Monday, February 11, 2008

An Antidote for Over-Ambitious Parents

Malaysian readers are going to find themselves in familiar territory with Nikita Lalwani's Booker longlisted Gifted.

The novel is partly based on the story of teenage prodigy Sufiah Yusof born to a Malaysian mother and Pakistani father who became something of a cause célèbre in this country when she went missing from her Oxford college before giving herself up to the authorities citing parental abuse and describing her home life as “living hell”.

Her father feared she had been abducted. But then an e-mail arrived from his missing daughter. In it, Yusof wrote that her parents had made her life a "living hell." She accused them of "15 years of physical and emotional abuse," including long study sessions in a house kept icy cold supposedly to improve her concentration.

Lalwani’s novel raises the question of how much can you push your kids academically?

Rumika is 10 years old 2 months 13 days 48 minutes and 4 seconds old when the novel opens. When she was just 5, her teacher came to the house to tell her parents that she was a gifted child, and that this gift should be nurtured.

Rumika's father, Mahesh, is a maths professor at Cardiff university, and knows that hard work is the immigrant's path to respect and recognition. He takes the idea of coaching his daughter on board and runs with it, imposing a strict regime on her that borders at times on abuse.

Rumika longs for normalcy, but as she is forced to study ever harder, her relationship with her cold and scornful father deteriorates even further and she also finds her isolation from her friends increasing. As she enters adolescence she has to carve some freedom for herself, but ends up doing things which are risky and stupid - shop lifting, calling emergency services just because she wants to speak to someone, and harming herself. She also, quite comically, becomes addicted to cumin and munches her way through vast quantities of it. The only period of respite is a trip to India with her mother, Shreene.

Lalwani does a very good job of depicting the sense of loneliness and dislocation in the family, and gets right inside her characters and exposes them. No matter how unlikable Mahesh is, we can understand his motivations and fears. Shreene is caught up in traditional notions of propriety and finds it difficult to navigate the compromises that must be made, not only to adapt to British society, but also to be able to understand and reach out to her daughter.

This might make for painful reading but there are also some wonderfully comic moments in the novel, my favourite - Shreene trying out a bikini wax after reading about it in a woman's magazine.

Rumika wins a place to Oxford, one of the youngest students ever allowed to do a degree course and the move gives her some of the freedom she has been waiting for. Lalwani builds up the sequence of events convincingly and Rumi’s actions come as no surprise. In fact we’re cheering for her as she asserts her independence in the final scenes of the book.

This is a novel that young adult readers, particularly those experiencing examination pressure themselves will enjoy very much indeed. It is also an excellent cautionary tale for overly ambitious parents who should be treated to a copy of it by their kids immediately!

(Many thanks to Kinokuniya for sponsoring my copy of the novel!)

Postscript (30/3/08) :

There's a sad footnote to Sufiah's story, which Rocky has put up on his blog. Kak Teh met her in happier times.


Chet said...

Sufiah's dad was in the news recently.

Maths prodigy’s dad faces jail term for groping teens

Kak Teh said...

sharon, I covered sufiah's stories since she received the offer to study in Oxford right up to her disappearance. Met up with her again at the uni where we were both studying. I have so much sympathy with Sufiah cos i believe she lost her childhood and from the very beginning I had a feeling that it wasnt going to have a happy ending - the same with Ruth lawrence and other child genius. i will certainly buy this book. Thanks for the reminder.

warrior2 said...

Education, sports, arts as in special ability or talents etcetc. they all are similar and have many similarities i.e. parents who pushed thier children!

The question is : When these prodigies and gifteds made it eg, Maria in tennis, Woods in golf, pianists, vilanists, geniuses etc, do we condemn the parents who pushed and pushed them at a very tender age and sacrifised plenty?

How is it that parents and these children become culprits and their life a tragedy respectively when they dont make it?

Are we saying to parents, DONT push your children? How much would be acceptable if there is such a thing as a measured push? Would we have maria today if this was the case? What message are we supposed to be promoting? I am curious.

bibliobibuli said...

goodness, chet. i missed that.

kak teh - it's a sad story and i think lalwani's novel even though it is a fiction based partly on the story, moved me very much. i'm so glad sufiah decided to take charge of her own life, just like rumi in the book, and wihs her all the best.

warrior2 - very good question and not one i have an easy answer for. i can only speak for the fictional character and i think the reader can see that she did take real pleasure in the maths and would probably have done very well if she had been properly emotionally supported and allowed more normality. i also think that universities such as oxford should not admit students too young. they may be academically able to cope but surely not emotionally ready to enjoy the experience fully. university life is about more than scoring grades.

as for the child prodigies you mention - well tiger woods i know had a very close and supportive relationship with his father. and where would classical music be without its young performers? i think the kids have got to be happy with what they are doing and not just be living the parents dream.

but i do hope you read the book with these questions in mind.

Kak Teh said...

to answer that question, I think it is how the parents handle the situation. I have met another half malaysian child genius who became president of mensa some years ago. But her parents treated her differently - allowed her to go to normal schools, she mixed around with everyone and had friends her own age. She is now a successful lawyer.

warrior2 said...

Thank you for the attempts to answer me.

How much of a push is allowed before it becomes a shove?
Would a more determined push results in a better achievement and not just an above average achievement/result.

Somehow I have this idea,as per my earlier comment, that a thing become a tragedy when there is failure.

If Sufiah had not ran away, stuck with the parent, finish her degree at oxford, the novel would have been different!

If maria sharapova had run away because she couldnt stand the training regime that the father was giving her 5 to 10 years back,she will not be a household name today and ofcourse if it was picked up by the media, her father would have been crucified.

But this is just a view.

bibliobibuli said...

don't confuse fiction with real life lah. the novel is about a fiction character called rumi and there were plenty of other stories to base it on ... as kak teh says ruth lawrence's case just one of them

fiction isn't about happiness is it? it's always about the worst things that can happen.

and anyway this is best treated as a cautionary tale

Hsian said...

Have you read "Searching for Bobby Fisher", Sharon? Provides an alternative viewpoint on how genius should be gently nurtured. Reading about this reminds me of that book.

Burhan said...

i am not sure what to make of the sofia story.

but i can say this: it is awkward to have young celebrity who is famous for being smart. awkward for the child, and awkward for the parents.

very often they are not sure how to handle the sudden attention. this novel situation of suddenly being the center of attention and the object of mystification.

another thing is that this awkwardness often makes them open to all sorts of possibilities for mistakes and exploitation by other people.

Burhan said...

oop! i think i misspelled 'sufiah.'

bibliobibuli said...

hsian - no haven't read the bobby fisher book, and it sounds like a very interesting one to put beside this one

burhan - just wondering, is there a personal insight here too? i can imagine you as a gifted child ...

Hsian said...

You should read the Bobby Fischer book, it is a true story based on child chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin written by his father Fred.

As per the review in Amazon "The troubled relationship between son and father, a talented but amateur chess buff, torn between ambitions for the prodigy and guilt at exploiting him, develops here against a background of chess clubs, seedy game parlors and Washington Square populated by a colorful gallery of Manhattan chess loversmasters, hustlers, Russian emigre teachers and doting parents"

There is a great movie adaptation of it too, try to get a hold of it. I think it is a great story on parenting.

Josh is all grown up now, is an international chess master amongst other things and has a website on

Hsian said...

I found my copy a while back at Popular Bookstore at The Curve.

Hsian said...

Sorry at Ikano :P

Madcap Machinist said...

"Drama of a Gifted Child"

remind me tomorrow since I'm drunk on v-day wine and need to hurry to bed... ;-)

Madcap Machinist said...

I remember picking up this book and making a mental note to get it--then forgot. I think the "The Drama of a Gifted Child" by Alice Miller ( helpful summary here) should be a good companion to this book. Miller does not mean "gifted" in the extraordinarily talented sense, by the way, as she writes:

"When I used the word "gifted" in the title, I had in mind neither children who receive high grades in school nor children talented in a special way. I simply meant all of us who have survived an abusive childhood thanks to an ability to adapt even to unspeakable cruelty by becoming numb... Without this "gift" offered us by nature, we would not have survived."

We must recognize that there are subtle forms of abuse (and, risking outrage, I disclose that I am encamped with the "Religion Is Child Abuse" folks), and it is damaging for a child's self-esteem to constantly seek approval from her parents.

"If a child bought up this way does not wish to lose his parents' love (And what child can risk that?), he must learn very early to share, to give, to make sacrifices, and to be willing to "do without" and forgo gratification-long before he is capable of true sharing or of the real willingness to "do without."

It of course relates to how some high-achievers are actually real assholes.There's an interesting essay in Termpapergenie that explores this further.

Anonymous said...

Know what's interesting ? I bet the majority of posters here don't have kids :) I would have loved to have an easier life, nice job, nice wife, all pre-selected. It would have been so much better. As far as quality of life is concerned, it would have been incredibly good. I can say a lot about how happy I am now, but I'm just justifying my way of life because there's no way that could have happened to me.

If I'd only listened to my parents, if they'd only pushed a bit more, I wouldn't be in this spot. As I grow older I begin to understand the wisdom of their advice, but it's too late for me. There's no death worse than the death you chose for yourself.

Anonymous said...

Not sure if anyone is still following this discussion but I meant to mention Spellbound, which is a great documentary about one year's finalists in the National Spelling Bee in the US. It may sound deadly boring, but it is the most fascinating cross section of American society I've ever come across. There is an Indian father in the movie who stressed me out so much just to watch him, I practically broke out in hives in the theatre. "From seven to eight he does yoga to improve brain power, after school from three to four we have the Latin tutor to help him with etymology, from four to five the French tutor, from five to six...."

But I agree with Kak Teh -- it's all in how the parents handle it. I don't have kids either but from what I've observed it's possible to encourage a gifted child without pushing him/her unfairly. Children crave their parents' attention, so it often seems enough -- and more beneficial -- to show a real interest in whatever your child wants to do, rather than nagging, pushing, or even praising unnecessarily.

-- Preeta