TOP 500 REVIEWERon 22 January 2014
I grew up in Cardiff, living first on the edge of Splott, then in Llanedeyrn Road and went on to Swansea University so reading Nikita Lalwani's debut novel, published in 2007, was a rather strange but pleasurable experience.
At the centre of the book is Rumika (Rumi) Vasi, just over 10 years old when we first meet her, the daughter of a Marxist mathematician and a university graduate mother. She is also a mathematical prodigy and her controlling father, Mahesh, is determined that she will fully deliver her full potential. From an early age, Rumi is trained like East German athletes used to be, she is under a regime that determines what she eats and when, how long she studies after school and her father "believed that the atmosphere had to be below body temperature if she was to achieve true focus". Rumi's mother, Shreene is equally controlling in her determination that her daughter's life will proceed as hers did towards an arranged marriage. What she fears most is that her daughter will say or do something that embarrasses the family.
Rumi's talent is revealed, at the age of five, by a teacher but her father cannot show his pleasure "Why was she so surprised that he and his daughter could string numbers together with reasonable panache? They were hardly shopkeepers."
Rumi, finding great enjoyment in her mathematical skills first questions the route that has been planned out for her when she cannot do the things that her school friends do, watch television, snack or attend birthday parties. But bit by bit we see Mahesh's ambition for his daughter turn into a conflict between the generations with Rumi seeking ways to alleviate the stress of her regime, reading books under her bedclothes using a torch, playing chess and even carrying a different kind of torch for a boy in her class, and finally becoming addicted to cumin. At school she is ostracised because of her strange clothes and thick glasses. Whilst Mahesh is determined to ram home the superiority of India, its financial and educational systems, he refuses to have Hindi spoken in the home, thus preventing his daughter from fully benefitting from her cultural history, because it will distract her from her studies.
Deftly, Lalwani reminds us of the focus of Rumi's thinking, each and every day, seven days a week; so, on the plane to India, she counts the seats "a line of 4 inside a series of 47 seats, part of an oblong that was probably just over100 seats long. A hypotenuse down the middle of 110 point something seats. Probably 11.5ish would be near enough, she thought, or more like 110.48". However, as her father pushes her toward her A-levels, examples of the mathematical rigour he was demanding of her would have provided a bridge to her time at Oxford.
Lalwani shows us Rumi, aged 5, 10, 14 and 15, and her family in a discontinuous non-chronological sequence, in Cardiff, on visits to India and, on her own, at Oxford, using language that is both authentic and delightful. In one beautifully described scene that takes place before her first day at university, Rumi stares at herself in the mirror, screws up her nose, groaning from her stomach and curses, using different voices and making different faces, she also uses different swear words and does it out loud. No one can stop her. She feels a total sense of release.
One of the most shocking passages in the book is when Shreene is asked by her daughter whether she was born through sexual intercourse which she had just been taught at school. Her mother, embarrassed, denies this, adding "only white people have sex". Rumi was born "through prayer".
To my ear, the author captures the different voices in this novel spot on, from Mahesh's Marxist colleague, Whitefoot, to family members in India and her very hesitant mathematics tutor, Mr Mountford, at Oxford. It is here that the novel really grips, Rumi has the freedom that she has always wanted, but at what cost? It would be wrong to even hint at the what happens in the last part of the novel.
The author almost made me feel sympathy for the Mahesh, who determines that his daughter should gain the advancement in academic mathematics that he never achieved. However, we see him unable to stretch out his arms and hold his daughter tightly.
Revisiting the Cardiff of the 1980s, Queen Street, Crwys Rd, Gabalfa was an enormous pleasure that, of course, most readers will not share. I now know what a Penal Collection is, and look forward to reading later books by Lalwani set in other, less familiar surroundings.