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Is there a way in which all of us are fictional characters? As a kid I used to imagine myself in different times and places and doing stuff that was beyond belief. When I was seven we moved from the city to a remote farm out in the north-eastern part of Colorado. It was a culture shock. From a large city school to a one room school house; from a modern home to a house with no central heating and no indoor plumbing; from street cars to horses for travel - it was both exciting and difficult.
But my experience was eased by the facts of shared culture, shared language and religion and similar customs. Now imagine a move from India to the United Kingdom with the attendant differences in mores and fashions, food and traditions. Rumi Vasi is a young girl with immigrant parents who has the tensions and conflicts of growing up in a traditional Indian family while living in Cardiff where she is confronted by a new and different set of cultural traditions. Pulled toward her Mother's India on the one hand and toward her school mates in the UK on the other she is also blessed (or damned) by an ability to do mathematics.
Her father, a self made mathematics professor, believes that self-discipline and, more importantly his discipline, is the only way to become respected in the new country. He is controlling to a fault, takes his patriarchal position as head of family very serious and drives his daughter to excel at mathematics by structuring her every day around a schedule of study, problem solving, and more study. Rumi's mother is also a product of her Indian culture and refuses to talk with her daughter about the simplest of things of importance to a young woman - a bra, her first period.
Rumi is a math prodigy and at an early age successfully writes the A level exam and is allowed to enter Oxford where she suddenly finds a freedom of sorts that she has never experienced before. She rebels, in ways that North American and I would guess UK parents, are quite familiar with, but which her immigrant family find absolutely outrageous. Her controlling father steals into her private papers to discover what he takes to be a world shaking exchange of love letters between Rumi and a Pakistani student, a Muslim. Lalwani is expert at producing family scenes with power and emotion. In an interview with Nikita Lalwani the interviewer asks, "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?" Lalwani responds: " I felt very enmeshed with India as a child, and really, it was 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 in India 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." [Source]
Gifted explores with skill the powerful force of education on the immigrant imagination as well as the magnetic attraction of Oxford. And it explores the conflicts of generations, of traditions, and of places and the power they have on the human soul. It is more than a growing up story and movingly presents the inner life of an alienated young woman whose mind is filled with longing and loneliness as she tries to find her way in the world.
I highly recommend the audio version of the novel. The reader does an absolutely beautiful job as a vehicle for the language - she is expert at delivery, tone, timing, and does an amazing job of presenting the various dialects and languages.
© 2010 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.