everyone and then mocking her, causing the young girl to cry and run away, Meena realizes how easily Anita can turn against her so-called friends (or even family members). Meena doesn’t leave their friendship after this realization, however—instead, she just learns to protect herself against Anita’s moods. She finds Anita so captivating that she cannot let go of her bad influence.
Over time, though, Meena finally comes to terms with the fact that her relationship with Anita is grounded not in sincere mutual understanding, but in other emotions such as pity. Part of Meena’s affinity toward Anita comes from her realization that, despite behaving cruelly, Anita is the victim of cruel circumstances herself. When Meena realizes that Anita’s belief that her mother Deirdre will one day buy her a pony is nothing but a lie, Meena concludes that there is “a fine line between love and pity and I had just stepped over it.” Meena understands that, despite acting tough, Anita holds on to some naïve illusions, such as the idea that her mother is trustworthy, when in fact Deirdre soon abandons her forever. In this moment, Meena concludes that Anita might need this friendship even more than Meena does, and resolves to protect her friend from emotional pain as much as she can.
After Meena breaks her leg, she meets Robert at the hospital, a young boy for whom Meena soon feels sincere love and affection. This relationship allows her to realize for the first time what genuine friendship between peers looks like. Robert is so ill that he stays in his own isolation room. However, across the window, they share exciting written conversations and invent a language of their own, so that other people might not understand them. They become so deeply attuned to each other’s thoughts and emotions that they can communicate wordlessly. When Robert dies as a result of his illness, the sadness that Meena feels after his death causes her to realize that she has never harbored such strong emotions for Anita, and, therefore, that the two girls’ relationship is probably more superficial than she realized. While Anita shows little interest in Meena’s feelings and often exploits Meena’s rebelliousness to take part in harmful deeds like shoplifting, Nanima expresses her love for Meena by comforting her when she is feeling unwell, illustrating that true friendship should be selfless, based on mutual exchange.
These new experiences help Meena realize that she is better off distancing herself from Anita, who has always been more interested in using her than in protecting her. When Meena moves out of Tollington, she leaves Anita a goodbye note, but Anita never replies, confirming that their friendship had always been one-sided. Meena thus concludes that she is better off forgetting about Anita and embarking on a path of her own, defined by individual strength and self-reliance.
Friendship Quotes in Anita and Me
When I said that we talked, what I mean is that Anita talked and I listened with the appropriate appreciative noises. But I never had to force my admiration, it flowed from every pore because Anita made me laugh like no one else; she gave voice to all the wicked things I had often thought but kept zipped up inside my good girl’s winter coat.
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.
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.
‘You wanted to hurt people, you mean!’ I yelled at him. ‘How could you say it, in front of me? My dad? To anyone? How can you believe that shit?’
Sam grabbed me by the wrists and I sucked in air and held it. ‘When I said them,’ he rasped, ‘I never meant you, Meena! It was all the others, not you!’
I put my face right up to his; I could smell the smoke on his breath. ‘You mean the others like the Bank Manager?’
Sam looked confused.
‘The man from the building site. The Indian man. I know you did it. I am the others, Sam. You did mean me.’