Anita and Me: Finding British identity

Best mates: Chandeep Uppal and Anna Brewster star in Anita and Me in 2002.

Anita and Me is a novel about friendship and growing up — but its heroine also struggles with her English and Indian identities. Is it possible to define what it means to be ‘British’?

‘But tonight I finally made the connection that change always strolled hand in hand with loss, with upheaval, and that I would always feel it keenly because in the end, I did not live under the same sky as most other people.’

Throughout Meera Syal’s novel Anita and Me, its narrator Meena struggles to reconcile her Indian heritage with her British nationality. Born in England to immigrant parents, she is part of a close-knit Indian world inside the walls of her house. Outside, she is a ‘Tollington wench’ with a thick West Midlands accent.

The question of what it means to be ‘British’ is as emotionally charged now as it was in the 1960s, when the novel’s action takes place. Anti-immigration politicians such as Nigel Farage argue that there are not enough resources to support high numbers of people from other countries. However, others warn that this kind rhetoric can lead down a dangerous path of racism and intolerance.

Meena experiences this firsthand at her village’s summer fete. ‘We don’t give a toss for anybody else,’ says the teenager Sam Lowbridge during a heated debate over charity funds. ‘This is our patch. Not some wogs’ handout’. Meena feels as though she has been ‘punched in the stomach’. Worse still, she later learns that he and her best friend Anita were both involved in a racist assault against an Indian man that same night.

‘I never meant yow, Meena,’ Sam says when she finally confronts him. ‘It was all the others, not yow!’

As Meena observes this fear and anger towards immigrants, she also hears her parents mock the English for being selfish and hypocritical. Seemingly inhabiting two different worlds at once, even her language is split between Midlands slang, and the Punjabi she learns from her parents and her grandmother Nanima.

‘I am the others’

Last year, Prime Minister David Cameron defined ‘British values’ as ‘freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law’. He argued that it is the belief in these values, not a person’s heritage or ethnicity, which should determine their ‘Britishness’.

However, some responded that trying to define a ‘British’ identity at all is pointless. Plenty of other countries believe in freedom and tolerance, and in Anita and Me, Meena’s Indian family often appear to believe in ‘social responsibility’ far more than Anita’s English parents. People should be left to define their identity for themselves — and there is no reason why it should involve the country they live in at all.

You Decide

  1. Why does Meena say that she does not live ‘under the same sky’ as other people?
  2. How would you define ‘British values’?

Activities

  1. A stage production of Anita and Me will open in Birmingham in October 2015. In groups, try adapting and performing one of the scenes from the novel in your own play.
  2. Plan an essay on the importance of race in Anita and Me.

Some People Say...

“Every path leads to the same God.”

Meera Syal, Anita and Me

What do you think?

Q & A

Is this novel a ‘classic’?
Anita and Me was published in 1997, so it’s still relatively contemporary — at least in comparison to most ‘classic’ English novels. But these labels are not as important as the writing itself; the book expertly deals with many of literature’s great themes, including tragedy, comedy, identity and growing up.
Is there an ‘immigration crisis’ in the UK?
That depends on whom you ask. In 2014, net migration levels were around 318,000, and around half of these were from the EU. A report in the same year found ‘little evidence’ that immigration levels affected the jobs available to native UK residents. However, exploitative wages on the black market can affect jobs and wages for low-skilled workers.

Word Watch

Nigel Farage
The head of the UK Independence Party has proposed a migration cap of 50,000 people a year — but he has argued that this should only include skilled workers.
Wogs
It is unclear where this word came from, but it was once commonly used as an insult towards non-white immigrants in Britain. Although it has largely fallen out of use, it carried the same level of offence as the contemptuous term ‘nigger’ also used in front of Meena in the novel.
Punjabi
This is the language of Punjab, a historically Sikh region of India — although many Muslims and Hindus also live there. When the British Empire left India in 1947, the country was partitioned into two religious states: a ‘Hindu’ India and ‘Muslim’ Pakistan. This division went through the middle of Punjab, causing riots and chaos: around 500,000 people were killed on each side, and 50 million migrated between the two countries’ borders.
British values
In 2014, David Cameron announced that schools should begin promoting ‘fundamental British values’ in response to accusations of extremism at a number of schools in Birmingham.

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