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Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman. G.P. Putnam and Sons, 2008. Hardcover, 247 pages $16.99


You don’t often hear about oceanographers who write fiction, but Padma Venkatraman fits just that profile. And Venkatraman isn’t fazed by having taken on such radically different occupations; in fact, she happily embraces the fact that she has been able to synthesize all that she loves. Add to the intellectual mix a baby and a husband, and you begin to get an idea of how incredibly talented this woman is.

Climbing the Stairs, Venkatraman’s first Young Adult novel, is a passionate story of a young girl in India during World War II who attempts to reconcile her family’s status in a changing society. When tragedy befalls the family, as a result of what she believes is her own fault, 15-year-old Vidya must struggle to exist within a rigid family framework that threatens to break her.

Venkatraman is an adjunct professor as well as director of Graduate Diversity Affairs at the University of Rhode Island. She is articulate, well trained (Ph.D. from the College of William and Mary), and passionate about writing. Venkatraman was raised in a family in which the written word was respected and reading encouraged. When I ask her when she learned to write, she responds, emphatically, “When I learned to read!” She believes that made all the difference in her writing. “I read across the board. Good books inspire me; bad books inspire me because they are bad.” In the novel, books serve as a saving grace.

The central theme of the novel, violence and nonviolence, will appeal to an international audience. “It is very important to me that there be that dialogue,” Venkatraman says. “So many of the books written from and about that era in India gave the impression that British rule was benign. It was not.” Testament to Venkatraman’s incredible talent is that, through Vidya, the reader is able to understand all of this without any suggestions of extreme anger or resentment. The story is based on the life of Venkatraman’s mother’s experiences during the World War II era. The vivid rendering of the oppressive feeling of living in prison is made all the more vivid for the reader, in part, because the author’s mother was a close and careful reader of the manuscript who provided minute details and checked for accuracy. Readers will hold their breath as they journey along with Vidya, feel the intensity and loyalty of her best friend, a young Jewish girl, the love of her family, her conflicted feelings over the concept of non-violence in the face of overt cruelty, and the difficult decision to choose her own path in life when the possibility of love and marriage present themselves.

“I’d like this book to spark dialogue about nonviolence vs. violence, the colonies during World War II, women’s rights, Indian spirituality, and philosophy,” Venkatraman says. “I hope readers will see that some of the questions the characters struggle with are still highly relevant. What does it mean to be a colonial or occupying power? Is war inevitable during certain circumstances, or does nonviolence provide a viable alternative in any situation? What is violence and how do we internalize it?”

Even though India’s involvement in World War II was is often overlooked,Climbing the Stairs should spark interest in this unique period of time. Venkatraman hopes the novel will stay in the hearts and minds of those who read it: “I hope Climbing the Stairs will not be stereotyped as yet another book about India and women’s rights—while those are both important aspects of the book, there are so many other threads woven into the story. I don’t provide answers in the book to any of the book’s underlying questions the characters debate—partly because there is no one correct solution to the issues raised, partly because my scientific training has drummed it into me that a good question is often far more important than any answer.”

Michelle Reale is an academic librarian and a fiction writer, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia.