Venkatraman is an American writer of books for young people, public speaker, scientist and an oceanographer. She has lived in 5 countries and visited many more. The author grew up in India which was an oppressive society for women with gender inequality. Her story depicts a real time in India's history where non-violence represented by Ghandi Freedom Fighter Movement is pitted against the violence of war with many Indians volunteering to fight in World War II. It was also a time when India set a shining example by engaging in a nonviolent struggle for independence. The first time a nation had ever done that yet the violence of caste and gender inequality prevailed within its own society. The story fuels readers' questions about where they stand on the nonviolence issue and how their own nation /culture might have double standards. Each character in Climbing the Stairs was vividly written, well developed and placed in believable situations with realistic actions. Every character struggles with violence either overt or what Rev. Dr. MLK Jr. calls “spiritual violence” which is sometimes within them.
The first part of the book reveals Vidya's life in Bombay with her parents, her brother Kitta, her dog, Raja and her best friend Rifka. She leads a typical teenager's life, although she occasionally worries about World War II and the protests within her own country. Vidya is approaching a marriageable age, but she is not ready for it and desires to go to college instead. Vidya is headstrong and opinionated. The story is told from her perspective as she struggles against the traditions and expectations that keep women subservient to men. The general history of India and their treatment by the British is also woven into the story, along with the normal World War ll concerns about Germany and Japan. It provides an interesting comparison--the Indians nonviolent fight against British occupation, Britain's fight against German and Japanese domination, and Vidya's fight against society's expected male domination.
I thought it very ironic, given the setting and how much she wanted to break away from male authority that the treatment Vidya receives from most of the men in her life is encouraging and helpful, while many women around her are determined to see her miserable. One can't help but admire the courage Viyda displays as she fights for her own freedom and gender equality. The author uses her own personal experiences growing up in India, family customs and knowledge of the land to write a very convincing story set in the backdrop of a conservative Brahmin house during a time of change. I found it very interesting to read about a completely new point of view during such a troubling time in the world's history.
The title Climbing the Stairs is both literal and metaphoric. The story gives the reader a poignant description of typical Indian household life. 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 and gender expectations, she asks her grandfather for permission to use the upstairs library, where no woman has set foot before. She wants to very literally risk climbing the stairs in the oppressive home and break 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. Books by Western authors and books native to her country open up a whole new world. An unexpected friendship with Raman. a distant cousin who also shares her love of books brings on new uncertainties and love as they develop a close bond. There is also the metaphoric resonance on so many levels: India climbing out of colonial suppression toward independence, gender and socioeconomic struggles within Indian society.
Climbing the Stairs is set in India in the early 1940s which was a time of important cultural and political change. However it also focuses a great deal on how World War II affected India and its citizens. I found this background information an eye opener. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in culturally diverse texts and historical fiction novels. It was quite thought provoking. Age need not define the reader.
The author does an outstanding job throughout the story showing no matter what our culture is we all share common experiences within our family and relationships ebb and flow and change. Political struggles will always remain constant no matter what country we live in. But our quest for freedom and equality never go out of style and need to be championed by all. Climbing the Stairs is about a young woman who defies odds to cross all barriers. Vidya's peaceful struggle for her freedom in a society that expects women to only marry, is nicely paralleled with the people of India's non-violent resistance against the British occupation that subjects the people of India. She is to young women what Gandhi was for India, courage and hope.
Thanks to the author for her input for this review. To learn more about Padma Venkatraman listen to interviews, browse listing of other books written checkout her website
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