Before I start this review, I do have to say that I have met the author, and like her very much, but have tried to make this review fair and unbiased. Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman is a YA historical fiction about a fifteen-year-old girl named Vidya that takes place in India during the struggle for Indian independence and WWII. Outspoken and willful Vidya is excited about her future, but when her father is injured in a freedom rally, Vidya’s hopes of entering college are shattered when her family is forced to move in with her grandfather and his straight-laced, traditional household. Her only way to escape is to climb the stairs to her grandfather’s library where she is forbidden to go.
Vidya is a delightful protagonist, but at first she seems a little naïve and immature for her age. For example, in a strange scene in the first chapter, she is unable to identify a stain on her father’s shirt as blood, despite the fact that she is fifteen years old and the daughter of a physician. However, after witnessing a British officer brutally beat her father, she becomes a much more believable character as she struggles with guilt about her role in her father’s injury and shame about her father’s resulting brain damage. I also thought that a few of the interactions Vidya has with her love interest, Raman, are sometimes very awkward and her uncle’s family comes across as a little too mean to be realistic.
Despite these shortcomings, I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in in Indian history. The setting and time-period covered by this book are not often covered in American literature and especially not in such a truthful, open way. Sometimes I find that Indian-American authors tend to romanticize India and their novels read as odes to a perfect country where problems such as caste-based discrimination and sexism don’t seem to exist. However, through Vidya’s eyes, the author unflinchingly shows us her view of what it was like to live in a male-dominated society and where oppression was a fact of life. We see shocking events and difficult social problems portrayed honestly, and this important time in India’s history comes to life in a believable and interesting way.