Love and longing in Oxford

Published : Sep 07, 2007 00:00 IST

Telling the story of a maths geek, this is a book about an adolescents first awakening to her sexuality.

WHEN Arundhati Roy won the Booker in 1997, the timing seemed finally right for an Indian author to win this coveted honour, something that had not happened with Vikram Seths Suitable Boy.

Other than Salman Rushdie, who may be considered more of a Western author, the argument about Britains political correctness in including Third World writers within its ambit was spurred further with Kiran Desais nomination and subsequent award.

This year two Indian writers have made it to the shortlist Nikita Lalwani and Indra Sinha to make the Indian novel hot property in the international literary market.

Lalwanis debut novel, Gifted, is about Rumika Vasi, a child prodigy brought up in Cardiff (like Lalvani herself).

When she is five, her pushing mathematician father, Mahesh, is told by Rumis teacher that his young daughter is a whiz kid in mathematics; she is consequently subjected to intense study routines, heartily abhorred by young Rumi.

For Mahesh, developing her gift through exacting measures of discipline would translate into easy acceptance in the alien land he has chosen for his family.

So, while other children play outdoors, Rumi finds herself closeted in the library and kept hungry so that her mind might tick faster. All because she can complete the Rubiks cube in 34.63 seconds.

With scant support from her mother, who has been bulldozed into accepting a life outside her beloved India, Rumi finds herself becoming more and more miserable, faced as she is with an overdose of maths timetables when all she wants is to have friends like everyone else: If the whole friends thing was like a Venn diagram, she wasnt even inside the outer circle.

Ever since she is discovered to be gifted, she undergoes a series of exams real and practised to achieve the ultimate goal of being admitted to the University of Oxford.

As the youngest kid on the block, she would have to work harder on her study schedules to fulfil her fathers extreme expectations and at the same time catapult into adult life even before she has had the time to enjoy childhood.

As protest, she begins to read fiction instead of poring over equations and stealing from a sweet shop to quell her hunger; and as a defence mechanism to overcome her confusion, she develops the habit of chewing bitter-sweet cumin seeds, which inflame her mouth with sores.

Finally, she gets admission to Oxford when she is barely 15. But, it is around this time that she also discovers unfettered freedom and turns her fathers ambitions to ashes as she cuts up her long skirt the very first morning she is there.

Her new-found liberty, however, does not diminish her pleasure in finding the perfect fit among numerical pairings of numbers (such as 220 and 284), which appear to be pure poetry during her first sexual encounter at Oxford and are among the finest descriptions in the novel.

Despite being a book about a maths geek who is under tremendous pressure, Gifted is about an adolescents first awakenings of her sexuality and her consciousness of being a woman. But this is no ordinary kind of chicklit.

We are introduced to the experiences of a young girl who strives to come up to her fathers wishes even as she desperately wants to live her own life.

Lalwani recounts the trauma of the double life of young children of migrant parents who are separated from them by an unshared past and an eventful history: This is not my life, she thought. The words gathered a hectic momentum, blurring in her head like the lines on a spinning top. She wasnt going to do this exam. The novel thus raises the issue: Who is right the parents with their prudence, tradition and experience or the gennext with its unencumbered sense of hybridity?

Rumis doubts and insecurities apart, we are also exposed to the melancholic tale of her parents who want to find acceptance in their adopted home. Maheshs every public gesture is contrived and considered, a result of border-crossing.

As the diaspora in the West adapt with time, indigeneity and ethnicity get transformed. Even though he does not agonise overly about issues of identity, his Indian and British selves coexist uncomfortably and present a hyphenated self, utterly oblivious of roots and origins.

In order to be successful in this land of opportunities, he refuses to flaunt his Indianness so that he can naturalise into the British world as its citizen. He exploits Rumis gift to that purpose.

But Rumis love of India, despite being a second-generation immigrant, and her inability to conform to rules thwart his attempt to find social and cultural equilibrium.

Maheshs discovery of the love letters his daughter writes to Fareed turns out to be the last straw that holds his sense of self together: He had been like a man losing oxygen on a mountain, stepping on and on through the words to get it over, but he had managed it, hidden his pain, got it out, been strong.

As a character, Mahesh can well be a perfect subject for debates on categories of confluence and conflict, of disruption as well as continuity in which the idea of a monologic history cannot be invoked as a unified category.

Rumis mother, Shreene, whose own personality lies in shreds in her submission to her husband, cannot help but agree that their daughter has played football with [her] fathers honour.

As is usual with diasporic communities, issues of honour, respect and reputation always exist between the lines as signs of ethnicity despite the desire for acculturation.

The narrative correspondingly ranges from Wales to India and, with it, the burden of differences between two cultures, one belonging to the older generation that would expect Rumi to be a good Indian girl and the other experienced by Rumi herself who finds it claustrophobic to be coerced into fulfilling other peoples dreams.

At some levels, then, the environment of the Vasi household is typically that of Jhumpa Lahiris Namesake. Ashoke and Ashima Ganguly living out their dreams in Boston could well be Mahesh and Shreene Vasi in Cardiff, with one essential difference the former couple still maintain that India is home.

But issues about belongingness and dislocation, identification and alienation surface quietly and unobtrusively through both narratives. Ashima and Shreene are surrogate selves going monotonously through the motions of frying bhajis or doing housework, pining for their families back home; their immigrant children, on the other hand, have bicultural personalities, neither here nor there, that result in only failed or unconsummated relationships.

An ardent fan of Rushdie, Lalwani maintains her own blog called The day I fell in love with Salman Rushdie; the liveliness of style of this bildungsroman owes many debts to Midnights Children.

As a chronicle of displacement, strangeness and exile, of forbidden passions and family histories, Gifted is told in a sensual, descriptive style that lends energy to Lalwanis psychological drama with all its intimacy and hau nting elusiveness.

Written in a quietly confident prose which fits in well with the peculiar atmosphere of the novel, and taking for her theme an original subject concerning precocious children, Lalwanis accumulation of detail and changes of perception result in a complex picture of the flawed nature of human intention and the inability of well-meaning parents to come to terms with the reality they face.

Though Lalwani never overcomplicates her story, it does have a rather unsuccessful dream sequence about Disneyland thrown in for good measure when she describes Maheshs arid life.

Nonetheless, this is a compelling story in which the author resists easy solutions and neat endings. Her central characters fate remains open to the unexpected aspects of her new environment and she does not know if she will return to the outside world again.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment