Review: “Climbing the Stairs” (2008) by Padma Venkatraman
Vidya is a fifteen year-old Brahmin girl who lives in the Bombay (now Mumbai) of British-occupied India during World War II. She dreams of going to college and having a career, aspirations that are shared by her parents, who have a progressive attitude for the times. When an unexpected negative turn of events occurs, Vidya must go with her family to live in her paternal grandfather’s home in Madras (modern-day Chennai). Things are done in the traditional fashion there, especially the strict observance of conservative gender roles.
For example, the novel’s title refers to the separation between male and female living areas in the traditional Brahmin home of the World War II era — men upstairs, women downstairs. In this world, women are expected to have domestic activities and aspirations, the ultimate being a felicitous arranged marriage. Vidya, however, was not raised this way in her parents’ home. She must find a way to bridge the gap between the male and female worlds while surviving the harsh treatment meted out to her by her senior female relatives. Can she follow her own dreams and also find love on her own terms? Read the novel to find out.I read this work of YA historical/realistic fiction in connection with a graduate education course in adolescent literacy. Although reading it was therefore “mandatory,” I not only enjoyed it, but will also recommend it to students in my future high school English Language Arts classes. Besides being a good example of “multicultural” literature for adolescents, it is a well-written story that easily held my older-adult attention. Author Padma Venkatraman skillfully uses elements of her own family history to create an historically and culturally accurate and informative text.
As an aside, I wonder whether “Venkatraman” is a pen name. Two major characters in the novel are Venkat and Raman; put these names together, and one has the author’s family name.