A quick reading of the synopsis of Gifted doesn’t make the reader think there is anything terribly exciting or unique to expect from it. Probably one of the best examples of the adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’ in recent times, Gifted follows Rumi Vasi as she is carefully molded by her father to become one of the youngest students ever to attend Oxford University. This is Lalwani’s first novel, much of it, as she claims, written at Bath Spa University in the UK where she pursued an MA in Creative Writing – and what an impressive first attempt it is.
In Cardiff, Wales, where Lalwani was raised, Rumi is the first-born of Mahesh and Shreene Vasi, typical Indian immigrants who make the UK their home in search of that elusive goal of a better future. Mahesh is a lecturer at the University of Swansea, a post he earned after gaining his PhD at Cardiff. We learn that he ended up in Cardiff despite his admittance into Cambridge and University College London because, very simply, ‘they had offered the cash. They had wanted him here, a foreigner with no more than five pounds in his pocket and a slip of a wife, bare-toed and shivering.’
Rumi is made to follow a highly disciplined and regimented schedule from the age of five, after a visit from her teacher who proclaims that the precocious young girl is a ‘gifted mathematician.’ This is reinforced after her first visit to India with her mother, when an astrologer who looks at her hand says that it is the hand of a genius. Mahesh never lets her slip under his supervision, and her closest friends become the numbers that she starts continuously linking together in her mind in permutations and combinations.
As Rumi enters her teenage years, her life becomes full of the contradictions that a child of her upbringing is wont to endure. Shreene, always unhappy that her husband decided to settle abroad when she wanted to return to India, is not the ‘coconut’ that her husband is (‘brown on the outside, white on the inside’). Rumi’s knowledge of India comes from her mother’s anecdotes about her life there as a young girl and her love for Hindi films, which Mahesh allows the family to watch only once in a while to ensure that Rumi’s English is not affected. Shreene is the typical Indian conservative mother – when Rumi asks whether, as she was taught in science, she was born through sexual intercourse, Shreene flies into a rage and then calms down enough to say that she was born through prayer, because ‘only white people have sex.’
Amidst all the turmoil that young Rumi is going through, Mahesh’s grand plan finally yields fruit. Rumi, not yet fifteen, is admitted to Oxford. There, thrown into an adult world, she finally rebels.
Lalwani’s writing is truly descriptive - the reader feels Rumi’s angst and confusion at every point, and the connection only grows as the book finally reaches its climax. The finale is built-up like a difficult jigsaw puzzle, the small pieces all falling into place one by one before the complete masterpiece is revealed.
A few years ago, I assisted a documentary filmmaker in India on one of her short freelance projects. Imagine my surprise when I found out that three years later, that same person had written a book which was deemed worthy of being in the 2007 Man Booker longlist.
The book is Gifted, and the author, Nikita Lalwani.