23 August 2007


Author: Nikita Lalwani
Published in:2007
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 272
Price: 395
Genre: Fiction

With quite an uninspiring title and zero buzz around it, it wasn't likely that I'd have picked this book up anytime soon. But given that it's in this year's Booker long list (whatever that's worth), and considering my growing fondness for Indian literature, I gave it a shot in the dark.

For most part, the novel’s central theme is a brutal examination of how bright, young minds can emotionally collapse, under the weight of exacting parental pressure and isolation. That the story is set in London in the 80s is relevant to the extent that the family here is among the first generation NRIs, who believe their children, being born in a western world, have a greatly enhanced and realistic chance of making it big. It's another thing that the period feel didn't come across too well for me.

The fact that the intellectually inclined Mahesh grasps the potential of his 10-year-old daughter, Rumi, as a maths protégée and prods her to ‘focus’ at every point, appeals at a certain level. But as he takes over her life completely, breaking up her every free minute into exacting schedules, lowering the room temperature to keep her ‘alert’ and constantly keeping her mind engaged in equations, you know there’s something eerily wrong. Mahesh and Rumi’s relationship has its tender moments but when fatherly hands are raised to desperate wails on one occasion, something snaps here permanently.

While psychotic levels of academic excellence is demanded from Rumi, unfortunately, that's not her only point of crisis. An adherence to strict Indian values is another burden she has to carry.
Rumi’s mother Shreene, while apathetic to the constant number churning in the house, is portrayed as so backward that she comes across as one of the most despicable characters in the book. There’s a scene where 15-year-old Rumi, walks up to her mother firmly telling her that it’s time that she got a bra! Shreene’s reaction to this ‘suggestive’ request is one of shock and disdain! Obviously, the author's choice of period offers such scenes a semblance of rationality but thereby Lalwani ends up putting Rumi through situations that expect inhuman levels of stoicism from her.

Rumi's relief comes when she can finally leave home as a Maths protégée to Oxford at 15! There's a brilliant scene here where she starts making different faces at the mirror, spouting the most obscene expletives. This is her first moment of freedom! It's especially touching to see her unleash her suppressed sexuality through free physical expression of it whenever she gets a chance, only to be misunderstood and spurned by different guys. Also, Rumi's addiction of cumin seeds, indicates her severe depression and rage.

Figures don't make sense to Rumi anymore and she struggles through her Oxford lectures, until she decides to completely release herself from the web of numbers.

The book scores heavily on originality. But more importantly, it possesses a rare emotional power that makes it both a heartbreaking and deeply affective read on several counts. Also, it's quite a mad story really.
Of course, this is not to say that Nikita Lalwani's debut novel is perfect. Besides some of the conversational pieces that have been very ordinarily handled (yet, there are some brilliant ones too), I also had issues with such a lopsided narrative, that offers absolutely no respite to its young protagonist.

The story remains uniformly engaging, with grim family showdowns, and a certain element of suspense running throughout, qualities probably derived from her work as a producer of documentaries for BBC.

All in all, this is a prominent debut by a writer this year and I for one, would be interested in Nikita Lalwani's next offering.


K.G. Schneider said...

You do a better job than I did of discussing key scenes in the book (without spoilers, either). The "bra" scene is pivotal.

I was in England for all of 1984 (stationed at Lakenheath) so the setting seemed realistic, but then, I was seeing it through a U.S.-centric point of view, and as a GI, not as a resident. I'd be curious to hear more about why you felt the setting fell short of the mark.

All said, it's a worthy read especially for the interesting details, such as the cumin seed.

sandy said...

"be curious to hear more about why you felt the setting fell short of the mark."

KG: I can't put my finger on it but the references she made to the 80s (and I believe there are quite a few) didn't really strike me all that much, though I did guess that the story couldn't be wholly contemporary.
Yet, since you say the setting and period details are fairly accurate, I'm more reassured about the book.

Anil P said...

For some reason I cannot quite acurately fathom, I've become apprehensive of Indian Fiction writing - often Over the Top, and melodrama at its most intense. Hopefully it is changing now.

Qalandar said...

Thanks for the review sandy...the theme seems interesting, and one not explored too often in literature...