Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman.
World War II, the British Empire, and growing up in India: a great setting for a novel. Vidya is raised in a non-traditional family (she even plays volleyball at school) in 1940s India. Her father is injured in a peaceful march, and they are forced to move into the house of Vidya’s grandfather. This is a traditional family, with traditional expectations, and Vidya must struggle to keep her sense of self even as labels and roles swirl around her.
There are two constraining forces here: a traditional extended family constrains a teenage girl raised to make her own choices by her father; the British constrain her people. Both Vidya and her nation are at a time when their sense of self and their drive for self-determination are bubbling to the surface; both are hemmed in by rules and injustice. Setting Vidya’s coming of age story during this time in India’s history is very effective. The personal is political, and in this story the political is personal as well.
As a novel that lets us travel into a different time and culture, this works well. The two struggles nicely play off one another. The cultural details are never overwhelming, but it is clear that our assumptions about relationships, daily habits, foods, etc, don’t apply here. Venkatraman uses natural imagery to good effect; the references to blood using flowers or the sound of a head injury as a coconut splitting, serve to keep our imaginations firmly in this setting.
Despite the clash of family and the historical setting, the book doesn’t have that ‘grab you by the throat’ kind of pacing or plotting that I was expecting. I’m not certain that was a bad thing, but I did at times feel a little distanced from Vidya despite the first-person perspective. Of course, that might be just the right touch for an audience that isn’t necessarily ready or willing to delve into the grittiest parts of Indian history and culture. It is more like a appetizer than a main course. Which is to say, excellent, for it left me looking up more books set in India, wanting more.
Summary: It was more like oatmeal than curry. I wanted it to be more like curry.
And all the teens at the book club agreed. They wanted a little more zest and tension.
On the bright side, I think I’ve got a better sense of how to get these quiet, reserved teens talking. (Crossing my fingers that keeps up!)