Marks Of Brilliance : Nikita Lalwani’s ‘Gifted’


How do schools define competence and performance? Fearing that children will be left behind in the competitive world, teachers/ parents want their young wards to dent an identity in this faceless world through academic success. In secondary grades and high school, academic excellence connotes high level of numerical intelligence, an impressive proficiency in pure sciences, a spattering knowledge of social sciences, and a language proficiency that aims at using English as a tool of communication.

How much do adults – teachers and parents – coerce young minds and spirits to perform better? What if a child does not size up to the desired level of performance? I ask these questions myself as a parent of a 14 year old. My son is in grade 9, this means  that he has to suddenly grow up, understand that the world is a difficult place to live, hear that he will have to grab the world by the throat even if he does not understand the import of it and mouth eloquently what he aspires to be. This will merit him approval.

I am a very normal mother, anxious about what will happen to my son in this extremely competitive world if he is too laid back. This sounds trite, but this is how I feel. Out of this anxiety I urge him to work harder, steering him towards finer proficiency in math, sciences, social sciences and languages, in that order.

So in what way am I different from Mahesh Vasi, the overambitious father of the child prodigy Rumi in the novel ‘Gifted’?  I might be just a watered down version of Mahesh. One should ask my son for that. Don’t all adults in some way shove into young spirits an adult’s perception of performance and success? Is this violence on the sensibilities of young spirits and minds?

It is in this context that I read Nikita Lalwani’s novel ‘Gifted’. Lalwani’s debut novel gravitates around the child genius Rumi Vasi whose mind is inhabited by numbers. The child draws comfort from numbers; she decodes the world that she finds hard to handle as a coloured in a white society, through numbers. She is gifted announces Rumi’s Math teacher, the father who is a Math professor himself first sees this as something natural for a child who carries the Indian genetic pool of mathematical geniuses. Nevertheless, he uses his daughter’s extraordinary talent as a springboard that will catapult her to success and acceptance in the society that had been hard on Mahesh. He takes the onerous task of educating Rumi in his own hands, he draws a schedule that charters Rumi clearing math A-level, O-level  to enter Oxford at the age of 15. The program that Mahesh draws out for his little daughter is insensitive to the emotional needs of the child. He fails to understand that emotions and desires too cohabit with numbers in the mind of his child.

At a wider level the novel deals with the throes of assimilation that immigrants experience in a racialised British society in the 1980s. The Vasis are caught between two cultures.  Mahesh and Shreene, Rumi’s parents, the first generation immigrants make aborted attempts at assimilation in Cardiff, Wales, that in spirit fails because they deplore the value system of the alien culture but still go at length to be accepted by the adopted home. Rumi is a product of this confusion. Mahesh perceives accomplishment and success as the stick to shake at the British society, or to say the least, as a means to prevent victimisation.

For this, he puts his five-year-old daughter through a severe regimen of long hours of work and discipline. He cons the child to set difficult targets, holds her responsible for her achievements and her slips, thus making her guilty of any truancy. Rumi is isolated from children of her age group and she is crippled emotionally and socially. She has very little time for anything, her time away from school is spent in library where she works out sums, her work monitored by her father to the minutest detail even in absentia.  Mahesh ofcourse keeps a tag on her movements and her development academically. Rumi, left with no space for herself, suspects that her father can read her thoughts as well.

Rumi finds ways of imploding the authority of her family. It starts with her reading story books in the library when she is supposed to be working out math problems. She sneaks out into the mall, pilfers sweets and all her surreptitious acts are subversions of authority. In Oxford, still a child of 15, who has to cope with loneliness of living as a paying guest and at the same time experiencing the exhilaration of freedom from her parents that exposes her to relationships that awaken her sexuality, she slips down her academic chart. Pushed against the wall by the demands made by her parents and the University, she leaves her home and indicates her desire to snap ties with her family .

The novel is a heart-tugging rendering of crushing a young spirit. This is embedded on strands of themes that explore alienation, multi cultural maladjustments, and power played at various levels. This makes the book interesting.

Shreene, Rumi’s mother suffers from the angst of separation from India and her family, especially her father. Her father, back in India was a figure of authority, but in all ways different from Mahesh. The value system that Shreene carries from back home clashes with the value system she sees around her in Cardiff. She is cocooned in the value system that her father espoused that she is frozen in time and culture and is never able to connect with her young daughter. At one instance she is shocked and goes mad when Rumi asks her if she was born after Shreene had an intercourse with Mahesh. 

Shreene does not share and understand Mahesh’s maniacal obsession in turning Rumi a mathematical genius. She suspects that father and daughter are together in this and have excluded her, thus instead of being an emotional anchor to her daughter she rejects her daughter. Unfortunately, she does not realise that India, her family there and her visits to India that give so much comfort to her, give comfort to Rumi as well.

Back home relationships and filial love were forged on silences, the unsaid and the undemonstrated. Shreene believed that wanting Rumi to do well, to be accomplished had been ways of demonstrating love. Shreene is puzzled that Rumi does not understand that behind sternness and discipline there always existed love and care. Touchingly, it is Shreene who finally seeks her daughter out and attempts at building trust and relationship, a manner of bonding that is alien to the culture she hails from.

Mahesh is in another way a hurt soul. There are large parts of Mahesh that appears as stereotypes that the author has laboured to create. He is humourless, brooding, ambitious and undemonstrative. When he brings his young wife to Cardiff, he numbers for her the reasons why she has to go to the library everyday, during her pregnancy and read newspaper, the contents of which she has to discuss at the end of the day with Mahesh. One reason is easy assimilation, and every other reason that he ascribes to this daily exercise doe tail toward making the process of assimilation easy and smooth for the timid woman from India who will have to rough it out in an alien culture.

It works the same way with Rumi, he feels that she will have to use her precocity, mathematical genius and academic accomplishment as a passport into the adopted society. He had a tougher time as a fresh immigrant and has decided to equip his daughter enough, even if that means retarding her emotionally and socially. Mahesh himself is socially and emotionally crippled, warped in an exclusionist history that carries memories of partition in India and that has feelings of animosity towards Muslims.

He crumbles when his da
ughter walks out of his life, grooming his daughter had alone given sense to his existence. Hounded by the media for pushing his daughter to the extremity Mahesh stays a recluse, there is nothing left in his life to reclaim.