'Gift' is not only an English word, it's also a German one. Etymologically, both words have the same root, their meaning, however, is different. The English word means 'present', the German one 'poison'. Reading Nikita Lalwani's debut novel we learn that the two meanings aren't as contradictory as they seem at first glance; being extraordinarily gifted can poison the gifted person's life.
Rumi, short for Rumika, is a wunderkind*, a child prodigy, when it comes to maths. Her teacher of the first class of elementary school informs her parents and advises them to take her to Mensa to have her gift developed. Her father goes with her to a meeting but after one glance into the room, he returns home and decides to take Rumi's education into his own hands.
What drives him to this decision are honour and pride aroused by the fact that everybody in the Mensa meeting is white. This is not surprising as it takes place in Cardiff, it must be mentioned now that Rumi is the daughter of first generation Indian immigrants and that her father is a professor of mathematics at the University of Wales.
How to raise a gifted child would be an interesting enough topic for a novel, but by making it an immigrants' child the author makes it more poignant. Dr. Mahesh Vasi, Rumi's father, is not only the stereotypical immigrant who permanently feels the need to prove to himself and to the people of his adopted country that he can do it, not only as well as they but even better, he's also a difficult man which has nothing to do with his background. For him the word 'empathy' belongs to a foreign language he doesn't understand.
He doesn't tell his future wife the truth in the marriage interview in India, she thinks they'll live in Great Britain only for three years whereas he has already decided to stay there for good. He forces her to learn English by giving her tasks and setting up strict rules, each evening he checks the results, for her this is 'police-camp procedure'. Not surprisingly, he behaves in the same way with Rumi. She lives in total isolation, she's forbidden to meet friends so that she can concentrate better, 'police camp procedure' also for her.
The novel is divided into three parts, after introducing the reader to the Vasi family the first part deals with Rumi when she's ten years old and in her first year of secondary school. The second part concentrates on her fourteenth year and the months of preparation before the A-level exams she intends to take prematurely. The third part shows underage Rumi at Oxford university. It seems that the novel is well-constructed and straightforward, Rumi studies to be accepted at Oxford at the age of fourteen and she is accepted.
But that is not what the novel is really about, it is about what the studies do to the child, later the pubescent girl and her family. I can't remember when it happened the last time that a book made me angry, I wanted to shake Mr. Vasi and shout at him to leave his daughter alone. When it comes to gifted children, I'm opinionated, in the course of my 40-year-long teaching career I've met and followed some. This is not an essay on how to further them, I don't have to give suggestions here, but I can say that what Rumi has to do and does do, is not it.
Over all the years nobody ever asks what is gained by all her efforts and sacrifices; when Rumi is in Oxford at last, she gives the answer herself. The ending is surprising or is it? It depends on the reader's point of view, I find it optimistic and sad at the same time. How Gerard Woodward from the Observer can call the novel 'sparklingly funny' (quoted on the front cover) remains a mystery to me. There are some funny moments, but on the whole the novel is anything but. Nikita Lalwani has based her novel on a real life case of an immigrant girl who entered Oxford at the age of thirteen, if you've read about her, you'll know what is the outcome.
Younger readers may be fascinated by Lalwani's description of Rumi's awakening puberty and live and suffer with her. How is it possible that adults can describe this stage in a person's life well? Do they remember their own problems? I've got a friend who can, the diaries she kept help her relive her puberty. I must say that I'm happy I don't, again I have to refer to my time as a teacher, in my last year I had three classes with about seventy 14-year-old pupils, no, puberty isn't a nice time for the ones involved directly and indirectly.
'Gifted' can also be seen as another contribution to the topic of adaptation (or not) of immigrant families into Western society. Nikita Lalwani was born in Rajasthan in 1973 and raised in Cardiff, she writes beautiful English and is one of the ever growing group of authors from Commonwealth countries who produce brilliant literature. Salman Rushdie, who can be seen as the father of this new branch of English literature has coined the phrase, "The Empire writes back".
'Gifted' was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. It is currently being translated into 16 languages.
*Wunderkind ('u' pronounced like 'oo' in foot) is a German word that has found its way into American English. A small survey revealed that some Brits know it, some don't. Now you all do!