During World War II and the last days of British occupation in India,15 year-old Vidya dreams of attending college. But when her forward-thinking father is beaten senseless by the British police, she is forced to live with her grandfather's large traditional family, where the women live apart from the men and are meant to be married off as soon as possible.
Vidya's only refuge becomes her grandfather's upstairs library, which is forbidden to women. There she meets Raman, a young man also living in the house who relishes her intellectual curiosity. But when Vidya's brother decides to fight with the hated British against the Nazis, and when Raman proposes marriage too soon, Vidya must question all she has believed in.
Padma Venkatraman's debut novel poignantly shows a girl struggling to find her place in a mixed-up world. Climbing the Stairs is a powerful story about love and loss, set against a fascinating historical backdrop.
©2008 Padma Venkatraman; (P)2008 Penguin
Despite approaching this book with caution, I ended up being moved by it in profound ways. Perhaps because it is based on people from the author's own family, Climbing the Stairs rings true with authenticity. Set against the backdrop of a world at war with Hitler's Germany, we see a girl struggle against the restrictions of her gender and caste system mirrored in the Indian people's struggle for independence in the time of Ghandi. I found the unique perspective fascinating and the plot gripping. It was interesting to hear an Indian's perspective on caste the way it was intended to create a scholarly caste duty-bound to care for those less fortunate. Unfortunately, man's sinful nature corrupts even the noblest of intentions. It was also unfortunate that there was just a bit too much Hindu for me to give it a 5 star rating. I considered putting it into our school library for the cultural perspective, but some of our younger, more impressionable readers might be confused by some of the more overt Hindu thinking. With that caution aside, I'd still enjoy sharing this book with more mature readers with some guidance. There's great fodder for discussion throughout the book. I also HIGHLY recommend the audiobook version for this since I would have had no clue how to pronounce the Indian words, names, and holidays. The narrator brought wonderful dimension to this tale with authenticity.
Short, Simple, No Spoilers
There are myriad takes on survivors of WWII and this one is slightly different as it focuses on a family in India. The heroic father stands against British oppression balanced with the horror of Hitler. This is how the story begins, yet it's the tale of his daughter who must go to live with unsympathetic, verbally cruel relatives. Her only solace is the library upstairs and the kindness of a friend. As she discovers a new world, her independence and confidence crescendo. Nice story, probably more of a YA book, but very easy to listen to as told through thoughtful, straight forward prose.
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