Positive Parents, Negative Need

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57a243125f9a5e0e2118ba553e0e7f51-2Gifted
by Nikita Lalwani. Random House: New York. September 2007. Hardcover. 276 pages. $23.95.

On the surface, British writer Nikita Lalwani’s debut novel is about a math whiz trying to gain admission into Oxford by the age of 14. I would amend that to say that the book is less about math and more about family, about the tinderbox that often results from competing desires. But before I give away too much, let me say that Lalwani’s novel offers a refreshing and unexpected portrayal of a hardworking Indian family and the hopes that parents garner for their children.

This is where Lalwani’s strengths as a writer come into play, because Giftedhas been written with as much heart as brain, and that is a wonderful thing in a novel. Rumika (Rumi) Vasi is a young and awkward child, living in Cardiff, Wales with her mother, brother, and father, who is a math professor at the University of Swansea. There is no overt sense at the beginning of the book that Rumi is a true prodigy. Rather, her parents, her father in particular, nurture a near obsessive desire that their daughter live and work up to her “potential.” In this way, Lalwani considers some of the usual themes of South Asian fiction: the immigrant status of parents, children trapped in a netherworld of cultures with one foot in India and another in the Diaspora, western culture as a malignant influence, and looking down one’s nose at family practices different from one’s own. Not every writer treats these themes equally, and while Lalwani may exploit clichés, she does it in a very fresh way.

The use of setting—cold, stark Wales—is the perfect counterpart to India, her parents’ homeland, which is both literally and figuratively warm. The perfect misfits in their adopted land, the Vasis are a family mistrustful of outsiders. The parents pour all of their devotion into the children and desperately attempt to maintain their Indian way of life even far from home. The University of Swansea had courted Mahesh, offered him more money than other universities, setting him apart, in his mind, from other immigrants:

He had not been among the thirty thousand Asians hemorrhaging out of the ugly scar in Uganda’s belly that same year, seeping into the dark spaces of Britain, afloat in the soiled bath water of Amin’s shake-up: the crawling masses who had fallen into the pockets of Leicester and Wembley. He was not going to be dissolved into the rivers of blood, among Enoch Powell’s armies of bacteria, defecating in people’s nightmares on the landscape of their precious country.

This is the brand of single-minded ambition that forces Mahesh Vasi to turn on his heels at the first Mensa meeting he takes Rumi to. He decides to impose on her a regimen of self-discipline, concentration, and withdrawal from any thing else that might divert her from his dream of getting her into Oxford.

Slowly, but surely, Lalwani reveals the obvious cracks in this sort of rigid control, well meaning though it is. In fact, because Rumi’s parents are good, decent, and loving people, the unraveling of good intentions seems that much more ruinous and heartbreaking. What Lalwani sets up as a warm and soft cocoon of parental involvement turns slowly, almost imperceptibly, sinister. That Rumi is gifted in math seems entirely secondary to this story. What startles and jars the reader is the realization that despite the very best of intentions, what parents often desire for their children can be exactly the opposite of what they need.

Michelle Reale is an academic librarian and a fiction writer, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

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