Climbing The Stairs

Paperback | February 4, 2010

byPadma Venkatraman

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Read Padma Venkatraman's posts on the Penguin Blog.

Fifteen-year-old Vidya dreams of going to college— an unusual aspiration for a girl living in British occupied India during World War II. Then tragedy strikes, and Vidya and her brother are forced to move into a traditional household with their extended family, where women are meant to be married, not educated. Breaking the rules, Vidya finds refuge in her grandfather’s library. But then her brother does something unthinkable, and Vidya’s life becomes a whirlwind of political and personal complications. The question is, will she be strong enough to survive?

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Read Padma Venkatraman's posts on the Penguin Blog.Fifteen-year-old Vidya dreams of going to college— an unusual aspiration for a girl living in British occupied India during World War II. Then tragedy strikes, and Vidya and her brother are forced to move into a traditional household with their extended family, where women are meant to...

Padma Venkatraman lives in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. An oceanographer by training, she is the author of twenty books for young readers, published in India, on a variety of subjects. To learn more, about her book Climbing the Stairs, visit the web site, www.climbingthestairsbook.com. You can also read her blog, padmasbooks.blogspot...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:272 pages, 8.25 × 5.5 × 0.69 inPublished:February 4, 2010Publisher:Penguin Young Readers GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0142414905

ISBN - 13:9780142414903

Appropriate for ages: 13 - 17

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Chapter 1I still remember the day we celebrated Krishna Jayanthi, the festival of Lord Krishna’s birth, at our home in Bombay. The drive was drenched with the juice of fallen jamun fruit and the sand of Mahim beach gleamed like a golden plate in the afternoon sunlight. Whispers of heat rose from the tar road and shivered toward the slumbering Arabian Sea.I had folded up my ankle-length skirt and was getting ready to climb up the jamun tree. A warm breeze blew around my bare knees. My brother’s brown legs were already wrapped around the roughness of the main trunk, clinging on like a monkey to its mother’s body. Kitta was eighteen and he’d just started college, but though his voice had recently deepened and the first fuzzy promise of a black mustache shadowed his upper lip, he still looked more a boy than a man. Our dog, Raja, was yapping loudly on the ground, wagging his tail.I spread an old rug on the ground beneath the tree and climbed up after him, scraping my skin against its lumpy bark. Soon we were shaking the branches, watching the ripe purple fruit rain onto the rug like a monsoon shower.“Vidya!” amma called. I glanced down. I could see her disapproving gaze from where she stood, barefoot on our verandah, the open patio in front of our home. Ever since I had turned fifteen and started wearing a half sari, she had been hoping that I would become womanly, not climb any more trees, run no more races across the beach sands and stop playing volleyball at Walsingham Girls’ School (she felt it wasn’t ladylike). She held a bowl and a small white rag in her hands. “Would you like to decorate the verandah?”Every year we would paint tiny white footprints all the way across the red cement on the front steps and verandah, into the marble-flecked mosaic floor of the house, through the great hall and to the prayer room in the back; footsteps to lead Lord Krishna into our home. I didn’t mind. It was one of the few girlish tasks I enjoyed.“I’m going to paint some Krishna feet,” I told Kitta. I climbed down and patted Raja on his head. I tried to rinse the purple stains off my hands at the brass tap in the corner of the garden, scrubbing my hands with the hairy hide of a fallen coconut. I straightened out my skirt and walked up the stairs.“Thank you,” amma said, forcing the corners of her mouth upward. Her smiles had been different ever since appa had started coming home late. The bright white sign still hung on the door of the clinic behind our home, slightly askew, stating in English, Hindi and Marathi that the doctor worked from nine o’clock to five o’clock during the week and from nine until twelve on Saturdays. But he no longer kept those hours. He went missing, at least a few days each week, returning after Kitta and I were back from school. Some evenings, amma sent us to bed before we saw him.“Where do you go, appa?” I had asked, and he had patted my head and replied that he had started another job.“What job?” I had asked. “Why do you need two jobs?”To which he had simply replied, “Nothing for you to worry about.”The only time I enjoyed hearing him say those words was when he had said them to amma, a month ago, on her birthday.He had taken us to Mr. Sultan’s jewelry store. Kitta and I had been sitting on plush satin-backed chairs in the showroom, clinking the ice cubes in the tall glasses of sweet lime juice that the store hand had brought to us on a silver tray, trying to see which of us could swirl the liquid faster without spilling it.“Everything looks beautiful on you,” appa told amma. Pairs of gold earrings were set out on the glass case in front of them, glimmering against the blue velvet that lined their boxes. Amma held up a diamond-studded flower design beside her perfect crescent-shaped earlobe, then gasped when Mr. Sultan mentioned the price and put it back.“Get it,” appa said, smiling indulgently.“But it’s so expensive,” amma said worriedly. “Can we really afford it? Shouldn’t we be saving for Vidya’s dowry?”Appa had taken one look at the shock on my face and said to her, “Nothing for you to worry about yet.”My marital status hadn’t been mentioned again, but surely it was only a matter of time. Every other fifteen-year-old in the fifth form of Walsingham Girls’ School had had her horoscope sent off to families with eligible sons. I was determined to delay its distribution. That horror of a document was only a page long, but it was filled with rectangles that told the position of the planets on the day of one’s birth, and before any marriage was arranged, a soothsayer had to look at the horoscopes of the girl and the boy to make sure they were compatible.Would my parents let me go to college after I finished sixth form? I wondered about that for the umpteenth time. Amma was so happy being a housewife that she was convinced I needed to get “settled” and married off to a “nice” boy from a “good” family, sooner rather than later. I couldn’t think how to explain to her that I wanted more. Anyway, appa made all the big decisions.“What’s the frown for?” Kitta yelled, interrupting my memories as he peered down at me through the tree branches.“Nothing,” I said. Today wasn’t a day for worrying about marriage. It was the festival of Krishna Jayanthi.I dipped my hands into the cool, white, watery rice paste, wetting a corner of the small square cloth with it, and then I squeezed the paste out of the rag, carefully drawing tiny footsteps with circles for each toe. I loved the story of mischievous Krishna, an incarnation of God, born on the seventh day of the seventh month of Shravan, with skin the blue-black of a midnight sky. Krishna’s sermons were embedded in the Bhagavad Gita, but although he could be serious when he was fighting evil, he was also playful and he never lost his sense of humor.The roar of our car interrupted my thoughts. The wrought-iron gate creaked as Xavier, our watchman, pushed it shut and retired to his room at the foot of the drive. Appa was in the backseat of the blue Austin. I waved at him, raising my right hand, which held the soaked rag. Blobs of rice paste spattered across the floor.Appa didn’t smile or wave back, as he usually did. He threw open the door when the car stopped without waiting for Suruve, our driver, to hold it open for him. Raja raced up to him, barking a joyous welcome, but appa didn’t stop to stroke him.Amma reappeared on the verandah. She had tucked a string of kanakambaram flowers in her hair, and they peeped above her head in an orange halo that matched the heavy, gold-embroidered silk sari into which she had changed. Her plump cheeks were dimpled in a welcoming smile, but she was not gazing at appa. Instead, her eyes were fixed on appa’s kurtha. Or rather, on the strange rust-colored stain spread across his loose, collarless shirt. “I’m all right,” he told her. “It’s not mine. I’m fine. Really.”What wasn’t his? I wondered, staring.He seemed not to see me and walked up to amma, putting his strong, muscular arm across her shoulders in a rare display of affection. He ran a finger across her forehead, ironing out the worried creases. His broad-shouldered frame filled the doorway.Amma looked small and vulnerable when she stood next to him. She darted a frightened look at me, as though to warn him not to say too much. Then she straightened up against him, saying, “Shall we have some tea?”“Yes, and I should change before that.” He let her go and smiled down at me at last. “What beautiful footprints, Vidya!”I grinned up at him proudly. “Appa, I was thinking of what we could do for the weekend. Rifka says there’s a new cinema theater that’s opened up, and she says it’s not all reserved for whites, and there’s a section on the ground floor where Indians are allowed—”Appa pinched my cheek affectionately. I expected him to say yes, as he usually did, but instead he said, “Sorry, but we can’t go out this weekend. Your eldest uncle is coming over on Saturday morning, and we need to spend time with him.”I didn’t try to hide my disappointment. “Periappa’s visiting? Why?”“He was up north on a business trip, so he’s decided to stop and see us before returning to Madras.”I scowled.“None of that, young lady.” Appa wagged a warning finger at me. “You’re old enough to stop acting childish. He’s my elder brother, and you’ll respect him.” Before he stepped indoors, he added, “And remember to tie Raja up Saturday morning before he comes. You know how periappa feels about dogs.”After he left, I stared glumly at the floor.Kitta descended from his perch and walked toward me. “Come on,” he said, grinning. “It’s not that bad, is it?”“I guess not,” I conceded. “It’s just—I can’t believe he’s appa’s brother, can you? He’s so, so—”“Orthodox?” Kitta suggested.“Yes,” I agreed. “Appa doesn’t care that we’re Brahmin, but periappa never forgets it, does he? He treats our servants like dirt just because they’re a lower caste.” “Most Brahmins like throwing their weight around,” Kitta said.“That’s not what we’re supposed to do, is it?” I said. “We’re supposed to read the scriptures and teach and pray. Live an ascetic lifestyle.” According to appa, caste was a social evil, not a Hindu belief. He said caste had begun with a relatively compassionate idea of a code of conduct: that the Brahmins, who were scholars and priests, should never take up arms or seek wealth or power. Caste wasn’t meant to be hereditary or exclusive or hierarchical, but Brahmins and other “high” castes now oppressed those without education or wealth. Kitta looked thoughtful. “Most people are like periappa,” he said. “Not that I’m trying to excuse him or anything. It’s not easy to be different, the way appa is. It is odd they’re brothers, though,” Kitta mused.I gave him a cheeky grin. “Actually, it isn’t strange at all,” I said. “I know why they’re so different. Periappa can’t really help it. He’s the older one, and as we all know, the second kid always gets the brains.”Kitta laughed. “Okay. You won that round.”I glowed, feeling pleased with myself. Kitta was far wittier than I was. It wasn’t often that he couldn’t think of a comeback. “Here’s something that’ll make you feel even better,” Kitta continued. “Periappa isn’t bringing periamma and Malati along.”I smiled, relieved that my aunt and cousin weren’t coming. Most of our cousins were male and much older than we were, but periappa had a daughter, Malati, who was a year older than I was and as unlike me as her father was from mine. She liked cooking and sewing and staying indoors to gossip with older women. “That really is something to be thankful for,” I said, cheering up again. “How long is he staying, do you know?”“Periappa arrives Saturday and leaves Sunday morning. Short trip,” Kitta said. “How come you know all that and I don’t know a thing?” I asked. “How come they always tell you every detail?”“Because I’m older and smarter,” he said, smirking.I soaked the rag in rice paste and threw it at him. He caught it deftly, wiping off the white spot that landed on his nose. “You’re going to smear the verandah with white drops instead of drawing a nice neat line of footprints.” “Why don’t you help me if you’re that concerned about how our verandah looks?” I asked.“I will, actually.” He got up and headed toward the house.Kitta should have been the girl in our family, I thought as he disappeared inside to fetch another rag. Kitta was always ready to help, he was hard to annoy, he rarely argued with anyone and he could see the bright side of any situation. Returning to the verandah, he crouched and started scraping off the mess I had made.Kitta and I worked quietly for a while side by side. My eyes fell on the kolam, the geometric pattern that our maid, Ponni, drew on the front steps every morning with rice flour. Today, in honor of the festival, she had made an elaborate swastika design.“Why do the Nazis wear our swastikas?” I wondered out loud. “I thought they didn’t like colored people.”“No idea why they took our religious symbol,” he said, following my gaze and staring at the kolam. “It doesn’t make sense.”I thought of the war. The British were fighting with three countries they called the Axis: Germany, Italy and Japan. Indians, technically subjects of the British crown, ought to have been on the side of the British. But I wasn’t certain if we were or not because Indians were busy struggling for freedom from British rule. Gandhiji, leader of the Indian National Congress Party, said we had to throw the British out without using violence. But it wasn’t clear what he or our other leaders felt about the British war with the Axis.“Kitta,” I said, “how come Gandhiji and the rest say we’re against Hitler but then tell us not to enlist in the British Indian Army? If we disagree with Hitler, then shouldn’t we be fighting him?”Kitta knitted his brows thoughtfully. “It’s a good question. I wonder about it a lot.”“So what do you think?”“I think it’s tough. We don’t like Hitler because he says his race is superior. But the British think they’re better than us, so we don’t like them either.”“Because the British think we can’t rule ourselves, you mean?” I asked. “Because they keep us out of first-class compartments in trains and that sort of thing?”“Exactly. The British think we’re uncivilized because we’re darker than they are. Hitler wants to rule over anybody and -everybody, white, black and everything in between. So what’s the difference?” Kitta paused. “Plus the British didn’t even bother to ask Gandhiji’s opinion about the war. They just went off and ordered Indians to fight, like we’re their slaves or something.”“So why did we take part in that other big war, Kitta, the one the British and everyone fought in 1914 or whenever, when appa was young? How come we didn’t sit that one out?”“The British promised us freedom if we helped them then,” Kitta said.“They broke their word?”“Looks like they cheated us, doesn’t it?” Kitta said. “Here we are, still a colony, with whites-only signs all over the place.”I was silent. Appa always said Gandhiji was a great soul. That Indians were a peaceful people, that killing and wars went against our tradition of nonviolence, of ahimsa. We listened to news on the radio every night, and I knew what appa felt about our freedom struggle, but he never voiced opinions about the faraway war.My thoughts turned to appa’s disheveled appearance. “Kitta, did you see the stain on appa’s kurtha?”A pause.“Did you, Kitta?”“No,” he said unconvincingly.I sat back on my haunches and looked at him. He was kneeling, scraping hard at a spot that looked quite clean.“Something’s going on that everyone knows about except me,” I said.“Rubbish.”“Then look me in the eye and tell me you don’t know where appa was.” I had always been able to outstare Kitta.“I don’t know where appa goes,” he said. His eyes caught my fierce gaze fleetingly. “But you have an idea, don’t you?”“Maybe,” he mumbled.Amma chose that moment to interrupt us. “You’ve done a lovely job, Vidya. I’ve painted the footsteps indoors, so we’re finished. Why don’t you go in and change into a sari before we meet in the poojai room?”“Don’t you want the jamun fruit we collected?” I said, trying to procrastinate. I did want to see how amma had decorated our prayer room for the festive occasion, but more than anything, I wanted to find out how much Kitta knew about appa.“I’ll ask Ponni to collect the fruit. Now be a good girl, kanna, and get changed.”I sighed. Amma was calling me kanna again, a term of endearment usually reserved for a little child.Kitta sighed too, with relief that he had been able to wriggle out of my questioning.

Editorial Reviews

"This novel vivifies a unique era and culture as it movingly expresses how love and hope can blossom even under the most dismal of circumstances." - Publishers Weekly, starred review

"In her first novel, Venkatraman paints an intricate and convincing backdrop of a conservative Brahmin home in a time of change." - Booklist, starred review