In Search Of Her Real Self: A Study Of Meera Sayal’s Anita And Me

Sutanuka Ghosh Roy

Sutanuka Ghosh Roy


It has been famously argued that race, class, gender—all play their respective part in the formation of identity. Immigrants throughout the world suffer from an identity crisis and this same operates at multiple levels of signification. The third world diasporic writers take up the burden of representation and use it as a tool of defining the self. Meera Sayal, a post-colonial writer of Indian origin shares the experience of growing up and living in an environment with a language and a culture which are not hers, aims to define both the land and the self as part of the nation of her origin.
       In her novel Anita and Me she is critical of the myths, traditions, culture and heritage of her native place of origin. This paper aims to show Anita and Me as a study of this cultural or mythical standing which is at times taken up as the very foundation, the base of identity of her protagonist.

In Search Of Her Real Self: A Study Of Meera Sayal’s  Anita And Me.

          The phenomenon called the New Indian Diaspora was the outcome of post-independence incertitude. Diasporas are people who have migrated from one country to another due to reasons which may be historical, political or personal. Confronted with an alien culture, they reinvent their circumstances by mixing and matching their new environment with the native cultural sediment in them. The immigrants tend to see the new culture in terms of the old one. All their age-old beliefs face the challenge of re-definition under the pressure of the new surroundings. It is natural, therefore, for such situations to give rise to feelings of ambiguity and namelessness. Consequently, there arises a need to cope with their ever-shifting identities.
          A post-colonial writer of Indian origin, Meera Sayal shares the experience of growing up and at the same time living in an environment with a language and a culture which are not hers, aims to define both the land and the self as part of the nation of her origin. In Anita and Me (1996) she has taken frequent recourse to personal memories which adds perspicuity and piquancy to what might otherwise have relapsed into a conventional immigrant narrative. In Anita and Me Sayal’s concern is to dredge out if possible, the ‘truth’ of ‘ identity’, a ‘truth’ manifested in trauma and desire, a truth that baffles the symbolic order of language itself. We are to remember that globalization has marred the slightest possibility of the concept of permanent identity itself. As a third world diasporic writer, she has taken up the burden of representation as a means of defining the self.
          Meera Sayal’s protagonist Meena in Anita and Me reveals clearly how the younger South Asian generation in the West has to face some unique challenges which affect their identity. Even though their generation enjoy many advantages over their immigrant parents, such as security and infrastructure built by their parents, in most of the cases…the younger generation in the West finds identity exploration and formation a real challenge because of the dual socialization and social prejudice that exists in the society. Sayal shows that this young girl is firstly socialized into two distinctive cultural traditions, one of the home and another of the school and of the wider society of Tollington where Meena is growing up. According to Guhman,
The home emphasizes the religion ,culture and traditions of the ‘sending’ society, whereas school stresses the norms, values and attitudes deemed important by the ‘receiving’ society. (32).
          Meena is a typical case of an Indian girl born and brought up in Tollington, struggling to create an identity of her own, caught amidst the discrepancies between Western and Eastern culture. The chief reason why’ identity’ is now so much in focus is because of the uncertainty and diversity that characterizes modern identity, Kath Woodward opines…
           We can also link the heightened concern about racial zed and ethinicized identities to another feature of contemporary life. This is the impact of large-scale migration of people and rapid social and technological change and the uncertainty these have resulted in. The effect of a mix of old and new identities in a context of social change is to produce more uncertainty ( 130-131) .
Meena’s parents are ‘middle-class’ and are more or less accepted in British society because they keep a low-profile. Her mother Daljit grew up in a small Punjabi village near Chandigarh. When she came to England with her husband she wanted to find a place which reminded her of the village in which she was born, with fields, trees, light and space. Even in England she chooses to wear traditional Indian clothes outside her workplace ( as a teacher).
 And, It was her duty to show them that we could wear discreet gold jewellery, dress in tasteful English without an accent. (25).
 She is the perfect Indian housewife, who, to Meena’s embarrassment, grows her own herbs in the front garden:
It was a constant source of embarrassment to me that our front garden was the odd one out in the village, a boring rectangle of lumpy grass bordered with various herbs that mama grew to garnish our Indian meals.( 25)
For Daljit food is something more than just something to fill your stomach with. It is seasoned with memory, something their far-away mothers made and something that connects her to her home.
This food was not just something to fill a hole, it was soul food, it was the food their far-away mothers made and came seasoned with memory and longing, this was the nearest they would get for many years, to home (61).
        Mr Kumar, Meena’s father was in his youth offered a role in a film but her grandfather refused to let him go. When Meena hears she feels sad and frustrated and imagines how different her own life could have been….
But if I was disappointed, I could not begin to imagine how papa must have felt. (82)
Meena is totally ignorant about her father’s profession. All she knows is that he works in an office. Her mother tells her the exact cause why they had left their homeland, they were “ poor and clever”, (212) which is a deadly combination in India. Sayal herself says,
I hope that people will come away feeling they have seen another side of the Asian experience. But it’s not just a British-Asian story. We live in an increasingly shrinking world, made up of nations who come everywhere. This is a story about all of us, and how we adapt .  (Syal 2008).
         Meena’s family is a typical open-hearted warm immigrant family where the door is always open, food is ready and there are always a host of relatives who hang around . What is typical of all Indians all over the world whether they are in America or England or South-Africa, they look up to their own culture, own language, tradition and rituals of which they feel proud, they always cling to their roots. The second generation is however exposed to the rugged individualism of the West, are much more self-centred as they have no obligations to support their own parents or distant relatives. They live in the bubble of their own inflated ego. As Meena says,
……I’ve always been a sucker for a good double entendre; the gap between what is said and what is thought, what is stated and what is implied, is a place in which I have always found myself. I’m really not a liar, I just learned vey early on that those of us deprived of history sometimes need to turn to mythology to feel complete, to belong.(.10)
         This mapping the transition is one of the primary tasks of Sayal as a diasporic writer. Meena’s parents are expecting her to pass the 11plus and go to the Grammar School. But in the months before her big exam, Meena meets Anita, a blonde, a spoilt brat from a dysfunctional neighbouring family. She is just mesmerized by her. She starts to idolize her. Meena thinks of her as a role model.  She chooses Anita Rutter over her aunt’s children Pinky and Baby. She feels:
I was happy to follow her a respectable few paces behind, knowing that I was priviledged to be in her company  . (38)
My life was outside the home, with Anita, my passport to acceptance, (148).
By imitating Anita Rutter blindly Meena signals her identity to others. They form a gang. The Wenches Brigade.  Afterwards Meena steals the sweets from their neighbour Mr Ormerod’s shop, Anita takes them. Meena takes this as a golden opportunity to become friends. She feels this is her route to become involved with the English culture. When Anita says,
Yow coming then’ (38).
She is too happy and excited that an English girl has started to talk to her. She   feels now she can possibly fit into the British culture. Anita becomes her new goddess.
I had wondered what I done to deserve it. (18).
However when Mr Ormerod goes to Meena’s house to speak to her father about this incident   she bluntly blames it on Pinky and Baby, saying that she is innocent , it is they who stole it. Meena does this to impress her idol Anita and it does impress her. This incident makes her feel different, as her home is totally different to her social life.
I pocketed the two shillings, grasped the tin and staffed it down the back of Baby’s pink jumper. (155)
 She steals her mother’s powder compact and
“ begged Anita to make me up like Babes, the blonde pouty one, from Pan’s People (144).
 Meena enjoys her new sense of belonging. She starts disliking the spicy Indian food which her mother made with all enthusiasm in the world. Like a rebel she protests,
I don’t want that …that stuff ! I want fishfingers ! Fried ! And chips ! Why can’t I eat what I want to eat? (60)
Meena’s mother on the other hand  is stunned by her daughter’s behaviour. She says:
I will never understand this about the English, all this puffing up about being civilized with their cucumber sandwiches and cradle of democracy big talk, and then they turn round and kick heir elders in the backside, all this It’s My Life, I Want My Space stupidness, (58-59).
Her parents   wants her to grow up in a dignified way, in an Indian way and are ready and glad to help her to do them.
         It has been Sayal’s endeavour to negotiate between her ‘ inner’ forms-her childhood memories and her Indian experiences, and her ‘outer’ one, her British milieu. She treated her expatriation as a mode of meditation between the two languages and cultures inhabited by her. However Meena chooses to curve a diasporic British identity. She wants to get rid of her Indian values in favour of Anita’s freer behavioral system. The intense and passionate relationship of Meena and Anita is played out against a background of conflicting cultures within Tollington.
             With Nanima’s arrival, Meena transforms/undergoes a metamorphis. Nanima is an embodiment of India. The very figure of Nanima stirs the Indianness in her. She for the first time feels that India is where she belongs---her heaven as well as her haven. This makes her search for a culture and heritage which is not British but all Indian.
Nanima was indeed some kind of sorcerer (209)
Nanima’s magic-wand instilled in her a search for identity of her own. Meena discovered herself…
Maybe now things would be different; I would no longer be Anita’s shadow but her equal,... (237-38)
Meena is metamorphosed. She could finally tear herself from Anita Rutter, and comes out with a secret revelation that
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. (242).
The same Meena who once cried for ‘ fish fingers’ now opts for,
‘ Can I have something ….vegetarian for lunch?’ (245)
           This inner realization is something which cannot be injected, it has to come from within.  Earlier she defied her parents many a times. She did everything from lying to stealing to impress Anita and her gang. Her constant interaction with Anita and her gang made her realize what is not relevant for her. She understood that for them she is just the ‘other’, they will never ever consider her to be one of ‘them’.
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.( 150).
Later this grey area becomes her home. She realizes that she was having to learn the difference between acting and being and it hurts her no doubt. For solace she comes to her papa and while conversing with her papa:
I suddenly realized that what happened to me must have happened to papa countless times, but 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. (98).
          The same Meena who earlier disobeyed her parents now feels that she has a free choice. Nanima teaches her that disobeying parents is not in her culture. Her parents had given her enough space and opportunity to learn. The street experiences she had while accompanying Anita and her gang, transforms her, these added values to her life. The cross-cultural understanding make her search for her real ‘identity’, her true ‘self’. She bends herself for the better and shuns the company of Anita Rutter,
…..Anita was a Bad influence, that was official. (131)
  Meena speaks in English and finds Hindi very difficult,
Written in  astrological symbols, all half moons and flying dots like comets. (322).
Now she accepts her own language. The very language stirs the Indian instincts in Meena. When she hears the Hindi songs sung by her father,
..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 realize that there was a corner of me that would but  forever not England.( 112).
 In fact it transforms her to make her own emotional make up. She accepts the very fact that she is an Asian girl in an English culture, a culture which is not hers. She hates  to become an ‘alien’ and assume an inferior position to Anita, Tracey or  Sam Lowbridge. One has to remember that ethnicity and nationality are quite different from one another though interchangeable. Anita and her gang mix up these and misconstrue the real meaning of ‘identity’. Meena silently suffers from the haunting question of ‘double identity’ and belonging. In fact the novel opens the door to controversy between original ethnicity and confessed nationality,  that Indians like Mr and Mrs Kumar among other ethnic members are compelled to deal with in their day to day lives.
         Meena undergoes a sharp psychological disorientation which is caused by a misunderstanding and disagreement arising from cultural differences. At the same time provide her adequate space and opportunity for learning from experience. This knowledge of cultural differences becomes the impetus for a possible transformation into an ordinary life style. These incidents raise her self esteem and bolster her self-confidence.  Through the daily interactions with the customs, habits of people from a foreign culture  Meena’s attention was focused on English way of life but when she learns that in her culture ‘ there are no boyfriends’ she encounters her own culture. She now refuses to assimilate to new English ways of life and wishes to remain and perpetuate in her original milieu.  She understands that if she wants to have an identity of her own  she  has to study. The novel stresses the role of education in the process of identity. It is only by successfully mastering the language that Meena can have an edge over Anita and others. Knowledge is the only means through which the non-whites can assume a superior role in the English hierarchical system of society as well as education. Meena’s post-colonial family stresses the importance of her successful performance in English schooling. English is a necessity for her successful future and not an option.
I knew riding on this paper—my parents hopes for my future, the justification for their departure from India, our possible move out of Tollington.(306).
         Identity is thus not static in nature it is dynamic, it is something that undergoes a continuous evolution. In fact identity works as a bridge to narrow the gap between individuals and the world in which they live. It forms a combination of how one sees oneself and how others see a person. From the very beginning Meena tries to juggle between Indianness and Englishness. At first she does everything that is expected from a typical British girl. At the end of the novel she does exactly what her parents expect of her.
I found myself doing jobs I had run away from just a few weeks earlier, mashing up boiled vegetables into a runny goo for Sunil’s meals, boiling water for his bottles and nappies, (209).
It is when Meena arrives at the Big house and discovers that in there is an Indian man living with his French wife, her search for identity comes to a stop. Slowly she breaks off from Anita and her gang.  Her stay at the hospital gives her a chance for introspection. She does not hear from Anita while she is in the hospital.
 I decided there and then to heal myself, both in body and mind (284)
It is in the hospital that she meets Robert, her love,
His painfully thin frame held up a pair of stripey pyjamas, but his face, framed by curly brown hair, was illuminated by a pair of energetic, electric blue eyes. (283)
Robert makes her understand the real meaning of life, he urges her to ‘ mind the road’.
Meena’s ending up in the hospital affects her views on friendship as well as education. The accident helps her to mature and form her new identity, she realizes that the eleven plus test is going to decide the future for the Tollington children. So she is serious to succeed and fulfill the dreams of her parents.
If I failed, my parents’ five thousand mile journey would have all been for nothing.( 213)
When Meena comes out of the hospital things change.
        The final blow to their friendship comes when Meena witnesses Anita getting raped and abused by her boyfriend Sam Lowbridge by the pond. Her sister Tracey in a desperate bid to protect her sister falls in and nearly dies. The cops start investigating and enquiring Meena. She is now mature enough to distance herself from Anita.
But I hated Sam and Anita even more then, important, everlasting. I had been planning a spectacular revenge for so long, and now, finally, I was ready. (324).
She moves on to form her own independent identity. She is in search for her real self. She realized,
…I needed someone to talk to, I needed to talk about Sam. Anita, being my best friend, should have been with me. But I knew, as I thought this, that she would not have understood that there were some things that we would never be able to share. (274).
When she cleared the 11 plus exam, she is relieved, she could fulfill the dreams of her parents,
I’m going to the grammar school, so at least you won’t be around to tease me about my tam o’shanter! See you around! (328)
Then the racial disruptions started taking place in the village,
MAN ATTACKED IN TOLLINGTON. ‘ The victim, a Mr Rajesh Bhatra from Tettenhall was found in a ditch on the side of the Wulfrun road….( 275)
I had seen my parents rather swallow down anger and grief a million times, for our sakes, for the sake of others watching, for the sake of their own vanity. (288).
Meena’s world fell like a pack of cards,
This was too close to home, and for the first time, I wondered if Tollington would truly be home again (275).
         Meena for the first time tries to deal with this narrow mindedness, and this has its own impact in her search for her real self. She for the first time in her life faces the ultimate question  ‘‘What does it mean to be Indian outside India?”( Rushdie 17). Meena realizes that she belongs to a separate part of society. This society can never be hers. Now Anita and she have become mere strangers.
 She declares,
 My days as a yard member were over. (297).
        In her search for her real self, she keeps questioning ‘who am I?’, ‘ where do  I belong? ‘Where is my home?’.…A coherent image of the self is constructed which can easily be dismantled due to the tension between home and “ the unhomely” in Homi Bhabha’s terms. (Bhabha, 445).. Sayal shows that it is possible to subvert this man-made mechanism through a totally inclusive mindset. Meena tries and at the same time tests boundaries, prejudices as well as tradition. In her struggle with the dual backgound, she searches for something new, something fresh, away from the ordinary, banal norm. She strives towards a new found freedom and individuality which is her own true self.
 I had absorbed Nanima’s absence and Robert’s departure like rain on parched earth, drew it in deep and drank from it. I now knew I was not a bad girl, a mixed-up girl, a girl with no name or place. The place in which I belonged was wherever I stood and there was nothing stopping me simply moving forward and claiming each resting place as home. (303).
The novel represents and problematizes the issue of belonging and displacement by taking the notion of home as its focus. The process of Meena’s growth can be traced both with the change in her perception of others and also with the changing dynamics of  Tollington society. However  the novelists subverts the notion of home itself. In a multicultural society there is no fixed notion of a home. In the new disguise of colonialism the individuals are obliged to move in when there is demand and move out when the system fails. That is why Meena’s mother says,
It’s home, it really is, but we can’t stay here forever Meena. (295).
         Meena looks forward in forming her true identity. Her intense desire to look elsewhere helps her to achieve something for herself from where she starts her journey in Tollington. It is through different encounters that she has with Anita and her gang, her white   neighbours, in which she can mirror herself, helps her in achieving her true self. These revelations which are  ‘open’ and  ‘secret’ make her more secure about her real choice, her real self and her real sense of belonging.  Meena finds her ‘ real self’. She reflects upon her past, in the light of which she tries to illuminate the present. A very important modus operandi adopted by Sayal, to solve the resistances of her cultural third space is, therefore, to decipher her present predicament of anxiety with the help of her mnemonic reservoir to find a real identity.

Works Cited:
Anita and Me study Guide. 22 nov 2002, Education and Icon Film Distribution. 12 sept. 2005 < http:?// www. Filmeducation. Org/ filmlib/ Anita Me pdf.>
 Bhabha, Homi,. “ Of Mimicry and Men: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discource” October, Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis. Spring 28 (1984). 125-33. Print.
---------“ Dissemination: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation”,Nation and Narration, London: Routledge,1990 .291. Print.
Paul A. Singh Guhman. Asian Adoloscents In the West. Leicester. British Psychological Society. 1999,.32. Print.
Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands. (Essays and Criticsm 1981-1988), London: Granata Books, 1992,p.17in association with the Open University, 2004.130-131. Print.
 Sayal , Meera. Anita and Me. Great Britain: Flamingo,1996. Print.          
  Woodward, Kath. Questoining Identity: Gender, Class, Nation. London: Routledge in association with the Open University, 2004 ,.130-131 .Print.

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