SOUTH ASIAN WRITING HOME ASSIGNMENT: – As seen in Meera Syal’s “Anita and Me” Submitted by : 08/EL/47 Urmimala Bhattacharjee The mention of ‘home’ and ‘outside’ is not a specification of India at all, but rather the disappearance of India if defined as the habitation of Indians – Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
South Asian literature is literature that encompasses a vast and varied field; it talks about the political scenario, cultural and social norms, issues of identity and identity crisis that the people of all the south Asian countries go through. In short all the south Asian countries are tied by common links that make them share their conflicts, differences and nature of suffering. But apart from the problems that are faced within the country there is another very important factor which is a primary feature of South Asian literature. It is the issue of Diaspora which is seen very prominently.
Diasporic writing raises several questions of identity and questions one’s position in their own country. It deals with the question of being an ‘outsider’ in your own country, the notion of homeland warped and misconstrued by external factors etc. Thus, diasporic writing has been seen emerging from all the south Asian countries be it India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. “Anita and Me” by British Indian Meera Syal is one such text that explores the life of nine year old Meena living with her parents in the mining village of Tollington, near Birmingham.
Meena belongs to a Punjabi family and as is the case with most Indians abroad, Meena’s parents are zealously holding on to their Indian identities while living a life in England. Meera Syal’s novel is partly autobiographical reflecting Syal’s own childhood and upbringing in Essington, a mining village to the north in Staffordshire, England. The story deals with the problems that nine year old Meena is facing in her everyday life. As a young girl all she wants is independence and freedom to do things her way. Yet she is tied by her Indian customs and rituals which seem both intriguing and at the same time limiting to her.
The story tells us of the relationship that Meena has with Anita Rutter, a white girl who Meena supposes to be her best friend initially. But on a more complex note, the story dives much deeper to bring out the deep conflict that Meena has within herself while juggling both worlds. One is that of a good, obedient Indian daughter that she must be according to her parents and other relatives and the other is that of the reckless, free spirited and tomboyish person that she feels she is when she is with Anita and her gang. The very beginning of the book establishes Meena as an intelligent, considerate and as someone with her own mind.
But she is absolutely captivated by Anita Rutter and all she wants is to be friends with her for Anita is the most popular (even notoriously so! ) girl in town and Meena is thrilled by the prospects that being friends with Anita might bring. Meena comes to almost idolize Anita. However Meena finds it more and more difficult to fit in because her Indian heritage keeps creeping in and she finds she cannot discard that. Also the later part of the book reveal how Sam Lowbridge, Anita’s boyfriend has been harboring racist attitudes towards the non-whites whom he refers to as “darkies’.
These turn of events bring about a stark change in the ideas of Meena, her previously held notions of friendship and the realization of living as an Indian in England during the seventies. From the very beginning it is seen that Meena derives comfort from her Indian roots, customs and traditions. As she herself says in the book “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”.
Clearly Meena found solace in these relationships and she was also aware from a young age about her own parent’s sense of loss that they felt on leaving their homeland. Meena was also extremely observant and hence she had seen in the homes of her English counterparts that their concepts of ‘family’,’culture’,’tradition’ did not tally with hers. And for that she was grateful . To be so loved and wanted and cared for. After Meena became friends with Anita she naturally expected acceptance from her in all forms.
But the manner in which Diedre, Anita’s mother looked down at Meena and Anita’s own temporary rejection of Meena made her aware of her difference from others. Also the Rutter’s pet dog was named ‘nigger’; it was very obviously an offensive word it quite shocked Meena. Meena had never thought of herself as being different from others because of her skin color. She was more worried about social acceptance in Anita’s gang, because acceptance there meant acceptance in the entire social strata that was there.
Anita was the epitome of “coolness” and Meena wanted that for herself. But at the same time she was constantly reminded of the differences in culture that she had from Anita. The Indian parent would never leave their child in their own space because that is not how they work. So the whole “It’s my life, I want my space, you can’t tell me what to do” charade never went too well with Indian parents. They criticized these English practices who so prided themselves on their affluent manners, sophisticated food habits and for whom the Indians were an uncivilized lot.
Meena’s parents were one of the very few Indians who were able to adjust and adapt the English way of life so perfectly that their neighbors would comment on her as ‘one of them”. But deep down they only truly cared about their own kin and would even be too harsh on the English. As for Meena, she quite liked, even enjoyed her mother’s admonishing because they made her feel special, as though “their destiny, legacy was a much more interesting journey than the apparent dead ends facing their neighbors”.
There were also instances when Meena or either of her parents would be subjected to some trivial form of racial harassment which was at times best not mentioned or forgotten. The way of life was such. Mulling over matters did not help and anyway they considered themselves better off in Tollington than in other places because the situation was relatively calmer. But growing up in England also left a blank space in Meena’s mind regarding certain pivotal issues of religion. She was never really sure of her identity that way, did not know what should she believe in and also there was the added conflict of being different.
That was also responsible for Meena’s constant habit of producing lies, stemmed from insecurities, safeguarding herself from bullies and thus making a stand for herself. Meena’s parents never approved of her friendship with Anita Rutter. But after the arrival of Sunil, her baby brother Meena began to feel isolated in her own house. Meena’s mother Daljit was always busy with Sunil and Meena’s strong attachment with her father seemed to cease and lose its course. It was then that Meena’s friendship with Anita blossomed and she became inadvertently her best friend. At home too it went unnoticed and often unspoken of.
When Meena’s parents would try talking to her she would resent it because she felt they no longer belonged to her world which was composed of Anita and herself. This was something that Gogol, the central character of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” also went through. Diasporic writing clearly reveals the inner suffering of these “foreign Indians”; the turmoil of living abroad far away from home and yet being told to epitomize Indian values that the second generation Indian could never relate to. The constant pressure of being Indian in a foreign land and conversely shunning out that ‘Indian ness’ while with their western group of friends.
Thus, Meena’s resentment is natural, Sunil’s birth already left her alone and alienated from her parents and her mother especially who had time for nothing else. At such a time Anita came to Meena’s rescue and the two spent a good deal of time together. Anita’s influence was not a good one either. She was considered a trouble maker and under her influence Meena too became too headstrong, stubborn and committed horrible deeds the most awful of which was blaming her poor cousin Baby for having stolen a collection tin box from Mr. Ormerod’s shop which in fact was Meena’s doing.
She did not have the courage to speak the truth and she did not want to either. But little by little Meena began to see the clearer side of things and the first time she heard Sam Lowbridge refer to her people as “darkies” and she felt she had been “punched in the stomach”. For the very first time she became so acutely aware of her indianness and she felt a surge of anger sweep her insides. She had never expected this to happen to her and she felt shame, humiliation and anger all together. But after this incident things started changing for Meena.
The first change was the arrival of her Nanima into their household. Her grandmother was an amazing woman whose arrival marked a series of miracles. Meena’s initial dislike of her brother, her brother’s sole dependence on their mother slowly began to fall. Meena began to love her brother and she felt connected to her family in a strange way she had not experienced earlier. Her grandmother’s arrival made Meena aware of her Indian heritage in a way that she began to feel mystified by it. She was being lured into the magic of India. Tollington , she discovered was not where she would find herself.
With so much happening at home Meena found less time to give Anita. Also she was becoming aware of Anita’s inconsistencies and faults. And with the approach of Meena’s eleven plus exams, she also understood that her success or failure would determine her parent’s life in England. Their sole reason for leaving behind India was to give their children a better future in England and Meena was about to take her first step to that future. Meena also began to stand up for herself in new ways. She stood up to Sam demanding to know what had they done to deserve such treatment from the whites.
She rebuked Tracey, Anita’s sister for having named their dog “nigger”, knowing how foul and insulting that was. These steps she took were all transforming Meena. If she were to secure a seat in the posh girl’s grammar school, her parents could move to a better locality. So, she had to put in her best to study and try and make that big leap. In the midst of all this, Meena made a shocking discovery; that Anita was seeing Sam Lowbridge and after Meena was hospitalized on account of her bad fall Anita never made any effort to see Meena.
Finally Meena understood Anita. She understood herself. She began to understand the world in a new way. She understood the pain of loss when she lost Robert, a fellow patient in the hospital he was in for whom she had fallen and who seemed to understand her. She understood her true self which her grandmother helped her to realize. All the pieces seemed to finally fit in place. In her final encounter with Anita and Sam after which she had her chance at revenge, Meena chose to leave them to themselves. For that was their best punishment.
And finally when Meena was going to leave Tollington for she had gotten into the prestigious girls grammar school, she wrote Anita a last letter to which she never replied. Meena was always questioning her existence and identity; she related to Anita feeling they both were” mad bad girls trapped in superficially obedient bodies”. She felt too clumsy, freaky to be a real Indian girl and too Indian to be a Tollington girl. But by the end she finds herself and her allegiance. Meena discovered her true identity. “Anita and Me” is a book that superbly relates to us what it is like being an outsider in all possible ways.
Meena was someone having severe identity issues; she did not know where she belonged. She was not sure if she was Indian enough or too Indian to be a ‘Tollington wench”. In Anita, she found a friend, a confidante whom she felt she could connect with and share all her secrets. Meena was struggling to find her identity in every way. She was also confused about her religious ideals, cultural ideals and moral too. But with time and experience she was able to judge for herself what is right and what is wrong. Identity crisis and the search foe one’s true self is chiefly seen in diasporic writing.
As these people try searching for their true selves in the midst of this vast confusion; some lose their way, falter and fall while others are able to stand firm and find their ground. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake as well as her collection of short stories reveals character facing similar turmoil’s and troubles. There are many other authors also who talk about this very issue namely V. S. Naipaul and The very recent Rishi Reddy. These authors all imbibe personal experiences in their works and so reflect their own struggles. They show how it is possible to love one’s homeland being away from her.
This love may not be like the love people living within the country will have but their love is true nevertheless. Not always will these conflicts be resolved because sometimes we lose our way and are never able to redeem our true selves for they get lost in the confusing maze of being or Not being an Indian. These stories also show that sometime young people are able to adapt to these situations and overcome them in a much better way than their elders. Through Meena, we see how it is possible to believe in and find our true identities. To be proud of being an Indian while being happy in England.
Meena did not know anything about India except what she had heard from her parents and other family members. But only after her grandmother tells her stories about India, about their family and reveals secrets that make Meena see differently. She was already aware of her differences from the whites. But she learnt how it is possible to hold your own and be yourself in a foreign place. There is no harm in adopting certain foreign rituals because in all honesty if one were to live in a place they would naturally be affected and influenced by its norms.
Also there is no going back once you have entered that domain. “Consciousness once split can never go back to a utopian unified sense of what it means to be Indian or a Pakistani or a Nepali”, quoted in “Interpreting homes in South Asian Literature”. Mridula Nath Chakraborty’s essay “Will the Real South asian stand up please? ” from the same volume gives an insight into the journey of self conscious discovery of being present in a “reluctant diaspora”. But, at the end of the day what is important is to not lose your individuality. Anita and Me” is a book that depicts Meena’s constant conflicts, search for an identity and identity crisis. This book can be most fittingly placed in the literature of South Asia for it addresses issues of identity and diaspora that are prominent facets of this form of literature. BIBLIOGRAPHY 1. Syal, Meera. Anita and Me. India: Harper Collins Publishers,1996 2. Hussain, Yasmin. Writing Diaspora: South Asian women, culture and ethnicity. Hampshire,England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2005 3. Lal, Malashri, Kumar, Sukrita. Interpreting Homes in South Asian Literature. India: Dorling Kindersly Publishers , 2007