Review: Gifted by Nikita Lalwani

Rumi Vasi is a fourteen-year-old mathematics prodigy with an ambitious father who plans her admission to Oxford by age fifteen. Ambitious, however, might be an inaccurate term, for Rumi’s father Mahesh merely wants her to achieve her full potential, believing that discipline and hard work should trump fun — a not-so-aberrant idea, at least among middle-class Indians, who (in this reviewer’s experience) often believe education to be the only trustworthy ticket to success. But as Rumi enters adolescence, she wants to do normal, teenager-ish things — wear make-up and talk to boys — all of which distract her from her father’s objective.

NIKITA LALWANI thus creates a scenario ripe with dramatic possibility — there’s the clash between generations, between the rewards of discipline and fun, and between the strong personalities of Mahesh and Rumi. Yet, the true conflict in the heart of GIFTED lies in the circumstance that the Vasis don’t live in Calcutta but in Cardiff. Mahesh, all too conscious of his minority status in Britain, feels over-achievement is necessary if Rumi is to be respected in the country of her birth. And, like many Indian immigrants to the West, he disapproves of the temptations and freedoms available to teenagers in his adoptive country, believing it his duty to ensure his daughter steers clear of “licentiousness”. Rumi, he assumes, will be immune to the usual teenage preoccupations of dating and alcohol, and will think about boys only when she is ready to marry; until then, her sole focus will be mathematics.

And so Rumi Vasi, who, like every other adolescent in the world, wants to keep her head down and fit in with the crowd (preferably the cool girls), finds herself singled out at this most precarious of ages on two glaring counts — her remarkable mathematical ability, which leads her being dismissed as a “brainbox”, and her parents’ world view, which is at odds with all that her friends and classmates believe in.

That this situation will implode is inevitable, but the novel in no way feels predictable, thanks to vivid prose and a carefully-paced narrative. One of GIFTED’s most notable achievements is in fact the fresh blood it injects into the clash-of-cultures theme that so dominates immigrant fiction; I cannot give enough credit to a writer who can write about spices and arranged marriages and the partition of India and still command my attention till the last page. Lalwani’s keenly detailed and yet restrained portrayal of the complex relationship British Asians must forge with their former colonial masters is perhaps the most compelling feature of this novel; in one instance, Lalwani has Rumi dream of telling her class:
Yes, I have an announcement. I’m moving to a country where people laugh and have fun and aren’t cruel and rude and don’t make a joke of you, and where they are more intelligent than people here, especially at maths like me. And I’m never coming back. And also, by the way, my mum and dad say that British people stole all these stones from people in India, the rubies and diamonds in the precious buildings, before they stopped ruling it…

But, at the same time, Rumi plans to “make sure she was in a place where she could look at Simon Bridgeman and Christopher Palmer [her friends] during this last bit, to give them a signal so they didn’t take it personally.”

Another noteworthy feat Lalwani pulls off is the nuanced depiction of Rumi’s father Mahesh. Even as he works hard to never be stereotyped as the uneducated, undignified South Asian immigrant, Mahesh falls headlong into the cliché of the achievement-obsessed, overly-controlling immigrant parent. For all his shortcomings, Mahesh never comes across as a villain. He believes himself to be a good father — progressive enough to allow his daughter to strive to be the best rather than curtail her activities because she’s a girl — and is truly bewildered when things fall apart.

GIFTED does have some glitches: the relationship between Mahesh and his wife isn’t fleshed out quite enough for the reader’s satisfaction, for one. Also, the novel has several riffs on mathematics which terribly wearied this reviewer (who admits to a C-minus in Quantitative Methods). But quibbles aside, this is an exciting debut from Lalwani, which deservedly earned a place on the Booker long list; I await her sophomore effort with much anticipation.

(This review was published in the Asian Review of Books).

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