Monday, August 3, 2015

'Climbing the Stairs' by Padma Venkatraman


2015 Reading Challenge, Week 31 - A book by an author with your same initials.
Here is a good example of a story I would never have come across on my own. I needed something to fit this category, and this young adult novel fit the bill. 
 A remarkable debut novel set in India that shows one girl's struggle for independence.

During World War II and the last days of British occupation in India, fifteen-year-old Vidya dreams of attending college. But when her forward-thinking father is beaten senseless by the British police, she is forced to live with her grandfather's large traditional family, where the women live apart from the men and are meant to be married off as soon as possible.

Vidya's only refuge becomes her grandfather's upstairs library, which is forbidden to women. There she meets Raman, a young man also living in the house who relishes her intellectual curiosity. But when Vidya's brother decides to fight with the hated British against the Nazis, and when Raman proposes marriage too soon, Vidya must question all she has believed in.

Padma Venkatraman's debut novel poignantly shows a girl struggling to find her place in a mixedup world. Climbing the Stairs is a powerful story about love and loss set against a fascinating historical backdrop


Vidya is a teenage girl of Brahmin descent. At the start of the story, she lives with her family in suburban India. It is the early stages of World War 2, and people in their time and place were puzzled figuring out who they should support. Hitler was out of the question, but Indian citizens had been fighting for independence from British rule, so to them the Allies seemed the lesser of two evils.

At the age of 15, Vidya comes across as part adult and part child. She is very headstrong, with a habit of ignoring instructions she doesn't like and doing as she pleases. I was surprised to find her such a rule flouter in a society which kept a tight leash on their females and their youth. After a terrible accident, her family must move in with relatives in Bombay. The rigid caste system is matched by an equally harsh gender system, keeping males and females separate beneath the same roof. Only men are allowed to use the stairs, and must be served first at meals, by the women.

Some of the adult characters are incredibly nasty to the point of being unbelievable, but I'm sure they are sadly based on reality of those around in that time and place. It's not only Vidya's autocratic uncle and his wife, but the school teacher, Mrs Rao. What an unsympathetic and horrible piece of work!

Book lovers will appreciate how Vidya considered her grandfather's wonderful upstairs library her saviour. I used to say similar things about my own childhood regarding books, but it was one hundred times more the case for her. I love how she decided that Pride and Prejudice wasn't her style, at it focuses too much on people longing to get married, the one thing Vidya was most desperate to escape. She wanted to study at University, but the threat of a Hindu arranged marriage was ever looming. Horoscopes (horror scopes?) of young girls were sent to families with eligible sons, and soothsayers would pore over their charts to examine the positions of the planets on the days of their birth. In Vidya's position, I might have hated the thought of being married too. In spite of all that, there is a delicate little thread of romance running through this book.

The male members of Vidya's immediate family fascinated me most, especially when you consider them together. Her father and brother have the same heroic, altruistic spirit, but it leads them to make radically different decisions. Before his accident, the father, Venkat, was a freedom fighter who embraced non-violent protests, trying to help throw off the heavy yoke of the British. However, his son, Kitta, decides that non-violence may not always work when submitting to one evil man like Hitler means that thousands of innocents are cruelly murdered. I might have preferred a novel from Kitta's point of view even more than this one from Vidya's. Although the household turned from him in shame, I consider him the real hero. His thought processes, leading him to alienate his extended family by joining the British Indian Army, siding with a race he never really cared for, would have been a riveting read in first person.

4 stars  


  1. It sounds like a fascinating book, Paula. A great find.

    1. There was certainly lots of food for thought.