Anita and Me is a semi-autobiographical novel. It is written by a British-Indian author Meera Syal in 1996. It is an amusing yet poignant coming of age narrative of a precocious nine year old British Indian girl growing up in 1960’s Britain. Syal has also written other renowned works like Life isn’t hahahehe and The House of Hidden Mothers etc. The main themes in her novels are based upon up rootedness, cultural conflict, racism and generation gap. As Syal also grew up in a mining village in Essington in Wolver Hampton, she inevitably understands the pain and frustration of the bicultural progeny of the immigrants and has documented it brilliantly in this masterpiece.
Anita and Me presents a, witty, heartbreaking, empathetic and intriguing picture of village life in the 1960’s British. It is the story of an Indian girl in a white community who was caught between two cultures and suffered racism at the hands of people whom she considered her friends.
The migrant parents of Meena had no issues while negotiating their cultural identity. But in early days they did suffer from ‘culture shock’. They gradually integrated in the host society while maintaining their own distinct cultural identity. Unlike her parents who preferred to stick to their Indian-Punjabi heritage, Meena who grew up in the English society was equally familiar with both the cultures. She had never visited India and even imagined India within the frame of English streets, as she narrates that when she imagines India it is “basically English streets with a few cows lounging around” (Syal, 32).
She had a restricted knowledge of her parent’s histories. She could communicate only in English and knew Punjabi very little. Likewise, Meena found English dresses more sophisticated as compared to the Indian dresses. She liked English food. Meena compared Diwali to Christmas and found Diwali uninteresting and unexciting as she spoke of Diwali as “Dead boring.”(Syal, 99). She felt more at ease while singing English songs as compared to the Punjabi songs.
However, despite her attraction to the English culture Meena was aware that she also had an undeniable affiliation with the Indian culture. Syal has vividly portrayed the misunderstandings and gap between the two cultures. Meena was aware of the Orientalist Gaze of her white neighborhood on her Indian culture. Meena who considered both cultures as part of her identity was caught in this conflict. She desperately struggled to carve out an identity for herself. She narrates that “I knew I was a freak of some kind, too mouthy, clumsy and scabby to be a real Indian girl and too Indian to be a real Tollington wench (…)” (Sya149). So, the war between the two cultures turned this bicultural child into a ‘freak’.
Apart from the baffling cultural conflict, Meena also went through the bitter and frightening experience of racism. The incidents of racism had a significant influence on her approach towards the Indian culture. So she made desperate efforts to fit in the dominant white British culture. Meena was also ashamed of the representation of India in her textbooks and in the media. The British Curriculum and media presented Indians in a caricatured form leading Meena to internalize shame and humiliation for her Indian ancestry. So, she decided to dissociate herself from the lower culture in her longing for acceptance. She started to erase the ‘inferior’ culture out of her life. Meena wanted to become a ‘functioning citizen’ in the English society so she befriended a blonde, beautiful, vivacious, bubbly and playful Anita Rutter. She started wandering in the backyards with Anita Rutter and her gang.
However Anita’s betrayal broke Meena to pieces. She ultimately realized that Anita was also like the rest of the white racist society who looked down upon Meena and her Indian heritage. Meena’s dilemma of shame, indignity and humiliation which she felt because of her Indian heritage was resolved by her Nanima. Her Nanima not only made her proud of her Indian heritage, she also showed through her own behavior that Meena can easily move in this society by taking both cultures hand in hand rather than choosing only one.
Meena who previously developed a sense of shame and hatred for her Indian heritage and abandoned it because of this racism observed that her Nanima still successfully made connections with some English people despite not being able to speak English. She also visited their neighbor’s home unlike her parents who did not socialize with the English people. Apart from Nanima another person who instilled confidence in Meena to embrace her biculturalism was a boy named Robert whom she met during her six week stay at hospital when she broke her arm. His attitude also assured Meena that friendship could be developed on equal terms as he accepted her for who she was. Robert still called her a “Tollington wench” when she had begun to embrace her Indian heritage. After the encounter with these two influential people she decides to heal “both body and mind.
This novel has been rightly compared by some critics to Lee Harper’s “To kill a mockingbird”. Both the novels have splendidly portrayed the havoc of racism and hold a vital position in this domain of literature. However in contrast to the former where three white children are witnessing the racial conflict and ostracization of colored people in racist South, here Meena experiences it firsthand.
Anita and Me is hilarious, bold, stimulating and yet emotional and heart touching. In-between the humor, banter and laugh, we can feel the painful conflict, humiliation, confusion, sadness and fear felt by Meena. The reader closely follows her journey from conflict to resolution. They can experience her pain, her struggle and finally her firmness and perseverance. It depicts Meena’s growth from a selfish, inane and confused girl to a confident, poised and level headed girl who finally knew who she was.
Syal has beautifully woven different themes and diverse characters, symbols and comparisons together to produce a remarkable narrative. Moreover she has skillfully juggled the Black Country dialect with the Punjabi that Meena heard from her parents and relatives. This technique provides the narrative with a more realistic touch.
Though the cultural conflicts and the incidents of racism are vividly and graphically documented with a touch of humor, tenderness , despair and anguish all at once yet the first half of the novel is very tedious, dull and to some extent unappealing. The reader has to be patient and persistent to encounter some spice and drama .The story is pretty hard to read during this half. However gradually the story picks up its pace and the heart touching story of a nine year old Indian girl desperately trying to find her place in racist British society unfolds itself. In the end, the story is proficiently interlaced together and the end product is a magnum opus.
I would give it a rating of 4.5/5.