Book Review “Climbing the Stairs”

Yesterday I finished reading “Climbing the Stairs” by Padma Venkatraman.  Overall, I would recommend the book.  It is a quick read, but brings up issues relevant to today and the characters are likable, if a bit one dimensional.


Setting:  South India in the early 1940s.  The two main world events are the Freedom Struggle and World War II.  The family is Tamil Brahmin. 


I enjoyed learning about some of the culture.  For example, in her grandfather’s traditional household the men live on the upper floor and the women on the lower floor.  Even married couples live mostly apart.  The only nights they spend together are when it is their turn to use the private bedroom.  I’m guessing that this practice faded out by now and was only for the wealthy when it was in place.


Plot:  How can a young girl come to terms with her father’s life-changing injury?  How can she maintain her identity when her family is forced to move to her father’s ancestral home controlled by unsympathetic relatives?  Will she have to choose between romance and her dreams of education?


Issues the book brought up:  Sometimes I thought Vidya was too modern and too outspoken, but strong women are everywhere and existed in every time.  I don’t know enough about Tamil Brahmins to judge accurately.  The issues she encounters are still current today.  For example, she asks Raman if they can be equal partners in their relationship.  Raman cares a lot about her, but is sometimes extremely clueless about the everyday struggles of women.  The same can be said of men today (and vice-versa.  I don’t pretend to know what it is like to be a man in today’s world). 


Vidya’s impassioned speeches are memorable.  When Raman carelessly joked about how women got a vacation when they were sequestered monthly during their periods, Vidya stood up for herself very well.  I liked how she brought up the point about how women’s bodies are not private, but monitored and discussed by many.


Sometimes I wonder about the position of women in India vs. the U.S.  For upper and middle class women, there don’t seem to be many differences.  India seems ahead in some respects- higher percentages of female doctors, engineers, and computer techs.  Is that true, or only a skewed perception?  Indian women perhaps face more pressure to marry than American women do.  Women in both countries are the main caretakers of children and elders. 


This book was a reminder of the tremendous sacrifices made by freedom fighters and their families during the struggle for Indian Independence.  Satya has told me of some old footage he has seen of freedom fighters lining up to protest.  Men would line up to get bayoneted or clubbed by rifle butts and women would be in the rear with stretchers to give aid to the injured.  I don’t know if I could watch that.  It sounds very chilling, but I’m in awe of the discipline and courage of the freedom fighters.


In school here in the U.S., I watched the Gandhi video starring Ben Kingsley in one class, but we weren’t taught much or anything about the history of the independence struggle or of the partition (learned about that in another book of historical fiction).  Satya is very proud of Gandhi and how India gained its independence.  He says he is a Gandhian and says that real change can only happen through non-violence.


Conclusion: Even though this book is aimed at teens, I think adults may enjoy reading it.  I enjoyed the peek into another culture and time.  The book brings up some important issues and is a reminder to stand up for oneself and one’s beliefs.

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