Monday, July 4, 2011

Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

It is 1941 and 15 year old Vidya is a lucky girl. Though she was born into India’s upper Brahman caste, her parents are very liberal; she is able to attend a private girls’ school; and she can dream about the possibility of going to college, a rare privilege for Indian women, who are expected to marry relatively young. And she is exceedingly proud when she discovers that her father, a doctor, is using his medical skills helping the injured victims of Ghandi’s non-violent Freedom Fighters, as they demonstrate against British colonialism and for an independent India.

Vidya seems to have everything until one rash act brings it all to an end. While riding in the car with her father, they are forced to stop when they encounter a Freedom Fighter demonstration and Vidya jumps out of the car to join them. They quickly get separated as she swept into the crowd. Running after her, her father stops to help a woman who has been beaten by a British policeman who then brutally beats him too. Vidya’s father survives, but he is now severely brain damaged, a shell of his former self.

The family is forced to move to Madras, to live with her father’s more traditional family. And it is clear from the start that they are not welcomed. Vidya’s aunt and her cousin Malati treat her with pure resentment and contempt, constantly reminding Vidya that her beloved father is now little more than an ‘idiot’ and no one will want to marry her because of that. The only relief Vidya gets from her new life is escape through the books she discovers in her grandfather’s library. And it is there she meets Raman, another unwelcome person in the house.

As if the move to Madras weren’t enough, after the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, the war also begins to affect the family's daily lives. A bomb shelter is built in the house, sirens wail and air raid drills begin at night and rationing starts. But when Vidya’s brother, Kitta, announces that he is joining the voluntary British India Army, despite their father’s non-violent beliefs, the war really hits home. The Japanese, he explains to her, are coming closer and closer and would like the victory of taking India, “…the Jewel in the British Crown.” (pg 171)

Throughout everything, Vidya has never told anyone the circumstances of her father’s beating by the British, though she feels completely responsible. It is a difficult burden for a 15 year old to live with. Now with the possibility of never seeing Kitta again, it is doubly difficult. It is beginning to feel like all of Vidya’s hopes and dreams are going be swallowed up by loss and tradition. Can she find the strength to overcome the adverse circumstances she finds herself in, and become the independent woman she wants to be?

Reading Climbing the Stairs made me realize that I know almost nothing about the impact World War II had on India and the role India played. It also made me aware of how little I really know about Indian culture. But Padma Venkatraman has done a wonderful job of weaving together information about both in Vidya’s story.

The first thing I noticed in Climbing the Stairs is the importance of religion. Daily life revolves the Hindu religion and Venkatraman has named many of the chapters after the different religious festivals. As Vidya helps prepare for these days, she also describes for the reader the spiritual reason for the celebration, the preparations involved and the way the holiday is celebrated within the family.

Penkatraman also deftly incorporates the structure and way of life in a traditional Indian household and the difficulties the more modern Vidya encounters as she tries to adjust to living with her extended family in Madras. Vidya had experienced life in this household during summer visits, but living it full time is another story.

Climbing the Stairs is an excellent coming of age set in a time and place many readers might not know about. For me, it was an opportunity to read about the impact of World War II on a young person in circumstances not familiar to me. The story never favors a modern way of life over the traditional Indian way, and it doesn’t ask the reader to make a judgment either. Instead, it shows that the best of both could be part of Indian life. Of course, knowing that India becomes an independent country in 1947, Vidya seemed to me to be a symbol of a new India – a perfect blend of both tradition and modern.

My only complaint about this book is that I would have liked a pronunciation guide for some of the Indian words and a map that showed both the colonial name and the Indian name of the places mentioned.

Other than that, I think Climbing the Stairs is an excellent debut novel by Padma Venkatraman as well as the perfect addition to any reading on diversity and I would highly recommend it

This book is recommended for readers 12 and up.
This book was borrowed from the Webster Branch of the NYPL.

The author, Padma Venkatraman has an excellent website where you can find many more resources about Climbing the Stairs and the various aspects of India that are included in the book

Climbing the Stairs has won the following well deserved honors:
2007-2008 Children’s Literature Network, Top 25 Books
2008 Pennsylvania School Library Association Top 40 Books
2009 Julia Ward Howe Boston Authors Club winner
2009 Capital Choice
Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year
ALA/YALSA Best Book for Young Adults
Booklist Editior’s Choice Best Book of the Year
New York Public Library Best Book for the Teen Age
Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choice
National Council of Social Studies CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book

1 comment:

  1. I'm with you- I was surprised at the impact WWII had on India. Great review! Thanks for sharing this book with us!