Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman. SPEAK (an imprint of the Penguin Group), 2010. Originally published by Putnam, 2008. 272 pages. Publisher recommends for ages 12 and older. ISBN: 9780142414903.
Vidya is a 15-year-old living with her parents, her older brother and her dog in Bombay (now called Mumbai) in 1941. They are part of the Brahman caste, the highest caste in India. However, Vidya’s mother and father don’t believe in the caste system: “According to appa, caste was a social evil, not a Hindu belief.” Vidya’s father, a physician, spends part of his time caring for those who have been injured in the nonviolent protests against the British colonization of India. The family is aligned with Gandhi as he tries, through nonviolent means, to bring about Indian independence from the British. A terrible tragedy occurs and Vidya’s family is forced to go and live with her father’s extended family. The family is a traditional Brahman family. The men and women live separately, only seeing each other when the women serve the men meals. Vidya has no intention of marrying before she’s ready. She longs for a college education. But in her grandfather’s household, it’s much more important for a woman to marry than to become educated. Vidya becomes afraid that she will be subjected to an arranged marriage long before she’s ready. Her feelings about nonviolence and the British are put to the test when her brother, very worried about the possibility of Japanese incursions into India, signs up to join the British Army.
I found the contrast between the political and social beliefs of Vidya’s nuclear family and the beliefs of those in her grandfather’s house fascinating. This book is an excellent way to learn about Indian society in the 1940s. It’s also Vidya’s story, the story of a young girl who intends to be her own master. She finds a way to live her own life, even if only for a few hours every day, by climbing the stairs to her grandfather’s library.
The book is rich with Hindu festivals and rituals. Vidya’s father felt differently about Hinduism than those in her grandfather’s house. But the festivals are celebrated at both houses and Vidya loves them.
I am fascinated by Indian politics, history and culture. I am so pleased to find such a good young adult book set in India.