Rumika Vasi is 10 years, two months, 13 days, two hours, 42 minutes and 6 seconds old and has known since the age of five that she is a “gifted” child. Her father Mahesh is obsessed with pushing Rumi as far as he can academically, determined to make her the youngest person to pass Maths A-Level and be admitted to Oxford University. Mahesh takes control of every aspect of Rumi’s life, building a strict regime of study in which discipline and obedience are the key factors.
Rumi’s lifestyle leaves her ostracized in the playground, but she finds comfort in her world of numbers and equations. However, as she grows older, she becomes more aware of how different she is from everyone else she knows. As her father’s tyranny magnifies, so do Rumi’s temptations to rebel and dreams of freeing herself from her prison.
Nikita Lalwani’s debut Gifted echoes the real life story of Sufiah Yusof, a mathematics prodigy who made the headlines in 1997 for becoming the youngest person to gain entry to Oxford University at the age of 13. Sufiah and her siblings were home-schooled by her parents, her father bullying them into a cruel academic regime much like Rumi’s. Three years later, Sufiah disappeared from Oxford, leading to a nation-wide police hunt. She was soon found in Bournemouth but refused to return home, claiming that she had had enough of 15 years of physical and mental abuse at the hands of her parents.
Although the theme of child prodigies is central to the novel, for Lalwani this theme becomes a useful tool for the exploration of the generation gap between first generation and second generation immigrants. Both Mahesh and his wife Shereen are of Indian origin, but their individual experiences of migrating to Britain are not explored in great depth. Instead, Lalwani deliberates on the experience of rearing a child in an alien society. For Mahesh, like many other South-Asian immigrants, education is the ultimate tool that guarantees success in the West. The aspirations of Shreene, Rumi’s mother, are of a different kind: the more rebellious and westernised Rumi grows, the more frustrated Shreene becomes, wanting her daughter to have the same moral conduct and mentality that she grew up with in India. Both parents neglect Rumi’s sense of self and her needs as an Indian girl growing up in the West. Rumi’s rebellious acts against her parents prove destructive for both her mother and fathers’ visions of their daughter’s future.
Lalwani has potential to be a very skillful writer; her characterisation of Shreene is the most complex, bringing to life her struggle to keep alive her Indian identity. Mahesh, however, seems somewhat caricature-like and I do find it difficult to empathise with him. Nevertheless, as a debut, I think Lalwani does well in Gifted. By writing in the third person, she explores not only the difficulties of the second generation, but also first generation immigrants, allowing the reader to be confronted by the complexity of this potentially destructive relationship. Overall, it’s an enjoyable read.
Rumi’s story concludes in an open-ended way, suggesting that her life does not take the tragic turns that Sufiah’s life did. Instead, it leaves the reader with a feeling of hope, that unlike Sufiah’s story, there is the possibility of dialogue, and perhaps even understanding, between the two generations.