Athira (Reading on a Rainy Day)'s Reviews > Climbing the Stairs

Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman
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May 12, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: 2010, fiction, list-south-asian, cat-youth-audience, f-general
Read on May 07, 2010

"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 these marches to help those who were being beaten by the police. During one of those peaceful protest marches, a woman hosting 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 their in-laws.
"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.*

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.

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. 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.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Adrianna (new) - added it

Adrianna Sounds like a great read, Aths! I just added it to my TBR list. :)


Athira (Reading on a Rainy Day) Thanks, Adri. I really loved it!


Kalpana Palaniswamy I loved the book..Vidya's character is so beautifully portrayed..


Athira (Reading on a Rainy Day) Yay!! Glad you loved it! I still remember this one - it was so awesome!


Shaya Great review! And I totally agree that the passage you chose shows the essence of the book.


Athira (Reading on a Rainy Day) Shaya wrote: "Great review! And I totally agree that the passage you chose shows the essence of the book."

Thanks! :) What did you think of it?


Shaya Probably easiest just to read my review. I finally posted it today. Smiles.

I'm glad you thought it was authentically Indian because it definitely felt non-American to me which I really appreciated. It's interesting to see some of the differences between the cultures.


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