15 December, 2007Issue 7.1FictionLiterature

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Growing Up on Maths and Cumin


Scarlett Baron

Nikita Lalwani
Viking, 2007
275 pages
ISBN 978-0670917075

The opening page of Nikita Lalwani’s debut novel, Gifted, rustles with the consonantal chill of the ‘diesel scent’ and ‘echoing clacks’ of a train rattling through ‘the dank hush of autumn’ – a backdrop of British cold and nagging discomfort which pervades this book like a dull, diffuse pain. In just a few swift, adroit strokes, Lalwani involves the reader in a novel which finds consistently brilliant and unexpected ways of capturing familiar perceptions. The author’s deft grasp of language refreshes the book’s rather hackneyed ‘coming of age’ motif – a feat which succeeded in propelling Gifted onto the longlist for this year’s prestigious Man Booker Prize.

The story revolves around Rumi, the daughter of Indian immigrants settled in Cardiff. At the age of five, Rumi is discovered to have an uncommon way with numbers. Detected by a school teacher, her mathematical gift sets her father’s mind reeling with the opportunity to show his host nation what he can do. Through Rumi, Mahesh aspires to prove that he does not conform to British stereotypes regarding immigrants, that ‘he was not going to be dissolved into the rivers of blood, among Enoch Powell’s armies of bacteria’, nor allow himself to be aligned with those shadowy foreign figures who ‘defecate in people’s nightmares on the landscape of their precious country.’ A university mathematician himself, Mahesh promptly organises his daughter’s life into stringently timetabled study slots, limiting time with friends and leisure activities of all kinds, and instilling in her, by dint of pressing disciplinary rhetoric, the need to achieve the status of child prodigy. Mahesh’s ambitions, and his respect for academic achievement (‘the only quantifiable measure of a life of the mind’), take over Rumi’s life. The insidious inculcation of these values results in Rumi herself adopting the goal she and her father have agreed – a place to read maths at Oxford at the age of fourteen – not only as a way of escaping his tyrannical rule but also because his standards have insensibly become her own. Lalwani portrays Rumi’s conflicted position with great subtlety, showing how dangerously a loving family relationship can teeter on the brink of hatred.

The plot is easily recognisable, if only from regular reports in the newspaper press. But in this case the well-worn story of incredible talent conjugated with parental pressure is enhanced by the addition of other fine yarns. Lalwani weaves the central nexus of adolescent rebellion and family dispute with other complicating factors. The clash of cultures between India and Britain is aptly rendered through the contradictory stresses that are brought to bear on Rumi: she is encouraged to play by the rules of the British school system to gain access to one of the bastions of the country’s intellectual success, while also being expected to prepare for adult life as a traditional Indian woman. As such, Rumi’s future will involve an arranged marriage and, before that, a dedication to the cultivation of an alluring femininity and complete abstinence from any kind of flirtation. Rumi finds these Indian requirements difficult to reconcile with the values imparted by her Western schooling. Indeed, sexuality is at the heart of her growing opposition to her parents’ constraints. When Rumi parrots what she has been taught at school and casually asks her mother ‘And did you have sexual intercourse so that I could be born?’, Shreene flares into a rage of embarrassment which leads to an untenable and hysterically delivered racist lie: ‘That is not how our babies are born. Only white people have sex.’ The dispute marks the beginning of a deep rift between mother and daughter, which reaches a climax in physical altercation. Family strife escalates unsettlingly as the novel unfolds, taking on more violent tones as Rumi’s distance from her parents grows. One of this book’s great strengths is that it allows the reader to see situations from many different perspectives, so that one is made aware of how trapped Mahesh and Shreene themselves feel in the roles cut out for them by Indian tradition, even as one’s instincts revolt at the actions and attitudes these roles dictate.

With her life in Cardiff hemmed in on all sides, Rumi develops a passionate attachment to India following an idyllic first trip to her native country at the age of eight. During the ‘India Trip’, Rumi discovers at first-hand the country’s ‘caramel-hued horizon’, its heat and customs and faiths and rituals. The colours, flavours and scents of India, encounters with a loving extended family, and the freedom from her strenuous study routine make for a uniquely exciting, carefree summer. Rumi thrills with ‘the sheer brilliance of it all’ and feels that ‘the air is hazy with possibility.’ The confused mesh of Rumi’s divided loyalties is further complicated by this attachment to her native country – for it is in the name of the same attachment that Rumi’s parents react to their daughter’s adherence to Western values with such intransigence.

Joyous memories of the ‘India Trip’ backfire to reinforce Rumi’s sense of imprisonment when she returns to Cardiff after the holidays. In a laudable twist on the theme of teenage addictions and eating disorders, Lalwani has Rumi develop a kind of substance abuse which suggestively encapsulates her dreams of escape to India. The taste of cumin seeds becomes essential to Rumi’s academic performance. In the months leading up to her A-levels, ‘the only constant was cumin’. But although the seeds soothe Rumi’s work-related anxieties, the habit also wrecks crucial moments in her already unsatisfactory social life. She is forced to run away from a first kiss she intensely desires, for instance, because her mouth is ‘rotten’, ‘peeled out with cumin.’ Cumin proves a red herring, providing only momentary and delusional relief from a suffocating sense of entrapment which it ultimately only consolidates.

Gifted is full of stunning descriptions of childhood. Lalwani’s subtly renders the movements of Rumi’s brightly perceptive inner consciousness by tinting the world in mathematical hues, endowing even apparently simple sights with an almost magical scientific beauty. In Rumi’s mind, numbers string together spontaneously in comfortingly familiar patterns to form an algebraic panacea summoned in moments of loneliness or embarrassment: she ‘clings to the melody’ of the numbers ‘like a life-jacket’. Rumi’s little brother Nibu is also masterfully described. Free of the strains imposed on his sister, he leads a happy existence on the fringes of her distress, apparently untouched by the abrasive tensions that poison the family home. He is ‘a flapping laugh in a little chest’, whose giggles ‘rise like bubbles’, flashing light and mirth into Rumi’s controlled existence. The siblings’ touching closeness and affectionate mock brawls stand in welcome contrast to the incomprehension and cruelty to which Rumi is exposed at school.

The true mainspring of this novel is Lalwani’s splendidly imaged language. Verbs are inventively chosen to sculpt sentences in the shape of the actions they describe. Grief ‘clamps’ throats; sobs ‘arch’ through stomachs; social, familial, and intellectual worries ‘throttle veins’, ‘stem blood’ and ‘clot thoughts’; a friendly face ‘folds into laughter’. Even more noticeably, Lalwani’s great predilection for similes turns the pages of Gifted into a kaleidoscope of finely observed sensations. Guilt, for instance, ‘stains its way’ through Rumi ‘like the ink from the broken biros in her pockets.’ Lalwani artfully captures the evanescence and indefiniteness of mental thought. Thus, ‘the shape of a memory filters through the sky like a droplet of herb in a homeopathic remedy.’ Lalwani is not afraid to use simple imagery if the terms are right to convey the youthful tenor of Rumi’s thoughts. Her longing for cumin, for instance, is ‘like a squirrel scratching the fleshy walls’ of her stomach. The distant voice of a friend fades behind her ‘until it was deleted by the air itself, like liquid correction fluid, blotting the page into white.’ This dexterity is not limited to the portrayal of private perceptions. Lalwani captures subtle moments of communicative warmth or tension to perfection, as when Mahesh’s breathing during a fraught encounter with Rumi is described as ‘rubbing the air like sandpaper’.

That Lalwani has it in her to tackle more serious matters than Gifted’s plot can accommodate is intimated by her unflinching treatment of domestic violence and teenage self-harm. Lalwani describes pain as it invades sensitive bodily places: though neither intense nor life-threatening, such pains are calculated to make the reader cringe. The needle of a compass pushes through a palm. A shard of shattered glass lodges itself in an eyeball, ‘Like the tongue of a bird licking and wiring itself round a piece of food, her eyeball rotates wildly round the piece.’ Lalwani does not recoil from such moments, handling them instead with resolute verbal precision.

Though Gifted was not included on the Man Booker shortlist, there can be little doubt that Lalwani’s debut novel marks the advent of a vibrant new literary voice. With writing skills such as these, the reader has much to look forward to. Having proved themselves in this stellar first novel, Lalwani’s similes are bound to yield even greater things when the author’s talents are addressed to a wider theme and a more original plotline. Like a peacock’s tail only half fanned, Lalwani’s prose tantalises with the promise of beautiful things as yet unseen. Her next novel, The Village, which is due to be published in 2009, is one to look out for.

Scarlett Baron is a DPhil student in English Literature at Christ Church, Oxford. She is writing about the influence of Flaubert on James Joyce.