#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Meera Syal

Blog Post 7: Anita and Me (1996)

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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 read ‘Anita and Me’ when it was first published back in the 90s. I loved ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ which is where I first became aware of Meera Syal’s acting and writing. It was the funniest programme on TV at the time, post-Thatcher when alternative comedy had nothing to rail against and went into decline. This was something new and as a mother with a toddler, a baby, and expecting another, it was a wonderful escape from nappies and fear and undiagnosed post-natal depression. In fact when I was in labour with number three, my husband and I were reciting lines from the sketch show and it somehow helped me through the pain, until gas and air were needed. (‘Cheque, please!’)

I was intrigued to read this debut coming-of-age novel by Meera Syal, especially knowing it was semi-autobiographical (like several of the novels in this #100WomenNovelists series). And I loved it, the mix of nostalgia and reality, the issues of identity and belonging and the complex meaning of home, and how Meena goes on a journey from childhood to adolescence, working out who are good role models for her.

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.

Meena is nine year’s old when the story opens. She is an only child (for a while) and prone to lying. She has to tread the balance between her parents’ expectations and those of the neighbourhood children, yearning for fishfingers instead of home made chapatis. She loves her parents very much but is also embarrassed by their difference to the other members of the community where they live, Tollington, a fictionalised post-industrial town somewhere near Wolverhampton. A town where the women are employed by the ball-bearing factory but the men are out of work since the mine shut down. In fact this is a book where women are the strong characters, and the men are peripheral. Though Meena looks up to her papa very much. 

Sometimes I wondered if the very act of shutting our front door transported us onto another planet, where non-related elders were called Aunties and Uncles and talked in rapid Punjabi, which their children understood but answered back in broad Black Country slang, where we ate food with our fingers and discussed family feuds happening five thousand miles away, where manners were so courtly that a raised eyebrow could imply an insult, where sensibilities were so finely tuned that an advert featuring a woman in a bikini could clear a room.

Meena becomes unlikely friends with Anita who is three years older and a toughie. Anita comes from a home of neglect: an unknown, missing father; a hopeless mother, and a pitiful younger sister. Anita offers Meena excitement, disrespect for elders, nicking stuff from Mr Ormerod’s shop, (bad) sex education, swearing, going to the fair, and trespassing in the scary gardens of the Big House which holds an unexpected secret. The only person who can save Meena from Anita’s clutches comes in the unlikely form of her grandmother on a visit from India. Nanima connects Meena to her roots and encourages her to be the best person she can be.

‘Anita and Me’ explores the effects of the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 on muslims, hindus, and sikhs; the violence, the displacement, and the mess left by the British Empire. It explores racism towards first and second generation immigrants in this country, and how this can result from jealousy as well as ignorance. All this is witnessed through Meena’s eyes. It is her story and it is a powerful, poignant, disturbing, and very funny one. I am so glad that this rich book is on the GCSE syllabus.

 

 

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