Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mathematics and rebellion in Nikita Lalwani's Gifted

I confess that when I first looked at Nikita Lalwani's Gifted I put it down quickly. This was because the first sentence on the back-cover blurb - "Rumi Vasu is ten years, five months, thirteen days, two hours, forty-two minutes and six seconds old" - seemed to me characteristic of a tendency of bad literary fiction the world over: the tendency towards irrelevant detail, which, like a reflection in a shop window, points back towards the narrator instead of establishing something significant about the character. This sentence appeared to me a particularly egregious instance of this, because for all its fastidious attention to specifics of time it becomes inaccurate even within the time taken to read it or think it.

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".


Anonymous said...

"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." and etc etc...obviously reminds me of that book "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time" i didn't like haddon's and i haven't read the lalwani's. i can't pass any judgement. christopher was in love with prime numbers.

Anonymous said...

So what does a child prodigy do, add on wholesome even numbers, and do a sing song about it? Remember every second that she is "a" years, "b" months, "c" weeks, "d" days, "e" hours, "f" minutes and "g+1" seconds?

So this is the dazzling insight into the mind and world of a math prodigy? Well she very well could have been a child with learning disability, forced by her parents to excel in a regular school meant for 'normal' children, and, it still would have made no difference to the "Gifted" storyline what so ever.

An Indian TT in a train in the 80s refers to "lessisster" square and not "a London Bridge which is falling down", which he would have possibly got acquainted with during his kid's nursery rhymes roting time. Sisters in Indian houses bathe together in their chaddis. "Mirinda and Aqua exist long before they are launched in India". A mother, once ambitious enough to be a doctor thrashes the day lights out of her daughter because she wants to wear a brassiere. The so very much avoidable Hindu girl loving Muslim boy, so Hindu girl has to promise on her Hindu god to stay away from him (that actually seems like deja vu, was that "Anita & Me"?)this, the writer could have given a miss, however tempting to retain. And ofcourse, the icing on the cake...a father who is a neo convert to whatever ism from a "Gandhian socialist Marxist" past, but still hankers on about how his side of the family got burnt by Muslims during partition, which probably justifies his not so friendly sentiments towards muslims!!!

Anyways, the father's worries are taken care of as the prodigal daughter who is perennially and perpetually obsessed with counting her age, lies about it to the Muslim boyfriend, who dumps her when he gets to know her real age. This really would not have taken much imagination to plot.

And the plot, goes here and there, described very beautifully in places and at times verbose to the point of banality, and culminates in a probably predictable climax, possibly taken from the life of a 'real life' math prodigy from UK.


Well, so this is what makes for good writing, and is described as 'Brilliant', 'dazzling', "superlative", "vivid" lalala?. Then seriously, we need an alternative space for serious, sincere and good writing. A space to celebrate 'gifted' people who have the maturity that comes from being honest with life and its lessons, and not merely creating caricatures of all the people who they might bump into, during their journey in buses and trains where they can look out at the exotic universe that lives by the roads and tracks, shitting and pissing and washing themselves in their chaddies.

But, these are the times of mediocrity and, the masses applaud the Lalwanis of the world. Good for them. These are their times.

Chandrahas said...

Swar - Curiously enough I haven't yet read Haddon's book - don't have any plans to either - so the idea that there might be some resemblance didn't strike me. Possibly there is. But the back-story is quite different.

Chandrahas said...

Anonymous - This is a very long comment you've left, almost as long as the original essay.

I usually prefer not to publish anonymous comments, but it's clear from your (many) words that you've read the book quite closely.

Certainly there are some anachronistic details in Gifted. The cola "Thums Up" is spelt repeatedly as "Thumbs Up", for example, and I agree with you that the plotting can be creaky. I chose to emphasise those parts which seemed best to me.

What I find harder to understand is your worldweary tone, all on this basis of this one book (or perhaps more that you don't mention). "But, these are the times of mediocrity and, the masses applaud the Lalwanis of the world. Good for them. These are their times."

I do not think there has been any time in the history of mass-printed books that someone has not claimed that "these are the times of mediocrity". If these indeed are the times of mediocrity as you suggest, they are not any more mediocre than before - in fact there are good reasons for thinking they might be less.

And finally, there are no "Lalwanis of this world". Every writer deserves to be part of a grouping of one in the first place, and not lend his or her name to a plural (I would only except those who set out deliberately to be imitative, or those who have no ability whatsoever).

Your objections to Lalwani's work are taken because at least they are specific; those to "the Lalwanis" I feel less sympathetic about because they advance a mood of unhelpful cynicism.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Thanks for publishing my 'essay':)

Maybe one knows more, or maybe not. If one does it is their cross to bear. Period.
The point is, if it is a good well written fiction then the characters get a life of their own. You know it when you read one.

But here, there seems to be more of an attempt to cram in all the "splendid exotic" stuff and possibly potshots at real people who cannot actually get back and retort. This is what makes for a creaky plot.

Yes, the book most certainly has its moments, but that does not make it "dazzling", "brilliant" or "superb". Celebration of mediocrity in this age is definitely more dangerous than what it used to be like during the pre globalization days, when Indian writing still spoke in genuine voices in English and vernacular tongues. Did writers then really have to follow the diktats of what the publishing houses thought would sell? That is why we need an alternative space for serious writing, for good writing, because there are writers who need that, whose writing is of greater caliber.

Not being "cynical" about the 'Lalwanis', but I am more interested in the alternative.

Good luck with your novel!