Lalwani, Nikita 1973–
Lalwani, Nikita 1973–
Born 1973, in Kota, Rajasthan, India; immigrated to Cardiff, Wales, with her family, c. 1974; father a maritime studies academic at Cardiff University; married; children: one. Education: Attended Bristol University.
BBC Television, director of television programs and documentaries.
Gifted: A Novel, Random House (New York, NY), 2007.
Nikita Lalwani was born to Indian parents in Kota, Rajasthan, India, in 1973. Her family moved to Cardiff, Wales, when she was only one year old, and Lalwani grew up there. Despite leaving India, her family maintained a strong Indian cultural heritage. In an interview on the Penguin Group Web site, Lalwani recalled: "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." In Lalwani's first book, Gifted: A Novel, the central character, Rumi Vasi, has a similar background to Lalwani's—she, too, grew up in Wales as the daughter of Indian immigrants.
Lalwani's book focuses in part on the need felt by immigrants to make some kind of mark in their new country. For Indian families, the focus on excelling academically can be particularly intense. The author recalled her childhood dream of being a math prodigy. She was quoted by Benedicte Page in Bookseller as saying: "I had this nerdy aspiration to do my maths O-level [standardized academic tests in England] really young." Her father discouraged the idea, telling her she should focus on all her subjects instead of only one. In Gifted, Rumi's parents take a different tack.
In the story, Rumi is five years old when her teacher informs her parents, Mahesh and Shreene, that the child is mathematically gifted. Mahesh is a professor of mathematics at the University of Swansea in Wales. Full of the defensiveness that immigrants sometimes feel in their adopted country, he takes the teacher's attention almost as an insult, as if she is surprised that Indians can excel in mathematics. Nevertheless, Mahesh begins to plot out an ambitious plan of home tutoring for Rumi, in addition to her time spent in the regular classroom. His goal is to have her attending Oxford University by the time she is fourteen years old. His program stirs up various emotions among the family members. He also hopes, inwardly, that immersing Rumi in mathematical studies will keep her from being touched by the temptations of the Western world. Shreene will go along with whatever her husband thinks best, but she is inwardly concerned and frustrated with the ways in which Mahesh's ambitions for their daughter conflict with her own efforts to raise a traditional Indian girl. At the same time, Shreene remembers her own frustrations when her father stymied her academic career because he feared she would be unmarriageable if she became too well-educated.
Rumi enjoys the attention she gets from her father thanks to all his tutoring. Yet, as the years go by, her special, private world of numbers becomes less and less satisfying. Rumi feels herself an outsider, not only because of her Indian heritage, but because of her academic focus. She can calculate the probability of a blade of grass growing next to a flower and can complete a Rubik's cube puzzle in 34.63 seconds, but she has so few friends, she anthropomorphizes numbers to serve as companions. As the years pass by, her loneliness increases and she feels very out of place. When her father thinks she is studying mathematics, she is actually reading novels and daydreaming about boys. At times, she longs to be in India, where she would have a large extended family and live in a culture where many girls excel at math. "Lalwani's evocation of teenage dislocation is pitch-perfect and she inhabits her heroine's interior world with tender authority," said Sarfaz Manzoor in a Guardian Online review. "The generational clash between Rumi and her parents—captured with precision and empathy—derives from the fact that her ethnicity and her genius make her special and therefore she stands out, yet she wants to be just like everyone else."
Finally, Rumi achieves her father's dream, and begins attending Oxford University two days a week when she is just fifteen years old. There she gets her first taste of freedom from her parents and their ideas. On her first day on campus, Rumi stares at herself in a mirror for a while and uses all the foul language she can think of, simply because she can. After a while, she becomes romantically involved with a Muslim boy—a relationship sure to disturb her parents, who suffered violence at the hands of Islamic fanatics during the time of Partition in India. Rumi finds it increasingly difficult to return to her parents' home and, eventually, she flees, striking out on a very different path from the one they have chosen for her.
The novel begins with a great deal of humor, but becomes increasingly serious as Rumi's crisis of identity develops. Reviewer K.G. Schneider, writing in the Free Range Librarian, found Lalwani's evocation of the awkwardness of the teen years to be among the best elements in the book: "Adolescence is, after all, about hyper-awareness, imbalance, separation from one's parents—and sexual awakening. That last topic is particularly well-done, at once discreet, believable, heartbreaking, and funny, without any of the tediously explicit extremes found in some novels marketed to teens." Another reviewer, Stevie Davies in the Independent Online, praised the skill with which Lalwani portrayed Rumi's parents as "equally victims and perpetrators" who really only want the best for their daughter. Davies concluded: "Gifted shows a temperate understanding of the dilemma of immigrant parents, themselves unbearably conflicted, twisting their daughter out of true. The searing narrative, following the 15-year-old Rumi to Oxford, failure and escape, is unflinchingly and tenderly written."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, August 1, 2007, Hazel Rochman, review of Gifted: A Novel, p. 34.
Bookseller, July 14, 2006, "Viking Takes Lalwani's Root," p. 13; June 1, 2007, Benedicte Page, "A Winning Formula: Nikita Lalwani's Debut Is about a Young Maths Prodigy," p. 18; June 22, 2007, "Lalwani: Gifted," p. 12; November 23, 2007, review of Gifted, p. 11.
Book World, September 16, 2007, Ron Charles, review of Gifted, p. 7.
Entertainment Weekly, September 14, 2007, Meeta Agrawal, review of Gifted, p. 151.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2007, review of Gifted.
New Statesman, July 23, 2007, Anita Sethi, review of Gifted, p. 59.
New Yorker, October 29, 2007, review of Gifted, p. 93.
Publishers Weekly, June 4, 2007, review of Gifted, p. 26.
AnE Vibe,http://www.anevibe.com/ (April 14, 2008), Deborah Ground Buckner, review of Gifted.
Curled Up with a Good Book,http://www.curledup.com/ (April 14, 2008), review of Gifted.
Free Range Librarian, (http://freerangelibrarian.com/ (August 9, 2007), K.G. Schneider, review of Gifted.
Guardian Online,http://books.guardian.co.uk/ (June 30, 2007), Sarfaz Manzoor, review of Gifted.
Independent Online,http://www.independent.co.uk/ (June 24, 2007), Rebecca Armstrong, "How We Met: Stephen Merchant and Nikita Lalwani"; (July 6, 2007), Stevie Davies, review of Gifted.
Mostly Fiction,http://www.mostlyfiction.com/ (September 27, 2007), Poornima Apte, review of Gifted.
Penguin Web site,http://www.penguin.com.au/ (April 14, 2008), author interview.
Sepia Mutiny,http://www.sepiamutiny.com/ (November 14, 2007), review of Gifted.
Washington Post Online,http://www.washingtonpost.com/ (September 16, 2007), Ron Charles, review of Gifted.