Excruciating ordeal of a math prodigy pressured by her father to enter Oxford.
Rumi is the daughter of Shreene and Mahesh Vasi, Indian immigrants to Cardiff, Wales. Ever since her first elementary-school teacher heralded Rumi’s gift for mathematics, Mahesh, a lecturer at the University of Wales, has been grooming his child for academic stardom. After a perceived snub by the local Mensa chapter, Mahesh designs a grueling study schedule for Rumi that occupies all her free time and enhances her isolation from her “normal” peers. As she crams for her college entrance exams—while a freshman in high school—Rumi, unbeknownst to her traditionalist parents, nurses some teenage crushes and accompanying heartaches. First there’s Bridgeman, a chess-club and stamp-collecting geek, who undergoes a growth and “cool” spurt seemingly overnight. During a trip to India, a Bollywood-handsome cousin flirts with her by night then, for fear of his own parents, ignores her by day. Rumi’s enforced regime causes her to develop some compensatory tics. As a child, she shoplifts sweets. As a teenager, she devours epic quantities of cumin seeds. But mostly her interior life is a seething cauldron of hormones and humiliation. Her developing puberty is viewed with alarm by her parents, who won’t tolerate premarital friendships with boys. Nevertheless, Mahesh thrusts Rumi into the sophisticated, diverse ambience of Oxford, if only for two days a week, under the chaperonage of an Indian landlady. Her math diligence derailed by her longing for masculine attention, Rumi sneaks out of a child-prodigy convention to attend a campus party where she encounters Fareed. Their mutual infatuation screeches to a halt when Fareed learns, through the plentiful press on Rumi, that she’s only 15. But when Mahesh, whose family was devastated by Muslim violence during Partition, finds Rumi’s love notes to a Muslim, his roles as mentor and Hindu paterfamilias collide, risking the violent sundering of his own fragile hearth.
Lalwani’s impressive debut exhibits deep empathy for her characters’ cultural and emotional displacements.