Climbing the Stairs

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Overview

In India, in 1941, when her father becomes brain-damaged in a non-violent protest march, fifteen-year-old Vidya and her family are forced to move in with her father's extended family and become accustomed to a totally different way of life.
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Climbing the Stairs

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Overview

In India, in 1941, when her father becomes brain-damaged in a non-violent protest march, fifteen-year-old Vidya and her family are forced to move in with her father's extended family and become accustomed to a totally different way of life.
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  • Teens Video/ClimbingTheStairs_BB_a9e015591160dbecd5ee45080f6a0b2f79615efd
    Teens Video/ClimbingTheStairs_BB_a9e015591160dbecd5ee45080f6a0b2f79615efd  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Venkatraman makes a memorable debut with this lushly evoked novel set in India during WWII. Fifteen-year-old Vidya is shocked and proud to learn that her appa(father), a compassionate doctor, has joined the "freedom fighters," who follow Gandhi's example of nonviolent protest against British rule. But tragedy strikes: during a rally Vidya's father is beaten nearly to death and left with severe brain injury. Because he can no longer practice medicine, the family is forced to move in with relatives, who treat them as servants. The only bright moments of Vidya's days, otherwise spent under the thumb of her tyrannical aunt, come before dinner, when she is allowed to slip upstairs to the library and bury herself in books. More than a feisty Cinderella story (and yes, Vidya does find a prince), this novel vivifies a unique era and culture as it movingly expresses how love and hope can blossom even under the most dismal of circumstances. Ages 12—up. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Children's Literature - Uma Krishnaswami
Opening in August 1941, Climbing the Stairs spans a year in the life of a fifteen-year-old girl in pre-independence India. Vidya's father is injured in a protest march, and she and her family must move to Madras. They must live in their ancestral home with the father's extended family, and they must accept a much more traditional and restrictive lifestyle than they enjoyed in liberal, cosmopolitan Bombay. The flavors of place and time are heartfelt and ring strikingly true, showing a society on the cusp of change. That change promises to be at once liberating and wrenching is the conflict that drives this story. For Vidya, the winds that portend a new political order simultaneously sweep in yearnings for a new social order as well, one free from the caste and gender barriers that her father has sought to get rid of, but that his traditional extended family embrace. These details are well-placed and completely on target. They will ring achingly true for readers who know the sociocultural context, while being sufficiently emotionally grounded to engage those who do not. Where this book falls short, at times, is in matters of craft. Vidya sometimes seems overly wise and at other times too immature for her fifteen years. The Tamil words sprinkled through the dialogue add interesting and compelling auditory undertones, as if they were a kind of linguistic background music offered up as a visual score for the reader. However, the appended comma phrases with English translation feel contrived, the text seeming to call for the rendering of meaning within the story's context. Whether or not this is the result of an overly-involved editorial hand is unclear, as Venkatraman's earlierwriting, published in India by Tulika Press, comes across as far more authentic and less self-conscious. Still, this is an engaging addition to the growing body of work for young readers that reflect consciousness of the South Asian diaspora while throwing a new light upon relatively familiar historical events such as World War II. Reviewer: Uma Krishnaswami
KLIATT - Claire Rosser
A historical novel set in India during WW II, as Gandhi and his followers are challenging British rule. Vidya is the beloved daughter of a doctor involved in the protests; she is with him when he is beaten senseless by British police as he attempts to aid a wounded protester. This injury causes the family to take refuge in the home of their father's father—and so Vidya, her older brother, her mother, and her invalid father go live with their traditional relatives, enduring daily insults. Fortunately, Vidya's grandfather allows her to continue her schooling and opens his library to her, so she finds some respite. At 15, she is approaching the age when the family will arrange her marriage, and she adamantly is opposed to this plan. So, she is her father's daughter, protesting the old ways. How this is resolved, how she reconciles herself to family tradition while also finding her own strength, is the stuff of this story. The author's family shared much of this history, and she uses her own mother as an inspiration for the character of Vidya. Any YA interested in women's history and women's struggles for education and empowerment will find Vidya's story well worth reading. Reviewer: Claire Rosser
School Library Journal

Gr 7-9- In 1941, 15-year-old Vidya's life in Bombay stands in direct contrast to that of her relatives in Madras for whom the traditional path of an arranged marriage, babies, and a life of serving a husband is not only expected but is also considered a girl's only proper option. Alternately, the goal of attending college like her brother is encouraged by her physician father. Turmoil is raging within Colonial India's borders as many view their British occupation negatively, holding protest rallies. Nonviolence, one of Vidya's father's principles, motivates him to secretly attend to the injured and beaten protestors. The teen's idyllic life changes in an instant when he is beaten by the British police and suffers extensive brain damage. Unable to earn a living and lead a productive life, this highly respected man and his family move in with his relatives. Vidya's dreams are shattered as her father's stature is immediately lowered to that of "an idiot" and she is forced to withstand her aunt's sharp-tongued, abusive taunts. Vidya's bright, bold, independent character remains determined to achieve her goals with the help and support of her grandfather, who first allows her access to his private library and later agrees to her formal university education. This is a poignant look at a young woman's vigilance to break from expectations and create her own destiny amid a country's struggle for independence.-Rita Soltan, Youth Services Consultant, West Bloomfield, MI

Kirkus Reviews
A welcome addition to the small but growing body of historical fiction about growing up female in India. Vidya, 15, has enjoyed a privileged life, and her father has promised her a university education. When he suffers permanent brain damage after being brutally beaten at a demonstration, however, the family must move in with his conservative Brahmin relatives in Madras, where the role of women is confined to servitude and childbearing. While Gandhi leads the struggle for Indian independence from British rule, the Axis powers of World War II pose a rising threat to Britain, Europe and now Asia. Set on education and independence, Vidya must decide what to do about her attraction to a boy, Raman. Her brother, Kitta, must weigh the path of nonviolent resistance to British rule against the need to support the British effort to win the war. The novel excels in its detailed depiction of a Brahmin girlhood and family life during a time of intense social and political change. A good companion piece to Kashmira Sheth's Keeping Corner (2007). (Fiction. 12 & up)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780142414903
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 2/4/2010
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 719,122
  • Age range: 12 years
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.28 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Padma Tiruponithura Venkatraman moved to the United States at the age of nineteen to pursue a graduate degree in oceanography. She was chief scientist on several scientific cruises at the Institute of Meereskunde in Kiel (Germany). Eventually, however, she decided to cut back on her scientific research and devote more time to writing. The result was her debut novel, Climbing the Stairs. Padma currently lives in Rhode Island and works part-time as Director of Graduate Diversity Affairs at the University of Rhode Island as well as Adjunct Faculty at the Graduate School of Oceanography.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

I still remember the day we celebrated Krishna Jayanthi, the festival of Lord Krishna’s birth, at our home in Bombay. The drive was drenched with the juice of fallen jamun fruit and the sand of Mahim beach gleamed like a golden plate in the afternoon sunlight. Whispers of heat rose from the tar road and shivered toward the slumbering Arabian Sea.

I had folded up my ankle-length skirt and was getting ready to climb up the jamun tree. A warm breeze blew around my bare knees. My brother’s brown legs were already wrapped around the roughness of the main trunk, clinging on like a monkey to its mother’s body. Kitta was eighteen and he’d just started college, but though his voice had recently deepened and the first fuzzy promise of a black mustache shadowed his upper lip, he still looked more a boy than a man. Our dog, Raja, was yapping loudly on the ground, wagging his tail.

I spread an old rug on the ground beneath the tree and climbed up after him, scraping my skin against its lumpy bark. Soon we were shaking the branches, watching the ripe purple fruit rain onto the rug like a monsoon shower.

“Vidya!” amma called. I glanced down. I could see her disapproving gaze from where she stood, barefoot on our verandah, the open patio in front of our home. Ever since I had turned fifteen and started wearing a half sari, she had been hoping that I would become womanly, not climb any more trees, run no more races across the beach sands and stop playing volleyball at Walsingham Girls’ School (she felt it wasn’t ladylike).

She held a bowl and a small white rag in her hands. “Would you like to decorate the verandah?”

Every year we would paint tiny white footprints all the way across the red cement on the front steps and verandah, into the marble-flecked mosaic floor of the house, through the great hall and to the prayer room in the back; footsteps to lead Lord Krishna into our home. I didn’t mind. It was one of the few girlish tasks I enjoyed.

“I’m going to paint some Krishna feet,” I told Kitta. I climbed down and patted Raja on his head. I tried to rinse the purple stains off my hands at the brass tap in the corner of the garden, scrubbing my hands with the hairy hide of a fallen coconut. I straightened out my skirt and walked up the stairs.

“Thank you,” amma said, forcing the corners of her mouth upward. Her smiles had been different ever since appa had started coming home late. The bright white sign still hung on the door of the clinic behind our home, slightly askew, stating in English, Hindi and Marathi that the doctor worked from nine o’clock to five o’clock during the week and from nine until twelve on Saturdays. But he no longer kept those hours. He went missing, at least a few days each week, returning after Kitta and I were back from school. Some evenings, amma sent us to bed before we saw him.

“Where do you go, appa?” I had asked, and he had patted my head and replied that he had started another job.

“What job?” I had asked. “Why do you need two jobs?”

To which he had simply replied, “Nothing for you to worry about.”

The only time I enjoyed hearing him say those words was when he had said them to amma, a month ago, on her birthday.

He had taken us to Mr. Sultan’s jewelry store. Kitta and I had been sitting on plush satin-backed chairs in the showroom, clinking the ice cubes in the tall glasses of sweet lime juice that the store hand had brought to us on a silver tray, trying to see which of us could swirl the liquid faster without spilling it.

“Everything looks beautiful on you,” appa told amma. Pairs of gold earrings were set out on the glass case in front of them, glimmering against the blue velvet that lined their boxes. Amma held up a diamond-studded flower design beside her perfect crescent-shaped earlobe, then gasped when Mr. Sultan mentioned the price and put it back.

“Get it,” appa said, smiling indulgently.

“But it’s so expensive,” amma said worriedly. “Can we really afford it? Shouldn’t we be saving for Vidya’s dowry?”

Appa had taken one look at the shock on my face and said to her, “Nothing for you to worry about yet.”

My marital status hadn’t been mentioned again, but surely it was only a matter of time. Every other fifteen-year-old in the fifth form of Walsingham Girls’ School had had her horoscope sent off to families with eligible sons. I was determined to delay its distribution. That horror of a document was only a page long, but it was filled with rectangles that told the position of the planets on the day of one’s birth, and before any marriage was arranged, a soothsayer had to look at the horoscopes of the girl and the boy to make sure they were compatible.

Would my parents let me go to college after I finished sixth form? I wondered about that for the umpteenth time. Amma was so happy being a housewife that she was convinced I needed to get “settled” and married off to a “nice” boy from a “good” family, sooner rather than later. I couldn’t think how to explain to her that I wanted more. Anyway, appa made all the big decisions.

“What’s the frown for?” Kitta yelled, interrupting my memories as he peered down at me through the tree branches.

“Nothing,” I said. Today wasn’t a day for worrying about marriage. It was the festival of Krishna Jayanthi.

I dipped my hands into the cool, white, watery rice paste, wetting a corner of the small square cloth with it, and then I squeezed the paste out of the rag, carefully drawing tiny footsteps with circles for each toe. I loved the story of mischievous Krishna, an incarnation of God, born on the seventh day of the seventh month of Shravan, with skin the blue-black of a midnight sky. Krishna’s sermons were embedded in the Bhagavad Gita, but although he could be serious when he was fighting evil, he was also playful and he never lost his sense of humor.

The roar of our car interrupted my thoughts. The wrought-iron gate creaked as Xavier, our watchman, pushed it shut and retired to his room at the foot of the drive. Appa was in the backseat of the blue Austin. I waved at him, raising my right hand, which held the soaked rag. Blobs of rice paste spattered across the floor.

Appa didn’t smile or wave back, as he usually did. He threw open the door when the car stopped without waiting for Suruve, our driver, to hold it open for him. Raja raced up to him, barking a joyous welcome, but appa didn’t stop to stroke him.

Amma reappeared on the verandah. She had tucked a string of kanakambaram flowers in her hair, and they peeped above her head in an orange halo that matched the heavy, gold- embroidered silk sari into which she had changed. Her plump cheeks were dimpled in a welcoming smile, but she was not gazing at appa. Instead, her eyes were fixed on appa’s kurtha. Or rather, on the strange rust-colored stain spread across his loose, collarless shirt.

“I’m all right,” he told her. “It’s not mine. I’m fine. Really.”

What wasn’t his? I wondered, staring.

He seemed not to see me and walked up to amma, putting his strong, muscular arm across her shoulders in a rare display of affection. He ran a finger across her forehead, ironing out the worried creases. His broad-shouldered frame filled the doorway.

Amma looked small and vulnerable when she stood next to him. She darted a frightened look at me, as though to warn him not to say too much. Then she straightened up against him, saying, “Shall we have some tea?”

“Yes, and I should change before that.” He let her go and smiled down at me at last. “What beautiful footprints, Vidya!”

I grinned up at him proudly. “Appa, I was thinking of what we could do for the weekend. Rifka says there’s a new cinema theater that’s opened up, and she says it’s not all reserved for whites, and there’s a section on the ground floor where Indians are allowed—”

Appa pinched my cheek affectionately. I expected him to say yes, as he usually did, but instead he said, “Sorry, but we can’t go out this weekend. Your eldest uncle is coming over on Saturday morning, and we need to spend time with him.”

I didn’t try to hide my disappointment. “Periappa’s visiting? Why?”

“He was up north on a business trip, so he’s decided to stop and see us before returning to Madras.”

I scowled.

“None of that, young lady.” Appa wagged a warning finger at me. “You’re old enough to stop acting childish. He’s my elder brother, and you’ll respect him.” Before he stepped indoors, he added, “And remember to tie Raja up Saturday morning before he comes. You know how periappa feels about dogs.”

After he left, I stared glumly at the floor.

Kitta descended from his perch and walked toward me. “Come on,” he said, grinning. “It’s not that bad, is it?”

“I guess not,” I conceded. “It’s just—I can’t believe he’s appa’s brother, can you? He’s so, so—”

“Orthodox?” Kitta suggested.

“Yes,” I agreed. “Appa doesn’t care that we’re Brahmin, but periappa never forgets it, does he? He treats our servants like dirt just because they’re a lower caste.”

“Most Brahmins like throwing their weight around,” Kitta said.

“That’s not what we’re supposed to do, is it?” I said. “We’re supposed to read the scriptures and teach and pray. Live an ascetic lifestyle.” According to appa, caste was a social evil, not a Hindu belief. He said caste had begun with a relatively compassionate idea of a code of conduct: that the Brahmins, who were scholars and priests, should never take up arms or seek wealth or power. Caste wasn’t meant to be hereditary or exclusive or hierarchical, but Brahmins and other “high” castes now oppressed those without education or wealth.

Kitta looked thoughtful. “Most people are like periappa,” he said. “Not that I’m trying to excuse him or anything. It’s not easy to be different, the way appa is. It is odd they’re brothers, though,” Kitta mused.

I gave him a cheeky grin. “Actually, it isn’t strange at all,” I said. “I know why they’re so different. Periappa can’t really help it. He’s the older one, and as we all know, the second kid always gets the brains.”

Kitta laughed. “Okay. You won that round.”

I glowed, feeling pleased with myself. Kitta was far wittier than I was. It wasn’t often that he couldn’t think of a comeback.

“Here’s something that’ll make you feel even better,” Kitta continued. “Periappa isn’t bringing periamma and Malati along.”

I smiled, relieved that my aunt and cousin weren’t coming. Most of our cousins were male and much older than we were, but periappa had a daughter, Malati, who was a year older than I was and as unlike me as her father was from mine. She liked cooking and sewing and staying indoors to gossip with older women. “That really is something to be thankful for,” I said, cheering up again. “How long is he staying, do you know?”

“Periappa arrives Saturday and leaves Sunday morning. Short trip,” Kitta said.

“How come you know all that and I don’t know a thing?” I asked. “How come they always tell you every detail?”

“Because I’m older and smarter,” he said, smirking.

I soaked the rag in rice paste and threw it at him. He caught it deftly, wiping off the white spot that landed on his nose. “You’re going to smear the verandah with white drops instead of drawing a nice neat line of footprints.”

“Why don’t you help me if you’re that concerned about how our verandah looks?” I asked.

“I will, actually.” He got up and headed toward the house.

Kitta should have been the girl in our family, I thought as he disappeared inside to fetch another rag. Kitta was always ready to help, he was hard to annoy, he rarely argued with anyone and he could see the bright side of any situation. Returning to the verandah, he crouched and started scraping off the mess I had made.

Kitta and I worked quietly for a while side by side. My eyes fell on the kolam, the geometric pattern that our maid, Ponni, drew on the front steps every morning with rice flour. Today, in honor of the festival, she had made an elaborate swastika design.

“Why do the Nazis wear our swastikas?” I wondered out loud. “I thought they didn’t like colored people.”

“No idea why they took our religious symbol,” he said, following my gaze and staring at the kolam. “It doesn’t make sense.”

I thought of the war. The British were fighting with three countries they called the Axis: Germany, Italy and Japan. Indians, technically subjects of the British crown, ought to have been on the side of the British. But I wasn’t certain if we were or not because Indians were busy struggling for freedom from British rule. Gandhiji, leader of the Indian National Congress Party, said we had to throw the British out without using violence. But it wasn’t clear what he or our other leaders felt about the British war with the Axis.

“Kitta,” I said, “how come Gandhiji and the rest say we’re against Hitler but then tell us not to enlist in the British Indian Army? If we disagree with Hitler, then shouldn’t we be fighting him?”

Kitta knitted his brows thoughtfully. “It’s a good question. I wonder about it a lot.”

“So what do you think?”

“I think it’s tough. We don’t like Hitler because he says his race is superior. But the British think they’re better than us, so we don’t like them either.”

“Because the British think we can’t rule ourselves, you mean?” I asked. “Because they keep us out of first-class compartments in trains and that sort of thing?”

“Exactly. The British think we’re uncivilized because we’re darker than they are. Hitler wants to rule over anybody and -everybody, white, black and everything in between. So what’s the difference?” Kitta paused. “Plus the British didn’t even bother to ask Gandhiji’s opinion about the war. They just went off and ordered Indians to fight, like we’re their slaves or something.”

“So why did we take part in that other big war, Kitta, the one the British and everyone fought in 1914 or whenever, when appa was young? How come we didn’t sit that one out?”

“The British promised us freedom if we helped them then,” Kitta said.

“They broke their word?”

“Looks like they cheated us, doesn’t it?” Kitta said. “Here we are, still a colony, with whites-only signs all over the place.”

I was silent. Appa always said Gandhiji was a great soul. That Indians were a peaceful people, that killing and wars went against our tradition of nonviolence, of ahimsa. We listened to news on the radio every night, and I knew what appa felt about our freedom struggle, but he never voiced opinions about the faraway war.

My thoughts turned to appa’s disheveled appearance. “Kitta, did you see the stain on appa’s kurtha?”

A pause.

“Did you, Kitta?”

“No,” he said unconvincingly.

I sat back on my haunches and looked at him. He was kneeling, scraping hard at a spot that looked quite clean.

“Something’s going on that everyone knows about except me,” I said.

“Rubbish.”

“Then look me in the eye and tell me you don’t know where appa was.” I had always been able to outstare Kitta.

“I don’t know where appa goes,” he said. His eyes caught my fierce gaze fleetingly.

“But you have an idea, don’t you?”

“Maybe,” he mumbled.

Amma chose that moment to interrupt us. “You’ve done a lovely job, Vidya. I’ve painted the footsteps indoors, so we’re finished. Why don’t you go in and change into a sari before we meet in the poojai room?”

“Don’t you want the jamun fruit we collected?” I said, trying to procrastinate. I did want to see how amma had decorated our prayer room for the festive occasion, but more than anything, I wanted to find out how much Kitta knew about appa.

“I’ll ask Ponni to collect the fruit. Now be a good girl, kanna, and get changed.”

I sighed. Amma was calling me kanna again, a term of endearment usually reserved for a little child.

Kitta sighed too, with relief that he had been able to wriggle out of my questioning.

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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 17, 2010

    OMGOSH

    I loved this book. whwen i read the writing i was so sucked in that I could not get out! The writing was spectacular and inexplicable. The charecters were so well written, and their personalities expressed who they are and for the most part they do not change. I love the plot where there are the stairs that the women do not climb, and how they are seperated exept for at meal time. I am so glad that women in most countries have rights just like I do and that I love in a period where women are celbrated. I think that my favorite charecter was Raman becayuse he was kinda funny when he let something slip like womens rights were bad, and then she would ask him a question and then he would stutter. perfecto example of real humans. I also like the way we found out that periamma and periappa are human too.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 5, 2013

    An interesting new point of view on World War II

    Great book! This novel takes place in India during World War II. I love this book because I have never thought about the impact that World War II had on India. Also explored are the nonviolent protests in India, traditional Indian culture, racism, the effects of imperialism and colonization, women's rights, and of course a little romance (not explicit, just clean and cute). Definitely worth reading.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2013

    I met the author

    The author of this book came to my school and talked about this book. I want to read it because it was so interesting

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2012

    Good Book

    This is a great book about girls becoming leaders. Tragic and heart-warming at the same time. I would reccomend this book to ages 10-15.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2011

    Highly Recommended!!!!!!!!!!

    It's an AMAZING book. It's a moving book intwined with some history.

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