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A Novel

Written by Nikita LalwaniAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Nikita Lalwani

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On Sale: August 19, 2008
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-809-6
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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fiction (57) india (18) immigrants (14) wales (13) coming of age (13)
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Rumi Vasi is 10 years, 2 months, 13 days, 2 hours, 42 minutes, and 6 seconds old. She’s figured that the likelihood of her walking home from school with the boy she likes, John Kemble, is 0.2142, a probability severely reduced by the lacy dress and thick woolen tights her father, and Indian émigré, forces her to wear. Rumi is a gifted child, and her father, Mahesh, believes that strict discipline is the key to nurturing her genius if the family has any hope of making its mark on its adoptive country.

Four years later, a teenage Rumi is at the center of an intense campaign by her parents to make her the youngest student ever to attend Oxford University, an effort that requires an unrelenting routine of study. Yet Rumi is growing up like any other normal teen: her mind often drifts to potent distractions . . . from music to love.

Rumi’s parents want nothing other than to give Rumi an exceptional life. As her father outlines ever more regimented study schedules, her mother longs for India and forcefully reminds Rumi of her roots. In the end, the intense expectations of a family with everything to prove will be a combustible ingredient as an intelligent but naive girl is thrust into the adult world before she has time to grow up.

In her stunningly eloquent debut novel, Nikita Lalwani pits a parent’s dream against a child’s. Deftly pondering the complexities and consequences that accompany the best intentions, Gifted explores just how far one person will push another, and how much can be endured, in the name of love.

Advance praise for Gifted
“A triumph . . . fluid, original, clever, glitteringly vivid, funny . . . All the conventional pieties and forms of Indian immigrant identity and trauma are so wittily preempted, and yet there’s a sure grasp, at the serious core of the novel, of the deep reverberations of politics and history. I couldn’t bear it when it ended.”
–Tessa Hadley, author of The Master Bedroom

“This is an outstanding piece of writing–rich, vivid, fluent, and well paced–with a wonderful cast of well-developed, engaging characters and a constantly surprising story line.”
–Gerard Woodward, author of A Curious Earth


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Mahesh is sitting in his office, marking. He looks up at the arc of the window as a train rushes past, its urgency left behind in diesel scent and echoing clacks. The dank hush of autumn is settling into his room like a foregone conclusion. It is the eleventh season of its kind in his experience in the UK. The fourth of its kind in this room. Mahesh looks up. There are charts and pictures on the wall. The map of the world sits at an awkward angle, blue ocean disappearing  behind the iron bookshelf. Books bulge in huge rows, pressing together files and papers, orange foolscap running in chunky alternation with black, white and gray. In the left corner of the room, by the whiteboard, the bumpy illustration of Gandhi peers out at him. In his mind there is an annoyance that delicately attacks his thoughts every few minutes.
Why did Rumi write that in her exercise book? This is the question that hooks into his conscience periodically: a tiny dental tool piercing soft gum. Why did she write it?

I went to play with Sharon Rafferty and Julie Harris and Leanne Roper in the woods. They let me play softball which is like rounders but with only two bases. Sharon said “let’s go and get the softball and racquets from my house.” When we got to her place we stood outside the gate and Sharon said “I just have to check you can come in Rumi because my mum doesn’t like colored people.”  Then she went in with the others and I waited outside.
Thank goodness she came back and said it was OK. Then we went in and had pop ices and got the racquets. Mrs. Rafferty was sunbathing in the garden and looked red. We took the racquets and played softball in the woods.

“Colored.”  The word had made him think of a crayon spreading a thick grainy brown over a round face, the kind of awkward pictures Rumi used to draw under duress when she was younger.
Again he looks at Gandhi, wizened and unflinching, in the corner of his room. What would they make of this back in college, cocooned as they had been in the company of ideas? Trotskyites, Gandhian Communists—they had found plenty of names for themselves back then, chewing betel, relishing the bitter stain on their lips and debating whether class war was compatible with nonviolence. What would they think of this name? What would they think of the conversation he had attempted with Rumi after reading it?
“Do you like your school, Rumi?”
“I don’t like the bullies.”
“What do you mean, bullies?”
“People who aren’t nice to me.”
“Do not let these things affect you. You are ten years old now.”
“What?”
“You should be like a tiger in the jungle. Like Shere Khan in The Jungle Book.”
“What do you mean, Daddy?”
“If someone hits you, then hit them back. If they hit you once, hit them twice.”
The words had come out of his mouth, as honest as a shotgun, and he had looked away when her eyes jumped. If you are shocked, so am I, he’d thought. But you are not going to be a victim. That I will not allow.
What would they think of this—the Hyderabad college collective—this world that he had chosen to inhabit, placing a solitary, all-important offspring right at the center? Come to that, what about Whitefoot, his current friend, colleague from the PhD course at Cardiff, Marxist himself—what would he think?
Another train goes past, carrying a heavy rattle inside it, dense as a migraine. The tremble of the room seems to jolt the Gandhi picture slightly. He can see a square of evening light on the glass, obscuring part of Gandhi’s face. Colored? Why did she write it?
It is four p.m., an early end to his day. He has marked four papers, and the room has lost most of its light. Mahesh screws the lid onto his fountain pen and places it in the outer pocket of his blazer so that the brushed steel is visible against the brown polyester mix. The pen had been a present from Shreene, bought with cash carefully siphoned from her first few paychecks, when she had begun to work after the birth. It is almost exactly the same age as Rumi. After ten years it still feels smooth to the touch, cool, not a single visible scratch or dent on the whole body of the piece. There is still that sensation of guilty pleasure at this luxury when he thinks about what it signifies, a tool of learning and wisdom—but a flamboyant one. He buttons up and puts the exam papers to one side, releasing the blind at his window before he locks up for the day, tucking two MSc dissertations under his arm to look at when he gets home.

Five years earlier, Rumi had come home one day and announced that Mrs. Gold wanted to come round and meet her parents. She was just five years old, in her first class at school. Mahesh and Shreene had arranged to leave work early on the appointed day, and were home by three thirty. Shreene began to fry some bhajis, while Mahesh descended into a deep silence, waiting in his shirt and tie in the living room. When Mrs. Gold walked in, Rumi was holding her hand.
“What a lovely walk home we’ve had together, Mr. and Mrs. Vasi,” she said, letting Rumi go in ahead of her.
Rumi squirmed and went suddenly quiet, looking up at her father. Mahesh stared at the teacher’s peroxide coiffure—whipped and sprayed into rounded peaks and troughs, like a butterscotch dessert. He was confused. Mentally he fought against relaxing, a natural response to the large smile exuded by Mrs. Gold.
“Is it possible to talk to you and your wife together?” she asked.
Shreene had brought in the snacks and joined him, sitting with her hands in her lap, still formal in her work wear, tights and heels. There was an alertness about her: she kept looking covertly at Mahesh, as if to say, “Give me the signal and I’ll go ahead with whatever it is we need to do.”
“What is it you wanted to talk about?” Mahesh said to Mrs. Gold, feeling the accented curves of his voice as though for the first time. “Is something wrong?”
“No . . . far from it, Mr. Vasi. I wanted to give you some news that I think will make you very proud parents.”
“And that is?” “Rumi is a gifted child!” Mrs. Gold declared, unleashing the words with a thrilled upward turn of the mouth.
Mahesh looked at Shreene, who was biting at the dry skin on her lower lip—a sign that she was tense. He looked at Rumi, who was staring at the floor, waiting for him to decipher the words. And then he cast his gaze back toward Mrs. Gold, and her radiant lines of teeth. “You mean she is doing well at school?”
“I mean more than that, Mr. Vasi,” said Mrs. Gold. “I mean that she is special. Different. Gifted.”
At this, Rumi started to fidget, scratching her nose and kicking her feet, looking from side to side, first at her mother, then at her father, her movements uncertain, exaggerated by the silence. Mahesh noticed that she had a scratch on her knee just below the hem of her corduroy dress, above the tight line of white sock gripping her calf. Shreene twitched her forehead at her daughter. Mahesh smiled at Mrs. Gold again, and softened his voice, aware that his daughter was listening to each word as he spoke. He tried to keep the pressure out of the sentences he began to create.
“Myself and my wife take . . . Rumika’s education very seriously. We are pleased that she is doing well in her studies and that her hard work has paid off. I am an academic myself—”
Mrs. Gold shook her head, interrupting. “With due respect, Mr. and Mrs. Vasi, I’m talking about something else. I am talking about a gift. Something that only comes along now and then. Rumi is a gifted mathematician!”
They were plunged into silence once more. Rumi moved her legs back and forth, pushing them rhythmically against the velour of the sofa. Mahesh registered vaguely that she was repeating the movement in batches of four, then pausing, like a physical chant. He watched her support one of her chubby little cheeks with a hand, which she made into a fist, balancing her elbow on her thigh. She was still staring at the floor.
“I am also a mathematician and I am glad that she is doing well in this subject, as you say. I have placed emphasis on it because it is my area of speciality,” said Mahesh, trying to maintain an amiable expression on his face.
“We at Summerfield believe that Rumi deserves to have this gift nurtured,” said Mrs. Gold. She leaned in, pulling her skirt together so that the pleat at the front disappeared neatly inside itself. She paused significantly, as though she was about to say something serious, possibly untoward. Rumi also leaned in automatically to listen, her swaying legs forcing themselves to halt, pressing a temporary dent into the sofa front. Even Shreene moved her body forward, raising her eyebrows expectantly.
“Have you heard of a place called Mensa?” said Mrs. Gold.
Mahesh felt exasperated. He had seen all the same adverts as her. The ads for this place she named with such careful tedium, as though she was rolling a diamond round her mouth. “Mensa.” He’d seen their childish IQ tests, fooled around with filling them out in the Sunday papers. He knew what Mensa was, for goodness’ sake. What did she take him for? And why was she so surprised that he and his daughter could string numbers together with reasonable panache? They were hardly shopkeepers.
He was “peed off,” as they said here: irritated. He tried to think of more slang, enjoying the taste of righteousness, dousing each word with it. He was “hacked off,”  “cheesed off,”  “not pleased.” What did she think? That he was some third-rate charlatan, preening his feathers under the banner of academia? He felt a rumble in his stomach as the bhajis fermented, rising as though to validate his sense of pique. Oddly, the sensation cheered him. He felt like making a grand statement to this woman, one that Rumi would witness, about how it was possible through strength and discipline to create your own destiny using the power of thought: through marks, percentages, papers, exams, numbers that had added up, in his case, to a big sum in small hands—a scholarship across the ocean.
He surveyed Mrs. Gold’s darting eyes. She was watching his wife as she sipped her tea. Shreene was returning her gaze, looking round the room at intervals. What preconceptions did she bring with her—this queer-spoken woman with her little smiles and polite contradictions? He was not going to make a grand statement. It would only confuse things. But, if he could, he would tell her everything. He’d tell her he’d got into all their universities—all the bloody jewels they treasured so exclusively in this country: that he had been offered a place at their Cambridge and their University College of London. He had ended up in Cardiff because they had offered the cash—several thousand pounds of it, a sum that no one could deny for its totality. Full fees. They had wanted him here, a foreigner with no more than five pounds in his pocket and a slip of a wife, bare-toed and shivering. That was how he had got off the plane with Shreene in 1972, newly wed and aware, dignified by the patronage of their redbrick institutions, sure as a compass, leading the way for them both.
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.
He was Dr. Mahesh Vasi, PhD, a man who had begun his maths career repeating times tables under a large tree in Patiala with fifteen schoolmates, embossed with dust and driven by the pure heat of numbers. Now he was here, working just over an hour’s commute away, speaking to a room of one hundred students each week, employed in name by the University of Swansea, subset of the University of  Wales itself. What about that, then?
Mahesh cleared his throat and considered how to proceed. He uncrossed, then recrossed his legs with an air of what he hoped was leisurely contemplation. He still had to learn how to relax, uncoil the ritual desire to please. It was a shameful habit, nothing else, he told himself.
Shreene offered Mrs. Gold the plate of snacks. The vegetables shone through the batter with glistening heat: dark purple eggplant skins and green zucchini, pushing their thick curves through the fried covering. “Please—have one,” she said, smiling and pressing a paper napkin into the teacher’s hand. “Do you like spicy food?”
Mahesh took the opportunity to interject. “I know Mensa very well, Mrs. Gold. I’m happy to go there with Rumika and see what it is like.”


From the Hardcover edition.
Nikita Lalwani|Author Q&A

About Nikita Lalwani

Nikita Lalwani - Gifted

Photo © Vik Sharma

Nikita Lalwani was born in Rajasthan, India, and raised in Cardiff, Wales. Gifted is her first novel. Her next novel, The Village, will be published in 2009. In June 2008 she won the Desmond Elliot Prize for Fiction and donated the £10,000 prize to human rights campaigners, Liberty. She lives in London.

Author Q&A

A Conversation With Nikita Lalwani


RANDOM HOUSE READER’S CIRCLE: Like Rumi, you grew up in Wales as the daughter of Indian immigrant parents. Do you empathize with Rumi’s attachment to India, and why do you think she feels it so strongly?

NIKITA LALWANI: As a child, India was very much part of my identity at school as well as at home.Although it clearly demarcated me from the norm, it was something that I saw as quite epic, very exciting, as opposed to an embarrassment.As an idea,‘India’ felt so abundant–it could be supernatural, exotic, melodramatic, so high on emotion and desirability: a place for which we were always nostalgic as a family. I think India represented an inherited and very romantic idea of a home-space. Rumi experiences freedom there on many levels as a child–freedom from academic rigor and playground politics, but also a sense of place and belonging. Of course, this relationship becomes more complicated–seedier, if you like, as she goes through adolescence and her belief structure morphs into something more ambiguous.

RHRC: Mahesh is determined to distinguish himself and his family in their adoptive country. Did you feel any similar pressures growing up in Cardiff?

NL: I remember our family was friends with another Asian family in a nearby town and their son actually was some kind of genius. He got his math O-levels in grade 8 and learned piano at an obscenely young age, and at dinner parties when we were sent to the kids room, I used to time him obsessively as he did the Rubik’s cube over and over, and tried to beat the world record. What was all that about? We thought it was an entirely normal pursuit. When I was writing the book I kept coming back to this strange aspiration that I had for a while when I was around 8 years old, to be some kind of prodigy.This odd, and quite particular desire must have been linked to the need to stand out in some way, I’m sure to be less invisible, and math was the most useful thing I had in hand. As it was, I outgrew the idea within a few months and got on with being just academically decent at school,but the label ‘gifted child’still interested me when I became a documentary maker as an adult–the whole nature versus nurture debate, and what was powering that particular kind of nurture in second-generation children.

RHRC: Her gift for mathematics causes Rumi to often feel isolated from her fellow students. Did your aptitude for math also mark you out as ‘different.’ How did you deal with this?

NL: Most of my love of math as a child was quite simple and tricky really. Just the sheer drama of mental arithmetic–acrobatics with straightforward sums. I didn’t ever get beyond that to the deep stuff, but I’m sure while I experimented with being a human calculator, I was trying to turn some element of being different to my advantage. It was a chicken and egg situation though.As to which came first– was the feeling of otherness because of math or did the math fill the space created through being different by virtue of race? I think they fed each other. It is something I associate with early childhood though. As I got older, and nearer adolescence, that difference (and the math fascination) seemed to be much less apparent.

RHRC: Having gone to Oxford to study medicine, how did you come to be a writer?

NL: There was a moment at Oxford when we were all lined up at the end of our second term, and we were finally on to ‘the head’ in the dissecting lab.There were six students in our group and we had a tub of heads in front of us, all sliced in different ways to reveal different constituent parts.We each had to dunk a hand in and take out a head and name the parts that were exposed in the section.When it was my turn, I got a very small one, it must have been a child of about age 10. I thought to myself, I don’t like this at all, but to make matters worse, I didn’t have a clue what the major parts were when questioned. It was so much about the facts and at eighteen, I was just starting to desperately seek out everything that couldn’t be quantified. I spent most of my time at Oxford writing for poetry magazines and trying to perform in dodgy theatre so I think it was only a matter of time before I got found out, and I was ‘sent down’ to use that wonderfully dramatic phrase, after a year of the course. It was, as my tutor predicted then, the luckiest thing to happen to me.

RHRC:Who are your favorite authors, and why?

NL: At the moment I’m very keen on the Belgian writer Amelie Nothomb, who has a very trenchant and bizarre humor married with real sensitivity. I recently read Tokyo Stories by Rana Dasgupta which is so relevant, ruthless and yet utterly heartwarming. I admire the absurd and the extravagant and so Rushdie has been my most longstanding literary involvement. I’m also a fan of Don Delillo and Kundera for the same reasons. Siri Hustvedt and Doris Lessing would be amongst the others.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. How does Rumi’s focus on mathematics influence the structure of the novel and the way she processes the world?

2. Shreene’s sister in India tells her she was “always the lucky one.” Would you characterize Shreene as lucky? What are the grounds for Shreene’s discontent and “desolation”? What similarities and disparities do you see between Shreene and her daughter?

3. “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” Rumi cites this line from e.e. cummings during her first trip to India. What does rain, the moon, and the stars represent within Gifted? How do these elements surround Rumi’s relationship with Bridgeman?

4. How do the characters in Gifted contend with cultural stereotypes?

5. Reflect on the conversations between Mahesh and Whitefoot while playing chess.What do we learn about Mahesh through their interactions?

6. Does Rumi ever transcend her self-described role as an “irrelevant... observer”? If so, how?

7. Discuss the importance of ritual for Rumi and Mahesh within Oxford University, Indian culture and Western society.

8. Rumi becomes increasingly impulsive and self-destructive as the novel progresses.What influences and perpetuates these tendencies? What do the cumin seeds represent for Rumi?

9. Shreene repeatedly admonishes Rumi for asking “shameful” questions about bras and sex, even telling Rumi “that is not how our babies are born. Only white people have sex.” Why is Shreene so critical of Rumi’s inquiries? How do her questions represent a lack of “decency” and “respect” to Shreene? How do their arguments progress?

10. Mahesh explains that “the label ‘gifted’was meaningless to them as a family and ...a damaging idea to perpetuate in the population as a whole.” He believed that “any child could achieve this kind of knowledge and success rate, given the right developmental approach by the parents.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

11. Discuss the presence of duality throughout Gifted: between right and wrong, thoughts and actions, perception and reality, and logic and emotion. How does Rumi embody these dualities?

12. Rumi insists that her strict regimen in the hopes of reaching Oxford “is what [she has] chosen ...Until [she is] free.” Her mother maintains that Mahesh “has given [her] too much freedom,” while Mahesh is not “deluded enough to think that the world is full of choices.” Discuss the manipulation of choice within Gifted and it’s relation to freedom.

13. How do Rumi’s perceptions of herself evolve throughout Gifted? What influences how she sees herself? Why does she decide to “walk in the valley of truth”?

14. Are Mahesh and Shreene perpetrators, victims, or both?


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