“Rumi is a gifted child!” Mrs. Gold declared, unleashing the words with a thrilled upward turn of the mouth. Mahesh looked at Shreene, who was biting at the dry skin on her lower lip – a sign that she was tense. He looked at Rumi, who was staring at the floor, waiting for him to decipher the words. An then he cast his gaze back toward Mrs. Gol, and her radiant lines of teeth. “You mean she is doing well at school?” -From Gifted, page 6-
Nikita Lalwani’s debut novel Gifted is filled with vivid characterization and decidedly readable. Rumi, a second generation Indian with a gift for mathematics, is growing up with her family in Cardiff, Wales. Her father, Mahesh, drives her to achieve what only a few others have accomplished: acceptance at Oxford University at the age of fourteen. He is unrelenting and rigid in setting up Rumi’s schedule of studies – which last for hours after school beginning when she is only five years old. It becomes apparent early on, that Mahesh’s motivation is less about Rumi’s future, and more about his own feelings of inferiority.
Nikita Lalwani was born in India and raised in Cardiff, Wales – a predominantly white, Christian city – and I believe she must surely identify with Rumi who loves India from afar and wishes she were like the other children in her school. Rumi wants to be accepted in her adopted country – and is like any young girl moving from childhood to adolescence. But, Rumi’s family clings to their Indian culture, isolating Rumi from her peers and demanding she surpass them academically. It is heartbreaking when Rumi asks her mother about sexual intercourse only to be told: “Forget science. That is their science, for white people. We do not do that.”
Rumi’s mother, Shreen, is vividly drawn – a woman who gave up her dreams of becoming a doctor to marry a controlling man who moved her away from her family and the country she loves. Shreen is a tragic character, and someone the reader pulls for throughout the novel. She is the person we hope will rescue Rumi with her love. The relationship between Rumi and Shreen is painful, but realistic – and it tugs at the reader’s heartstrings.
As the novel unfolds, the divide between cultures seems to grow wider. There is a sense of doom that pulls the reader through the story, a feeling of voyeurism as we yearn to see how it will all end. Gifted is a novel about love and boundaries, about defining success, about the fine line between protecting one’s children and smothering them. I found myself staying up long past my bedtime to finish this book – and it is one that I will be thinking about for a long time.
Recently nominated for the Booker Prize long list, this is a book which is highly recommended.