Review: Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Title: Climbing the Stairs
Author: Padma Venkatraman
First Published: May 2008
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Source: Library | Thank you Susan for recommending me this book! | I read this book for the Women Unbound Challenge.
247 pages




I really loved this book so much that I couldn't stop myself from writing a slightly long review. But then I've rated this WOW, so that's justification enough.

I think...

"Amma," I said tentatively. "I don't want to get married."
"What, Vidya kanna?" Amma said anxiously.
"I mean, I don't want to get married until I finish school," I said nervously.
Amma's expression cleared a little. "Don't worry," she said. "I'm sure we can wait a little longer. After all, girls are getting married much later these days. Even seventeen is not considered too old anymore."

For me, the essence of Climbing the Stairs was conveyed so expressively in the above conversation. Vidya is a fifteen-year old girl, approaching her marriageable age, not yet ready for it, but intensely desiring to go to college, instead. It was 1941 and India was still under the British rule. Vidya's father, Venkat, being a doctor would attend the peaceful protest marches to help those who were being beaten by the police. During one of those marches, a woman hoisting the Indian flag gets beaten by an English policeman and has her sari and blouse ripped off, revealing her stark nudity. Venkat lifts the limp woman to help her, but in the process gets beaten viciously.

In a few minutes, Vidya's life is transformed. Just moments ago, her father promised her proudly that he would send her to college. Bliss was rapidly followed by shock and tragedy, as Vidya witnessed her father's assault. Venkat was reduced to a severely mentally ill person, with no control of his mental faculties.

He became what the others derogatorily called "idiot".

Padma Venkatraman has woven a masterful novel, with very vivid characters, realistic actions and believable situations. The first quarter of the book reveals Vidya's life in Bombay with her parents, her brother, Kitta and her dog, Raja. She has a typical teenager's life, although she occasionally worried about the World War 2 and the protests within her own country. The setting is truly Indian, with many common customs lacing their everyday lives. In India, there is usually one religious festival each month. Traditional homes duly gear up for the festivities every month, and once that month's celebrations were over, they start preparing for the next festival.

After Venkat is disabled, Vidya's family returns to Madras, to stay with Venkat's family.

"My place is with my husband's family," amma said flatly. "A married woman must stay at her husband's home."

Vidya faces some of her biggest challenges at Madras, as she tries to battle the age-old beliefs that her family had managed to liberate itself from but were still prevalent back home. Her relatives do not fail to mask their disgust at Venkat's disability. Vidya does not like the school she attends, where she is almost vilified because her father is sick. We come across a mindset that evaluates a family according to the father's occupation. Occasionally, though, I found it unbelievable that someone would ridicule a child because her father is ill. There are rude people, but most of them know to keep their condemning remarks to themselves. Vidya's cousin, Malathi, who attends the same school, doesn't bother to support Vidya, but instead laughs with the others. Malathi is the epitome of a girl who wants to get married and brags about it saying she was "chosen" (by the groom). Soon as her marriage is fixed, she wants to stop going to school, and her parents are even proud of her for that.

The second half of Climbing the Stairs is a poignant description of life in a traditional Indian household. The women folk sleep downstairs while the men folk sleep upstairs. They usually get to meet only during mealtimes. There is only one other bedroom in the house, which the couples take turns to use. When food is served, the men have their fill first. The women eat second.*

*I hate to say that this custom still persists. I have had long arguments on how useless this particular custom is. I can't say I managed to change anyone, but I made sure I always ate first, even with the men if need be, deliberately oblivious to any angry glances I ever got my way. I'm sure that's the wrong way to do it, since it smacks of disrespect, in others' eyes. But of course, people are more accepting nowadays, so they just attribute it to a "child"'s arrogance and ignorance.

When Vidya realizes that she has no avenue for learning in the house, because of the tons of chores that are cast her way, she asks her grandfather for permission to use the upstairs library, where no woman has set foot before. She breaks an unwritten rule in the process but she gets what she asks for. The simple journey to the library, reached by "climbing the stairs", sets in motion an incredible saga that transforms Vidya in so many ways. Vidya is an amazing character. She has oodles of dreams and doesn't want to be dependent on any one. She manages to break free of the conservative mold that envelopes every other woman in her household and does not fail to ask for what she wants. I loved her!

It's been almost a week since I read this book, and I still can't stop raving enough about it. There is so much more that I want to say, but then I would have to write another post. What I appreciated the most about the book is that it is truly Indian. I had previously read mostly books about Indian immigrants, whose life is as different as possible from a resident Indian. I have read reviews where the readers were bothered by the verbal cruelty between the characters. Believe me, been there, done that. I have had a family friend, of all people, who pinched my cheeks real bad because her daughter would pick an argument with me. I can safely say that the customs and behaviors described are quite accurate, to the best of my knowledge.

But I have to warn that there are plenty of references to Indian customs and festivals, without giving much information about them. So if you are not very familiar with the Indian culture, you can get a bit lost. If you don't mind looking up references once in a while, which is how we sometimes read books set in a country we are not familiar with, then I strongly suggest that you try this. Climbing the Stairs is geared towards the YA audience, but can be enjoyed by anyone, since the themes addressed are universal.

What did you think?
Have you read this book? I'd like to know what you thought about it. Please leave your review link in the comments, or a brief opinion, if you hadn't reviewed it.

Did you love it or were you bothered by anything in or about the book?

Did you sign-up for the Glorious giveaway?

16 comments:

Jen G. said...

Great review, Aths! I don't know much about Indian culture, but books like this are usually an impetus to get me to find out more. I'll be adding it to my list.

Nadia said...

Blimey, Aths! That was such a great review and truly made me want to go out and pick up that book. I'll definitely be adding it to my TBR list. Thanks for that! And as far as the part you italicized with regards to men eating first - I know what you mean! I'm Latina and in our culture its the same way and I hate it! It never makes sense to me that the women cook everything and then have to serve the men and let them eat first - what is that? Like you, I made sure to eat first, too! Thanks for sharing that! Cheers!

bermudaonion said...

Wow! I love books set in other cultures and the fact that you say this one is accurate in its portrayals really makes me want to read it. I'm adding it to my wish list.

Care said...

I just tbr'd this. THANKS!

Helen's Book Blog said...

This book is already on my TBR list but you may have just catapulted it to the top! I am not loving the book I am reading right now and could really use an amazing book to read...

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

Awesome review. I love this cover.

Aarti said...

This sounds wonderful! I've never heard of this book before, but you make it sound excellent!

And even when we go to family parties now in the US, the kids eat first, and then the men, and then the women. Now in India, it seems guests eat with the men, but I still wish everyone could just get food at the same time! Well, that is if there is enough space for everyone to eat.

Diane said...

WOW...high praise for this one. It sits on my shelf; i MUST read it soon! Thanks Aths.

Emidy said...

This sounds fantastic! I love books that deal with this kind of stuff, so I'm sure I'd enjoy it. Thanks for the review!

laughingstars.net said...

This sounds amazing -- I am making a note of it. Your review is brilliant. You touched on so many levels of this novel. Would you recommend another book that portrays Indian customs, which a bit more explanation for the uninitiated, that I might want to get as a go-along? :-)

Ash said...

This book sounds amazing! Ah, I'm so glad I read your review of it because it sounds like a perfect book for me to read. I love India and rarely read anything that takes place there. Awesome review!

Lisa said...

I haven't heard of this one before. But I'm on a kick where I'm loving everything I read set in India so I'm going to have to keep an eye out for this one.

Aths said...

Jen, you should read this, and let me know what you think of it!

Nadia, really, isn't that custom ridiculous? I wish the menfolk would once, just once, tell the women to sit down first and eat, and then only they would eat. I am glad though that the current generation doesn't bother with this silly practice.

Kathy, do let me know how you find it once you read it! :)

Care, you are welcome!

Helen, this will just be the book then! It's a breeze read that you can't put down at all!

Juju, thanks!

Aarti, I hadn't heard of this book either until a few weeks ago. I am glad that it came to my attention! When I see the women hosts stand and serve food to those eating first (usually the men), it makes me feel so miserable! Which era are we in now? Even with no slavery anymore, certain practices have subtly remained!

Diane, you should Diane! Can't wait to see what you think!

Emidy, I'm sure you will too!

Stephanie, I would suggest The Namesake for an idea about Indian-American life, especially for the first generation immigrants. As for books based in India, I haven't read many (I'm embarrassed to admit that), but some that I would suggest based on other recommendations are A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, Serving Crazy with Curry by Amulya Malladi, The God of Small things by Arundhati Roy, Keeping Corner by Kashmira Sheth.

Ash, Lisa, you should try this one! It's amazing!

Christina T said...

Fantastic review! I had heard of this book before and after reading your review I definitely want to read it.

It is sad that some customs are still being taught and enforced. At one family gathering last year I and some female relatives were asked to serve the food to the (mostly male) guests. There weren't enough of us to do this so they had me go and get a couple of younger female cousins. The girls were hanging out watching TV with the boys in the basement but the boys got to stay down there and do nothing while the girls had to come help. What kind of message does that send to those girls? That it is their duty to serve men. Ugh. The guys should have been helping to carry around the heavy trays of food!

Good for you that you eat at the same time as the men!

MarthaE said...

Wonderful review. This book does sound like a WOW. So glad you really enjoyed it!

Aths said...

Christina, isn't that custom annoying? And I get to eat with the men only rarely. As I grew older, I found it harder to resist the custom. You should read this book!

Martha, I was all WOW during the whole time I was reading it!