(Reviewed by Poornima Apte SEP 27, 2007)
Early on in Nikita Lalwani’s memorable debut, Gifted, you hear a character emphasize the value of education: “Academic achievement is necessary to success,” says Mahesh Vasi, “It is the only quantifiable measure of a life of the mind.” The sentiment might have been aired by a character in fiction but it is one that is modeled solidly on real life. There is not one Indian child who has not heard about the necessity of education. Especially for the middle classes, it has always been a ticket up, a guarantee for a decent job and wages and a way to do one step better than one’s parents.
The laser focus on educational achievement is, in a sense, often more intensified by Indian immigrants who see education as the one way to further their social status among people not like them. This drive however, is taken to the extreme by Mahesh Vasi, a resident of Cardiff, Wales, and a mathematician in his own right, as he plans and implements a rigid course of study for his daughter, Rumika. When Rumi is barely in first grade her teacher pronounces her gifted but her father would rather not get caught up in such easy labels. He believes any child can achieve success and knowledge given “the right developmental approach by the parents.”
The right approach according to Mahesh involves having Rumi do pages after pages of math at the town library after school hours. In one of the many heart-rending scenes in the book, one day Rumi looks forward to a rare treat at the movies. She has visions of Bollywood movies in her head--imagining she will play out her own teen crushes through the on-screen antics of the lead pair. Unfortunately she is taken to see “Gandhi,” not quite the movie she had in mind, and have the entire expedition turn out to be another lesson albeit this time in Indian history.
As Rumi goes through puberty and becomes increasingly self-aware, her clashes with her mother (she would never dare argue with her father), Shreene, are brilliantly done. The dialog here is absolutely pitch-perfect. “Sometimes she wondered what it would have been like if she had been born and brought up in her country of origin, a moving dot graduating through the comforting structures and hierarchies of “Mother India” as they referred to it in Hindi films,“ Lalwani writes. “At least there was a generally agreed idea of right and wrong : you weren’t struggling to work it out on your own all the time.”
Gifted also manages a wonderful portrait of Shreene, Rumi’s desperate mother, who juggles a career and home in Cardiff and who has to spend all her efforts in keeping her young daughter on the straight and narrow. The pressure she feels from family back in India and by her colleagues at work are beautifully captured by Lalwani. As she begins to lose Rumi, you can almost hear her tone getting more and more shrill in desperation.
While the story belongs to Rumi, Lalwani’s debut expertly fills in the larger picture. Gifted is more than a good coming-of-age story. It beautifully depicts the immigrant’s struggle to desperately cling to traditional Old World values at all expense. What’s worse, without an adequate social network around them, there is nobody else to rely on for help or advice or to steer the parents in the right direction.
In the end, the reader feels for Rumi who bravely struggles to meet expectations set by two very separate worlds. It is to Lalwani’s credit, however, that you feel for the parents just as much. As the family implodes slowly but surely, your heart aches at their every well-intentioned misstep--just as much as it does for young Rumi.
- Amazon readers rating: from 10 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Gifted at Random House
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Gifted (September 2007)
- The Village (2009)
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- Penguin interview with Nikita Lalwani
- How we met: profile of Nikita Lalwani
- Washington Post review of Gifted
- New York Times review of Gifted
- Guardian Unlimited review of Gifted
- The Independent review of Gifted
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About the Author:
Nikita Lalwani was born in Rajasthan, India, and raised in Cardiff, Wales. After studying English at Bristol University, she went on to work for the BBC, directing factual television and documentaries.
She lives in London with her husband and child.