Friday, 21 January 2011

Gifted ~ Nikita Lalwani

This month's Bookworms' read was the first novel by Nikita Lalwani, Gifted. The book is the story of Rumi Vasi, a young Hindu girl growing up in Wales in the 1980s. Rumi's parents have come to Britain, immediately after their marriage so that her father, Mahesh, could complete his studies and gain his PhD. Mahesh has promised his wife, Shreene, that as soon as he has completed his thesis they will return to India, but this hasn't happened and so the opening of the book sees the family settled in Cardiff with Mahesh travelling each day to his post as a lecturer in Physics at Swansea.

Rumi has always been fascinated by numbers and one day her teacher accompanies her back to the family home to explain that the school think that she is 'gifted'. Despite the antagonism he feels towards the teacher, who he sees as interfering in his family life, this prompts Mahesh to take an even greater control over his daughter's development than he has done previously as she is groomed to become the youngest child ever to gain a place at Oxford to study Maths.  Initially compliant, as she reaches puberty, Rumi finds more and more ways of subverting her father's strictures. And, though she does make it to Oxford, the results are not what anyone in the family was expecting.

Unusually for Bookworms, we found ourselves discussing the issues raised by the book in greater depth than the book itself. In part, this was because we are mostly educators in one field or another and so the question of what is meant by a gifted child and what the implications are for the child so labelled was pertinent to us all. However, I think we also followed this line because we all felt that the book itself was typical of a first novel and flawed in many ways. To give just one example, while the ending is certainly not unexpected to the reader and is, in fact, based not only on an actual case but also reflective of Lalwani's own life (she dropped out of a medical degree at the end of the first year) it is unconvincing in the writing mainly because of problems with pace and the sudden switch of character focus.

We could, I think, have completely deconstructed the book had we focused just on the text itself and as a group we don't like doing that, so instead we found ourselves debating the difference between the concepts of gifted and talented and asking if it is ever to the child's ultimate advantage to be labelled as being gifted. It is clear in Rumi's case that while she may have a facility for numbers and for recognising patterns, she doesn't have the capacity for original thought that goes with real genius. We all felt, I think, that she would have been far better left to move through the education pathway at the same pace as her peers, broadening her understanding of the world outside Maths and then moving on to Oxford at a time when she had greater emotional maturity and could have handled the expectations that surround her more successfully.  Too many of us had horror stories to tell of children who had been pushed by their parents, beyond their physical, mental and emotional capabilities to the point where their health and in one cases their mind, had broken down completely.

We also spent time discussing the question of whether or not the first generation immigrant (whatever race or culture) isn't inclined to cling to traditions and social expectations long after the families they have left behind have moved on. Certainly, when Rumi and her mother return to India it is clear that their relatives there have a far less rigid approach to western influence than do Mahesh and Shreene and ultimately Rumi is damaged as much by the difference in cultural expectations as she is by the rigid regime of study.  Whatever we thought of the book, the reader can't help being sorry for this teenager who is caught in the double bind of having to meet the expectations of both a culture she doesn't understand and a label she doesn't want.

If Lalwani writes an second novel then I will read it, because I think she has some promise, but when, as a group we look back over our reading year, this book is one that we will remember for its subject matter rather than for the quality of the writing.



  1. It's too bad that the book wasn't better-written; the subject matter does sound interesting. It will be interested to see if/how the author progresses as a writer. Your book group does sound like fun!

  2. It was one of our less successful reads in terns of its literary worth, I have today, Dorothy. The beauty of this group is that we all know each other so well now, that we can make critical comments without the person who has chosen the book feeling offended in any way. Our evenings are fun and it's a shame you're so far away; you would be more than welcome.

  3. Annie, here in New York we are all fussing about this "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom"
    Immigrant parents pushing children to their view of perfection. Of course in the US we are deadly afraid of China, so it has even more emotional resonance. I haven't heard the educators' point of view yet, though....

  4. Carol, that is really interesting. The first paragraph had me hooting with indignation at least twice, much to the surprise of the other people in the room with me. I suspect that the sentence:

    But while I think that might be her point now, I am not convinced it was her point when she wrote it.

    probably comes somewhere near the truth. Thank you for bringing this to my notice. I shall follow the debate with interest and pass it on to my fellow Bookworms.