“Climbing the Stairs” by Padma Venkatraman

I found myself in a bookstore (that had some great bargains) yesterday, and ended up breaking my resolution not to buy any books until I’d read 25 of my old ones. However, in light of recent events, and also in light of today being my birthday, I think that’s okay. Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman was one of the books I bought, especially since I was looking for a few easy reads. This book used to be on my wishlist, but then I decided it sounded a bit too chick-lit for my tastes, but I decided that it would be a quick read and it sounded like fun.

Climbing the Stairs is about fifteen year old Vidya, a member of an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family, who does not want to get married, but instead wants to attend college and make something of herself. It is the early 1940s, and India’s independence movement is in full swing, even as World War II rages across the world. Vidya has a liberal family, but when tragedy strikes, she has to move to Madras to her grandfather’s home, which is a traditional joint family home. (And of course, she meets a boy there that dashes all her dreams of spinsterhood.)

This story resonated with me more than I thought it would because my grandmother was part of a joint family in Madras (albeit not Brahmin.) The relationships between the various family members (the grandfather being the supreme authority, the older sister in laws being bossy, the family hierarchy) really seemed to ring true. I don’t think my grandmother’s family was as strict as this one, but I’m not sure.

Vidya is a likeable protagonist (although it’s hard to go wrong with a girl that likes books), she knew what she wanted and tried her best to get it. She didn’t complain too much, though, or stoop to the petty level of the other women she was surrounded by. I loved the turn that her relationship with Raman took (to say any more would be a spoiler, but I was glad that she didn’t have to be “rescued.”) I think that her voice and opinions were also very well portrayed – she was a very believable sheltered fifteen year old girl.

I also liked the setting a lot, despite being a fairly lighthearted and simple book, the various factions in India during this very volatile time period were portrayed pretty well. The non-violent Gandhians that believed in ahimsa, the people that believed that independence required violence, the sycophants to the British. There were British police that wanted to stop protests with violence, but there was also a kindly British man.

Overall, a pretty enjoyable and easy read.

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