Historical and Social Context

Meera Syal, born in 1961, is
an actress, writer and novelist with a number of TV, theatre and film credits.
She went to Manchester University where she got a degree in English and Drama. Much
of Meena´s character- her background, feelings and struggles in life –
resemblances the author´s own childhood experiences. As Meena, Syal was born in
a former mining village in the Mindlands from parents who had emigrated to
England from India looking for a better future. Both, author and character
passed the 11-plus exam and went to a girls´ grammar school.

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Meera Syal´s Anita and me is a semi-autobiographical
contemporary Black British novel of transformation, published in 1996, that
relates the struggle of Meena kumar – a second-generation Indian child born in
Britain- to develop her own cultural identity within a gap in between two
contrasting cultures; her Indian heritage, on the one hand, and the British
experiences (influences) she receives from the society (surrounding her) where
she grows up on the other hand.

 

Before introducing the literary context of this novel
which means the discussion of  terms such
as post-colonialism and black British literature, I consider  essential to provide a brief insight into the
precedents in history that prompted (allowed) and promoted (encouraged) the
development of these literary productions. Focusing, specially, on those
history facts related to India as a former British colony and the consequences
of such process of colonization, we can achieve a deep comprehension of the themes
dealt in Syal´s work and a full understanding of what was happening in the time
and place in which Anita and me is set.

 

Britain as a former British colony

 

    From 1858 to
1947, a period known as the Raj, India was one of the colonies belonging to the
British Empire, which meant to be under the rule of the British crown.
Therefore, many British citizens migrated to India to work in the different
employments offered by the Raj, as exposed in the novel through the character
of Mr Topsy/Turvey, who expresses to have “served” in India for ten
years (p.222).  Although at first the
relationship between both countries was good enough, it was brought to an end
(ceased) when, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), the Indian people
began to feel that they should be ruling themselves instead of being ruled by a
foreign country.

The Indian Independence Act, signed in 1947, not only
concluded the British sovereignty in India but, furthermore, divided the
country as it separated the Muslim state of Pakistan from Hindu-dominated state
of India. This split, known as Partition, caused that many people felt confined
in the wrong side of the frontier, since many Muslims felt trapped in India and
so felt Hindus trapped in Pakistan, creating a violent environment that erupted
in serious conflicts as the two groups met. These conflicts were extremely
frequent in the Punjab province where Meena´s parents were born, reaching over
250.000 deaths because of religious clashes.

 

Although India – as well as most of the British former
colonies, such as, Canada, South Africa or Papua New Guinea- achieved
independence, it became, and still remains, part of the British commonwealth-
“an association of nations consisting of the United Kingdom and several
former British colonies that are now sovereign states but still pay allegiance
to the British Crown.” (cita Susan Elkin 2010)

  
Notwithstanding the fact that both countries- Britain and India- were
miles away one from each other, the shifts affecting the once British colony
also had an effect on Britain.

By the 19th century there were not many Indians
established in Britain, nevertheless, the number of immigrants coming from
India began to increase in 1948- notably from the Punjab province where the
tensions were higher- as the British Nationality Act was passed and enabled
people born in any of the British colonies to come to Britain to live and work
without the requirement of a visa. Many Indian people, as Syal´s parents and
the fictional Kumars, came to Britain seeking a better future which meant
basically better living conditions and employments, but most importantly a
proper education for their children. That is why our protagonist, Meena, feels
so much pressure upon her to pass the exam to attend to the grammar school, as
reflected by the sentence “If I failed, my parents´ five thousand mile
journey would have all been for nothing.” (p.213)

As a result of this wave of immigration, the British
began to complaint against the immigrants- accusing them of taking their jobs-
and refused the increasing number of people coming into Britain. Thus, this
national feeling of rejection against immigrants spread – meaning that racism
increased in the country – and prompted the government to pass -in 1962- the
Commonwealth Immigrants Act that restricted the rules for immigration. Setting
the novel in this moment of history – the 1960s- Syal achieves the perfect
backdrop to deal with racism by including, for instance, racial confrontations
– as it is exposed by the aggression of an Indian man or the episode when the
skinhead Sam Lowridge swears at Indian people at the spring fete or the
aggression

 

Bearing in mind the notions exposed above about the
historical context of the novel, we can move on to the next section of this
dissertation that deals with the literary context in which we can place Anita
and Me, that means the discussion of the theory used to analyse this work, as
well as the discussion of the type of genre under which we can catalogue Syal´s
work.

1.2 Literary Context: A Black British novel of
transformation

The British Commonwealth allowed the development of
the term Commonwealth literatures as a way of unifying all the literary works
produced in these countries which pledged allegiance to the British Crown. As
Hans Bertens remarks “In  the  course 
of  1980s,  Commonwealth 
literary  studies  become 
part  of the then emerging and now
vast field of literary, cultural, political and historical inquary that we call
postcolonial studies.” Bertens, p. 200.

   
Postcolonialism, as a critical theory, focuses in the colonial
experience and its consequences from the point of view of the colonised people
or their descendants. Thus, under this term we can classify almost all the
literary production from countries with a history of colonialism.

     According
to John Mcleod´s Beginning Postcolonialism three salient areas are
gather under the term postcolonialism:

                                Very basically,
and in a literary contex, postcolonialism involves one                                                     
or more of the following

.                                       Reading
texts produced by writers from countries with a    history of colonialism, primarly those
texts concerned with the workings and legacy of colonialism in either the past
or the present.

. Reading texts produced by those that have migrated
from countries with a history of colonialism, or those descended from migrant
families, which deal in the main with diaspora experience and its many
consequences.

. In the light of theories of colonial discourse,
re-reading texts produced during colonialism; both those that directly address
the experience of Empire, and those that seem not to.

 

This dissertation examines, thus, Anita and Me within
the frame of postcolonial theory, as a Black British novel of transformation.
Anita and Me is a text produced by someone whose parents had migrated from
India- a country with a history of colonialism- and which deals in the main, as
we will see later on as the central body of this research, “with diaspora
experience and its many consequences.”

Hence, I consider Meena´s struggle to develop her own
cultural identity as a hybrid subject who is built up from the inputs received
from two opposing cultures- Indian and British- as the main theme developed
throughout this novel. Therefore, Anita and Me fulfils at least one of the
three conditions that, according to McLeod, a text must accomplish to be
considered as postcolonial.

Postcolonial writings included literary productions
such as those known as Black British literatures, under which we can place
Syal´s novel. Black British literature, as Mark Stein noted in his book
“derives from its own space, yet this space is not homogenous in terms of time
or culture or location, it is an imagined experiential field of overlapping territories”
(p 10)

Despite the fact that the term Black British was
developed by the Caribbean Artist movement- in the late 1960- in response to an
increasing wave of racism and extremist politics, this concept was also used to
include migrant groups from other parts of the world – such as Africa or Asia –
since the term black denotes, as Stuart Hall noted, “a way of referencing the
common experience of racism and marginalisation in Britain.”

A central genre in black British literature, as Stein
argues, is the novel of transformation. 
Although Anita and Me can be read as a black british novel of formation,
that is, a literary genre focused around the main character´s psychological and
moral growth, I consider more accurate to read Syal´s novel as a Black British
novel of transformation.

 Mark Stein
noted throughout his study several characteristics of the novel of
transformation that we can apply to Syal´s novel.

Firstly, these novels have a dual function. As Stein
marked, “on the one hand, on the thematic level, novels of transformation
depict the process of growing up.” This process of growing up implies
dealing with alienation and relations to the larger society and represents a
quest for an outlook on life which accommodates the protagonist´s own identity,
and which is shaped by a struggle with the parental generations, and one´s
peers and society at large.” (p 25)

“On the other hand, these fictions are not only
inscribed by the cultures they inhabit, they in turn mold those very cultures.”
This means that we can appreciate, through this novels, the transformation of
the British society- what is, from my point of view, the distinguishing feature
of this genre.

Syal´s Anita and Me shows perfectly this dual
functionality. Being the thematic level the central focus of the principal
section coming forward, I would like to specify those aspects of the novel that
show a change in the British society. As it is illustrated by The Kumars´
upward social mobility, as they will move from Tolligton, leaving the other Mindland
villagers behind, Meena´s position as empowered when she confronted Sam
Lowridge or

         

           
Secondly, Novels of transformation “implies radical generational
conflict between a generation that migrated to Britain and one that was born
there.” (p 29)

           
Finally, finding a voice –which the protagonist and narrator use to make
themselves heard- and inserting a narrative is a key function of this genre.
“This genre is about the voicing of the protagonist´s identity” (Stein  30)