Climbing the Stairs
Written by Padma Venkatraman
Putnam, 2008, 256 pp., ISBN: 978-0-39924-7-460
Set in British India, in the city of Bombay (now Mumbai), with the panics and anxieties of the Second World War as its backdrop, this novel unfolds over the duration of a year beginning in August 1941 with the celebrations of Lord Krishna’s birth. Vidya, whose name means knowledge, is a young fifteen–year-old girl who lives with her parents and brother Kitta in Mahim, Bombay. Free-spirited, strong-willed, and unlike most girls her age, Vidya is not inclined towards marriage; instead, she dreams of going to college. She is encouraged by her father, a progressive thinker, until tragedy strikes and the family is forced to move to Madras (now Chennai) to live with Thatha’s family. Vidya is forced to comply with traditional expectations of feminine behavior and perform household chores rather than spend her time reading books. She finds a secret way to escape the dismal household when she discovers the library. She transports herself to distant lands within the pages of novels and engages in deeper understandings of life through her readings of Eastern philosophical thought.
In this coming–of–age novel, Vidya grows and matures through her interactions with her aunts, in her sensitivity towards her mother, through her confused emotions about the boy she falls in love with and eventually marries, and finally, in her attempts to understand Kitta’s reasons for wanting to enlist in the British Indian Army. Vidya is simultaneously the protagonist and narrator of the story for it is through her perspective that the various events and happenings unfold. Through lush descriptions interspersed with Tamil words, the novel paints a poignant picture of love, loss, faith, freedom, and dignity. To learn more about the plot and its evolution from the author’s perspective, visit http://www.climbingthestairsbook.com.
Although the novel is set in British India, the underlying tone is undoubtedly South Indian. The author draws from her own cultural roots as a Tamil Brahmin from Chennai and intersperses historical facts with traditional beliefs and practices. The characters are based on real people from her extended family and the story is peppered throughout with linguistic and caste markers that identify Vidya and her family as Tamil Brahmins. Caste practices of supposed Brahmin superiority and purity are skillfully portrayed through the characters in Thatha’s household and especially in the treatment they mete out to the servants. The festivals of Karthigai and Pongal are also specific to the Tamil people. Even in her culinary descriptions — the sambhar trickling down one’s fingers, the pakku that is eaten after meals, and the steaming idlis, to name a few — Venkatraman accurately describes the foods specific to Tamilian households.
The juxtaposition of contrasts in the novel is also striking. The freedom experienced in a nuclear family is contrasted with the lack of privacy in a joint family household. The progressive thinking of the first few chapters is conflicted with the traditional and narrow–minded bigotry of the later chapters. The rising cosmopolitanism and tolerance of Bombay in situated in stark contrast to the stifling conservatism of Madras. This is especially evident in the descriptions of the two schools that Vidya attends at different times in her life. Gender roles are clearly delineated in that the women were expected to perform chores and be knowledgeable about all things domestic, whereas the men were allowed more freedom and access to knowledge pertaining to the outside world.
In sum, Venkatraman’s debut novel is a culturally rich portrait of the everyday practices of a south–Indian middle class family written along the lines of ethnography. One note of caution is that India can neither be conceived nor understood as a unified theoretical construct because of the vast and complex diversities of her peoples. Whereas Brahmin families from other parts of southern India might share some similarities with Thatha’s family and household practices, it would be imprudent to generalize them across the board. Two other novels that explore similar themes are Mitali Perkins’ Secret Keeper (2009) and Kashmira Sheth’s Keeping Corner (2009).
Srilakshmi Ramakrishnan, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ