Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman 2008
IQ "Again, my unspoken words had spilled out through my eyes-they were sometimes a little too eloquent for my liking." Vidya pg. 116
Vidya is fifteen years old and she has dreams of going to college. This may be a hard goal to fill because not only is she a girl, but she's living in British-occupied India during World War II. Her father is a physician and a freedom fighter, although he tries to keep Vidya sheltered from that part of his life. A tragedy occurs that turns Vidya's life upside down, she is forced to leave her home in Bombay and move to Madras where her father's family lives. Her father's family is very conservative and they treat Vidya, and her mother like dirt. Kitta (Vidya's brother) is accepted as the only boy in the family. In Madras, the men live upstairs and the women live downstairs, they interact only at meals. The women are expected to take care of household duties and forget about an education. Vidya breaks the rules by going upstairs to her grandfather's library, while there she meets Raman. Raman helps her adjust to her new life but Vidya never stops yearning to return home to Bombay.
I didn't start off liking Vidya. She seemed very young for her age (if you've read the book, remember the horse incident? She wanted to see the horses and the mounted police. I couldnt' believe that). She was too naive for my liking and while the author makes a point of saying that she's curious, she would often give up on the subject after no one gave her an answer. In my mind being curious means you don't just give up, you keep asking questions until you get answers. She thought very simplistically at times, not realizing that in life situations are almost never black and white, but rather quite complex. I did end up liking Vidya though because she is so determined about getting an education and she looks out for her family. The ending was wrapped up all nicely with a bow, but I'll take it because Vidya needed some goodness in her life after all that happened. I wanted her family to be humanized. Her aunts and uncles were so mean and no real reason was ever given for their cruelty. They didn't agree with Vidya and her family's more modern ways (they are both Brahmin's which is the highest caste but Vidya's family treats those of lower caste equally, whereas her uncle and his family treat those of lower castes like dirt), but I didn't feel that was a legitimate reason. But then again, I know there are serious divisions over the caste system and as an outsider I might not get it. Finally, it's very obvious as to what Kitta is going to do. I knew within the first few chapters. I wanted a better build up to his decision.
My favorite part of the novel were the bits about the role of India during World War II. It's not something I ever learned in history class so I was fascinated by it. I was frustrated by the attitudes held by many Indians that WWII was not their fight because that would involve their helping the British. Then I realized that it was completely understandable. Not many people knew about the Holocaust, especially in far away countries. Furthermore, the attitudes of the Indians towards the British is the same as the attitude Black Americans held toward volunteering in the armed forces to defend a country that would not defend them. The Indians who did volunteer to fight with the British were given low wages and kept in the lowest ranks, never to become officers. I enjoyed learning about the various Indian festivals, they are described in great detail and seem very elaborate and interesting to observe. Raman was a good character and I liked that he wasn't perfect. He wasn't unbelievably radical and ahead of his time, he was comfortable with some traditions. I thought the writing left some very vivid images in my mind's eye as evidenced in the Incredible Quote I shared along with lines like this one "But as the night wore on, the silver-blue moonlight sneaked in through the spaces and touched me softly on my shoulder. It was a caressing and comforting touch, and I finally fell asleep, almost annihilated with exhaustion." (pg. 77).
Climbing the Stairs is a well researched book that offers diversity in the historical fiction genre. WWII is a popular subject for YA novels and this one focuses on the role India played in it (it was feared that the Japanese was preparing to invade). It also presents the viewpoints of Indian people who did not support Gandhi which I found quite intriguing. The writing is sprinkled with picturesque descriptions, but the characters remain mostly flat. Vidya is the only character we see go through real growth, which is understandable since she is the main character. However I would have liked to see her act her age as I found it hard to believe at times that she was fifteen. I did appreciate all the strong women in the novel, both good and bad. It helps end the stereotype that all women in the 20th century were passive, in this novel they may not be vocal, but they clearly posses inner strength that they display when necessary. I would love to visit India someday, the author described it so well and had me ready to pack my bags and see the sights. It's a good debut and I look forward to reading more from Padma Venkatraman.
Disclosure: Received as a Christmas present (as part of a gift-exchange) from Sheila at One Persons Journey Through A World of Books. Thank you so much Sheila and I'm sorry it took me so long to review it!
PS I really like this cover. I'm not sure what the material is at the top (maybe a sari?) but it's beautiful. I wish I could better see Vidya's face but I like that she is at the foot of the stairs (where the library was)
*I will be out of town from July 10-16. I will reply to all emails and comments on the 18th (most likely). I have scheduled posts for every day I'm gone so keep checking back (giveaway post tomorrow!!)