The longlist announced this year for the Booker Prize is highly unusual, and clearly meant to be so. It leaves out literary heavyweights such as J.M. Coetzee and Michael Ondaatje (although including the overrated Ian McEwan) in favour of several lesser-known writers, including four debutant novelists. Two of these are of Indian origin—Nikita Lalwani, with Gifted, and Indra Sinha, with Animal’s People. With Mohsin Hamid as the third Asian presence, the longlist signifies not only a shifting in the balance of power in world literature, as many have interpreted it, but also the increased openness and receptivity of a globalized readership.
Gifted: Penguin, 274 pages, Rs395
Lalwani’s Gifted is the second novel this year, after Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World, to feature a mathematical prodigy as its protagonist. But the difference between the fates of the gifted Rumika Vasi, the daughter of Indian immigrants living in Cardiff, and that of Kehlmann’s fictionalized portrayal of the German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, is salutary.
Gauss’ family hardly matters; from early adulthood, his self is his own, to fashion of it what he chooses. Rumi’s father, though, feels that his daughter will go nowhere without a carefully controlled and supervised environment. He sees his daughter not as a growing human being with many needs, but as an arrow directed towards a goal, and one that will bring shame upon the family if it misses its target.
Lalwani’s novel, even as it sympathetically depicts the misgivings and self-imposed strictures of an immigrant couple, opens out into a withering critique of Indian family life, particularly the relationship between parents and children.
This is not a novel that imagines the great Indian family stereotypically—large, happy, colourful and united, with some dark secrets lurking in the past or in some corner. Rather, the darkness and suffering is intrinsic to parent-child relations, in the misplaced passion of the older people to direct and control the lives of the young almost as extensions of themselves, their squeamishness about matters of body and sex, and their fear of contamination by anarchic forces lying outside the sphere of the household. Many Indians will recognize their parents in part or whole, though hopefully not themselves, in Lalwani’s portrayal of Mahesh and Shreene Vasi.
The Backdrop: Lalwani’s novel is set in the university town of Cardiff
In addition to its thematic ambition, the language of Gifted is also to be complimented. The childhood world of Rumi is vividly realized, and Lalwani sometimes tints her language with words that reveal Rumi’s unusual perspective of the world: “Mrs Pemberton sat dozily behind her desk at the front of the class, a large rhombus of light warming her face and the blackboard behind her.” Descending over India in an aeroplane for a long-desired vacation, Rumi “consumed the lolloping puffs of white, the caramel-hued horizon and the dizzy map of emerging land with covetous pleasure”. This is writing of unusual density.
If there is one drawback to Lalwani’s novel, it is that just as Indian parents are shown to lose the plot when their children become teenagers, so—to some extent— does she. The adolescent Rumi is less convincing than the child Rumi, especially since one of the traits she has developed is an obsession with eating cumin seeds at all hours. Her life is “held to ransom by cumin”.
The choice of cumin as such a pervasive emblem of internal disorder is particularly unfortunate because, at the hands of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and the like, spices have become a bland invitation to Indian fiction, a promise to the reader of mysterious Eastern worlds. For one long section then, the force of Lalwani’s narrative is itself held to ransom by cumin.
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