Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

Vidya is growing up in British occupied India during 1941.  She loves school and sports and her family.  When a tragedy hits her family that Vidya blames herself for, her family must move in with her extended family, who is very traditional.  The men live upstairs, and the women live downstairs and serve the men.  Vidya is afraid that soon she'll be married off and never finish school or fulfill her dream of going to college.

This looked at a side of history we rarely see: India during WWII.  India is still under British rule, and England is involved in the war.  There were all-Indian troops under British leadership that are rarely heard about.

While WWII is going on, India is involved in their own fight for freedom against British rule.  Lead by Gandhi, this fight was largely a non-violent one.  Vidya's father strongly believes in the non-violent approach, although Vidya's brother questions whether it is the right way.

Vidya and her family are Hindus, and the book did an excellent job, as we go through a year in Vidya's life, showing all the different holidays and traditions which are incredibly important to Vidya and her family.  Vidya and her family are Brahmans, scholars who do not believe in violence.  It also means, for some in Vidya's family, that they think they are better than other Indians.  It never felt like we were deliberately being educated in Hinduism, the holidays and traditions were a daily part of Vidya's life.

Vidya and her immediate family are well off, her father was a doctor.  After her father can no longer work and they move in with her extended family it seems like they have come down financially in the world.  It's not until Vidya goes off in search for her brother and meets the India outside her familiar surroundings do we realize how sheltered and lucky Vidya is.  She is shocked at seeing beggars and starving children on the street.  She has never been exposed to India's poverty before, even though it is her home.

Vidya chafes at having to live with her extended family.  They are much more traditional then she's used to.  While Vidya is used to men having some privileges, she's never had to serve them before.  Her aunt is deliberately hard on her, and at times quite nasty.  Vidya begins sneaking into her grandfather's library as a secret place to escape and learn.  The more she reads, the more she wants to keep on reading and learning.  Marriage is not what she wants, not right away.

Then Vidya meets Raman, and she begins to question what she wants.  She can see herself getting married for the first time.  But she is still unsure if she is willing to give up her dreams of college and hopes for freedom.

There's a lot going on in this book!  But it never seemed rushed or heavy.  It all worked together perfectly.  Highly recommended.

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