If you are a second generation Indian, the mantra that is the undercurrent of this novel will be familiar: get an education (top grades only), get a job (doctor, lawyer, accountant), get married (to who we say), and do your family proud (no back chat to your parents). With this mantra come other, familiar emotions: conflict over trying to fit into more one than one culture, and the disappointment that this type of shape-shifting brings.
Gifted is a novel about Rumika Vasi, and her journey, from the ages of 5 to 15, as a maths prodigy forced to study for early entry into Oxford University. The result is the story about expectations, both shared and mismatched. Rumi is as conflicted as any child of immigrant parents, and her parents ensure that her expectations remain tethered to their own; she simply isn’t allowed a childhood.
In her teenage years, Rumi expects that her superior maths skills will eventually allow her to leave her oppressive surroundings, whilst her parents, particularly her gloomy father, expect her to study hard to fulfil her potential, irrespective of the effect this may have in later years. Add the hormones, rage and wilfulness of a teenage girl into this mix, and the consequences of such rigid expectations lead the family to breaking point, derailed by events that are often tinged with sadness.
Distractions for Rumi come in the shape of boys, and although they are fleeting, they leave important imprints that propel the plot. Rumi eventually inhabits an adult world, but it becomes woefully apparent that she lacks the social skills to make this work to her advantage. Her tender age is all the more apparent in a university setting full of young adults with access to a social life and all that that brings.
The conflicts and tensions between Rumi and her parents are played out with empathy and precision. Indeed, the entire novel is written with an economy of language normally reserved for short stories; tightly woven, pitch perfect and full of surprises.