The root of rebellion
Stevie Davies

by Nikita Lalwani.
Viking. Pages 288. £16.99

Nikita Lalwani was born in Kota, Rajasthan in 1973 and raised in Cardiff. After several years of directing factual television and documentaries at the BBC, she has returned to writing fiction. Gifted is her first novel. She lives in London.

For the young mathematical prodigy, Rumi Vasi, the figure 512 is a glowing, friendly number, produced by a simple process of doubling. In a terraced house in Cardiff, the child associates this figure with the "big, warm, open hands" in which, on Sunday mornings in the parental bed, her dad (for once not intent on the tutorial cramming of his daughter) would cradle her face.

Number is a fountain of beauty and affect; a secret language yielding pure satisfactions. Later this intimate, intricate language of Rumi’s heart will serve to distance the anguish of reality as fatherly hands are raised in violent despair to strike her compulsive rebellion. Not the least of Nikita Lalwani’s achievements in this superb debut novel lies in her ability to present the tragedy of a gifted second-generation immigrant girl within the framework of larger throes: the conflict and isolation of strangers in a strange land, carrying the wounds of Partition. Equally victims and perpetrators, Shreene and Mahesh Vasi are a well-meaning, high-minded couple who want Rumi’s good. And that is her – and their – complex tragedy.

The novel is especially memorable for its sensuous power. Lalwani not only knows her characters’ minds: she is able to record, in wincing detail, events within their very mouths. Detail is at once microscopic and microcosmic. The principled ex-Marxist Mahesh, Gandhi’s picture on his wall, is troubled by a question hooking his conscience like "a tiny dental tool piercing soft gum". The question is Rumi. She is an odd number, forever escaping his rigid policing.

Mahesh’s self-contradictory forcing of Rumi both to study and to observe the traditional female cultural pieties of the subcontinent leads to events in her own mouth that come to dominate her life. As the key component in curry powder, cumin is a spice that conjures the home world of India, where women like the brilliantly realised Shreene surrender grudgingly to the yoke of arranged marriage. Ridged and bristly, the seeds that smell sweet taste pungently bitter. After Mahesh’s assault, the adolescent Rumi develops an addiction to the "needly brown seeds ... ritually licking, crushing and swallowing the chaff", so that the inside her of mouth is a mass of sores.

As puberty comes and she revolts against her father’s restrictions, longing to kiss her would-be sweetheart, Rumi realises that "Her mouth is too rotten ... peeled out with cumin"; the seeds "twisting her breath and staining the air". The spice that unifies and sustains Indian culture becomes a token of Rumi’s inability to live either in Western or Eastern culture, compelled into undreamt-of possibilities of self-harm.

When the family flies to India, she is preoccupied with the cumin hidden in her shoes, in case it’s mistaken for a smuggled drug. Paradoxically, her first sexual encounter is in India with her cousin, awakening Rumi to the painful sweetness of unrequited desire, as celebrated in Hindi films that run confusingly counter to the ethos of female subordination. 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, in every sense of the word "tender." When Rumi abandons her family and commits herself to the authorities as an abused child, we feel for the dishonoured parents, in their baffled love and thwarted principle.

By arrangement with The Independent