Growing pains


Nikita Lalwani<em> Viking, 288pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 1400066484

Talent can heighten the gifted's perception of the world, while simultaneously alienating them from it. This painful paradox is skilfully unfolded by Nikita Lalwani in the lovable character of Rumi, the daughter of Indian immigrants who has an "unbearable passion" for statistics. A gifted mathematician, at the start of the book, aged 10, she spends her days preparing for her maths O-level, triumphantly completing maths books (she is at least seven books ahead of her classmates), pinning down her "thought patterns" and calculating her age to the last second, or the probability that a blade of grass will be next to a flower. She is the "little harshly cut diamond of hope" of her parents: her mother, Shreene, who works for British Telecom, and her father, Dr Mahesh Vasi, PhD. But the thrill of a world made up of pattern, logic and solutions is countered by the chaos of emotions stirred by her troubled family and school life.

This is a novel about being on the very outskirts of things, as nobody anywhere in Cardiff seems to want to talk to Rumi: "If the whole friends thing was like a Venn diagram, she wasn't even in the outer circle." The gulf is not only between Rumi and her peers, but also between Rumi and her family. The novel's triumph is in elucidating the hurt of both child and parents: the "communication gap caused Shreene an almost physical pain when she thought of it". After years spent talking to strangers every day on the phone, she cannot express herself to her own daughter and instead becomes lost in platitudes and awkward generalities.

The everyday items of Rumi's world are the source of pain in this novel, as we see her push the tip of her compass into her hand, or chew cumin until it chafes her mouth and twists her breath. At the close of the novel's first part, Rumi suffers the terrible humiliation of being beaten by her father ten times with a ruler for allowing boys into the house - for not keeping the territory of their world clearly defined. Part two opens with Rumi aged 14, yearning to pass her A-level and escape from rainy Cardiff to the hoped-for freedom of Oxford University.

The measurements of the world become brilliantly, fascinatingly known through mathematics, but Lalwani's characters struggle to comprehend the boundaries of their own lives, which are unstable for the teenage Rumi as well as her parents, who have been uprooted from the familiar geography of their native India. Rumi and her peers are rapidly growing up: the boy on whom Rumi has a crush goes through a growth spurt, making him barely recognisable, while she is painfully aware of her own growing sexuality as she visits India adorned with make-up, embarrassed by the "scattered male gaze". After going to Oxford and returning to Cardiff, Rumi feels like "a giantess stuck in a dream from the past". She runs around her house, from room to room, but remains trapped. Finally, she flees from her life.

Although proficient at numbers, this family "avoided connecting with words" and "the land of speech" is something they stumble upon with uneasiness. Rumi "scrabbled for words", her father feels "the claustrophobic muffle of a love he could not express", longing to utter the words "I love you" to his daughter with "the unhinged extremity of feeling they deserved". Speech, when finally it comes, is often marred with hurtful, derogatory insults, the only way they can express a troubling failure of empathy.

Rules abound in the world of mathematics, but Lalwani compellingly depicts the pain and pleasure of breaking the rules. Guilt stains Rumi like ink from the broken biros in her pockets when she calculates that the probability of being caught stealing sweets is relatively high; shame is like a belt around her stomach, "too tight to breathe". The guilt in her father's eyes when he is hitting her makes her feel disgusting. She is made to feel ashamed for asking for a bra, for talking about periods, for being a sexual creature - threatening that most precious of gifts, her own humanity, which is something she must protect at all costs.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pink Planet