Partly because it's late at night and partly because there's a lot else to do, I'm leaving this review unedited. It appeared in Tehelka's issue of 1 September 2007.
GIFTED Nikita Lalwani
Ah, adolescence. A time when the need to fit in is matched only by the urge to break away. When one looks at the standards of the previous generation and finds them sadly lacking. Novels featuring this stage mirror such angst, naturally, with a classic example being J.D. Salinger’s iconic The Catcher in the Rye, in which an embattled Holden Caulfield rages against the ‘phoniness’ of adult life, among other things. Others follow similar templates, such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or Russell Banks’ Rule of the Bone.
A clear parallel can be drawn with immigrant fiction, most of which deals with the bewildered offspring of first-generation immigrants in a strange land, navigating the Scylla of the modern world and the Charybdis of the one left behind. It’s an in-between world, to borrow from the title of one of M.G. Vassanji’s novels.
The narrative engine of both types of books, then, is fuelled by the behaviour of the protagonists in conforming or cutting loose, with most reaching an uneasy compromise. It may not be the best of both worlds, but it’s the best they can do.
In Gifted, her debut novel, Nikita Lalwani deftly conflates these two genres to create a charming coming-of-age saga. This is the story of the precocious Rumi Vasi from ten to fifteen, detailing her parents’ ambitions for her and her struggle to find a life she is comfortable with.
A large part of the novel progresses though overlapping episodes – structurally akin to David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green – that take us into the cloistered 1980s world of the Vasis, immigrants from India who have settled in Wales. By choosing to tell the story in third person – instead of a first-person Rumi narrative, which must have been tempting – Lalwani attains a degree of objectivity and distance from her material, allowing her for the most part to manipulate points of view for a more nuanced portrait.
Mahesh, Rumi’s father, is a principled, pedantic and parsimonious lecturer who lives with his family in Cardiff. As Rumi displays a marked penchant for mathematics from an early age, Mahesh decides to strictly supervise her regime in the hope that she will get into Oxford as a young prodigy, another Shakuntala Devi. Her mother Shreene – lively yet lonely, and given to melodramatic gestures -- goes along with Mahesh’s iron schedule and is additionally concerned with whether her children will grow up without being “corrupted” by the West.
We chart Rumi’s growing years through a series of vignettes, some amusing and some moving, notably a trip to watch Attenborough’s Gandhi, two visits to India, Rumi’s crushes at school and her obsession with devouring cumin seeds. Much of this is very well done, including glimpses into Rumi’s mathematical bent applied to day-to-day life. Here she is, for example, evaluating the probability of walking home with the most fancied boy in her class: “Well, it was probably a 2 in 7 chance. Or maybe 3 in 14, otherwise known as 3 over 14. If you though about it, 1 over 14 would be point 0714 so 3 times that came to point 2142. She frowned. Hadn’t realized it was that small, she thought”.
Partly because of her abilities and partly because of Mahesh’s rigid routine, Rumi does indeed make it to Oxford. Here, she finally gets some breathing space and begins a brief liaison with Fareed, a 20-year-old student whom she meets at the Asian Society’s ‘Jazz and Samosa Evening’. The reverberations of this encounter make Rumi’s disenchantment burst into full flower (with a supporting role played by the lyrics of Bob Dylan).
This rebellion leads to dramatic consequences and, without giving too much away, it ought to be said that the finale is a tad inelegant. The best endings are those that are inevitable yet unexpected; and Gifted’s closing is more unexpected than anything else. To prefigure this, the author also tars Mahesh and Shreene with too black a brush, which is a little less than objective.
This quibble apart, Gifted is a pleasure to read. The prose is as crisp and clear-eyed as it is tender and evocative, and the beleaguered adolescent’s predicament is portrayed with compassion and insight. It marks the arrival of a talent that’s definitely, er, gifted.