I only looked at Gifted again when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize, but on reading it I have come around to thinking the judges have actually made a fairly astute choice. Regardless of whether it goes on to win a formal honour (it is pointless to think of novels primarily through the lens of prizes and awards) it is a sparky contribution to Indian letters. And it is so not only for its theme - which is that of the Indian family, and within it the characteristic tenor of parent-child relations, which tend to remain stagnant even as the child matures and finally becomes an adult - but also for the quality of its writing, which for large sections of the book is unusually precise and rich.
The protagonist of Gifted, Rumika Vasu or Rumi, is a child prodigy with a highly developed aptitude for mathematics, and her father, a university professor at Cardiff, is determined to make sure that she makes the best of her talent by passing her A-levels well before the appointed age and gaining entry into a place like Oxford. Early on in the book, when Rumi is just a child, she does not see her talent as a curse, only as a gift. The detail on the back cover about her age appears in the novel on page 17 of my Penguin edition, and it takes on a different quality there because it is Rumi herself who is shown computing it, as part of the patter of a host of charming thoughts about numbers:
She looked at her watch again. Now she was 10 years, 2 months, 13 days, 2 hours, 48 minutes and 4 seconds old. She sang the numbers song in her head. It was almost a lullaby, one she had known since she was a child, the tune working like a step graph with a line that rose and rose, then flattened out when it got to sixteen, ending with a comforting monotone. [...] The figures continued in her head...they were wholesome, even numbers, created through doubling alone. 32 and 32 are 64...128...256...512. Five hundred and twelve was a lovely number. Really friendly. It made her think of her dad's big, warm, open hands, the lined palms in which she used to put her face on Sunday mornings when he and her mum were in bed. He used to pretend those hands were crocodile jaws waiting to gobble her up. That had been when he hadn't been so obsessed with mental arithmetic and getting the right answer.
A long passage humming with mathematical thoughts ("Five hundred and twelve was a lovely number. Really friendly" is to my ear a beautiful touch) ends with a slight grumble of complaint about the consequences of that mathematics in Rumi's family life. Even as they establish a present reality, unfolding spontaneously in the protagonist's lively mind, the details foreshadow what is to come.
Immigrant life in Cardiff is depressing; the burden of being the class geek troubling; the small social circle of the Vasis, further restricted by Mahesh to ensure his daughter's discipline, boring. Rumi daydreams often of her family's previous visit to India, where the visits to other branches of the line and the encounters with unknown cousins and savoury eats made for such excitement. She dreams of escaping to India, and knows just enough of history to see how that history can be used to triumphantly legitimise her rebellion:
And then it would be announced in Assembly, how she was leaving them behind - Rafferty, Harris, the lot of them. She'd get her hair cut in advance, with a big fringe that spiked up a bit, and somehow get hold of a ra-ra skirt. When the list was read out at the end for football, table tennis and all that extra-curricular stuff, she'd raise her hand.
She's get up and say, "Yes, I have an announcement. I'm moving to a country where people laugh and have fun and aren't cruel and rude and don't make a joke of you, and where they are more intelligent than people here, especially at maths like me. And I'm never coming back. And also, by the way, my mum and dad say that British people stole all these stones from people in India, the rubies and diamonds in the precious buildings, before they stopped ruling it [...]. So it doesn't make much sense for me to live here, to be honest, because I don't agree with it. I'm going back to where I came from.
She knew that she would have to make sure she was in a place where she could look at Simon Bridgeman and Christopher Palmer during this last bit, to give them a signal so they didn't take it personally. Or maybe she'd warn them in advance, so that the shock of what she was about to reveal, about their own history as British people, didn't upset them too much.
This is really a complex triple-sided point, because while Rumi registers her protest at the British, and amusingly leaves out the two boys in her class who are friendly with her, we can see from above her that what she wants to escape, ironically, is not so much Britain as her own, resolutely Indian, family in Britain.
Not all of Gifted is as good as this. If Lalwani's contention, through the tracking of her protagonist at different stages of her childhood and adolescence, is that Indian parents, even highly educated ones, often don't know how to deal with their children as they grow older, infantilising them and denying matters like their growing awareness of their sexuality, then to my mind her book to some extent duplicates these faults this by managing the protagonist less well she grows older. I was wearied in particular by the repeated descriptions of the teenaged Rumi's obsession with chewing cumin seeds. But there is a great deal of genuinely lively and vibrant writing in this novel, to go with its diagnosis of a major faultline in Indian society.
And old posts about two other works of comic fiction that have something to say about the encounter between imperial and colonised cultures: Fakir Mohan Senapati's Six Acres and a Third and Parashuram's "The Scripture Read Backwards".