In 2013, multi-award-winning author Padma Venkatraman read an article about Kanhaiya Kumari who had been born in prison in India. When he was too old to remain there, he was sent out into the world alone without his mother. She never forgot about that boy.
“When the pandemic hit,” Venkatraman wrote on librarian, educator, and writer John Schu’s blog, “I returned to a draft of [a young boy’s] story that I had written and set aside. As the world entered a ‘lockdown’ I was drawn to this character who had spent his whole life locked up … I wrote and rewrote during the pandemic.”
The result is Born Behind Bars, the powerful and instructive middle-grade companion novel to her fourth book, The Bridge Home. She continues to explore child homelessness; families of choice and birth; and caste, religious, and cultural differences. But this time, she also examines a prejudicial and broken justice system and how it affects children.
Kabir Khan, our bright young narrator, was born in prison in Chennai and is a child of dualities. His mother is a low-caste Hindu trapped in a system that imprisoned her for a theft she didn’t commit, and his father, whom he has never met, is a Muslim who wed his mother secretly because of their religions. Kabir also is bilingual, speaking Kannada (his parents’ language) and Tamil. And having grown up in confinement, he dreams of the freedom of the outside world based on what he sees on TV and hears in his mother’s stories.
At age nine, he suddenly is discharged to a man who claims to be his uncle. Kabir has two resolute goals despite having little bits of information. He must find his father—whose letters stopped soon after he wrote from Dubai—and his grandparents who never knew their son married a Hindu. Then, he was sure he would be able to secure his mother’s release.
Once living on the streets of Chennai, Kabir is assisted by a homeless Kurava-gypsy teen named Rani who has a sharp wit and even sharper survival skills. She takes a liking to Kabir and, with her parrot, joins him on his quest to locate his family. Their journey from Chennai to his father’s hometown of Bengaluru proves challenging, but Kabir’s fluency in two necessary languages comes in handy. For all the obstacles and inhospitable people Kabir and Rani encounter, they remain steadfast because there are kind-hearted, generous people that propel them forward and give them hope.
As a storyteller for children, Padma Venkatraman is masterful, writing honestly about the realities of life, turning just the right phrase to set the reader firmly in Kabir’s worlds—in prison and outside. Her precise writing brilliantly sets the stage for every step Kabir takes.
For example, there is no doubt that Kabir was raised in dreadful conditions. “The stench of the toilets is as strong as a slap in the face,” he tells us. “Water trickles out of the rusty tap.” “The pale orange stream of water.” And when the small fan in the cell stops, Kabir says, “I feel like a grain of rice boiling in my own sweat.” In contrast, he tells us he dreams of blue skies “bright as a happy song,” and stepping in “a river of cool, clear water.”
Early in the book, one of Kabir’s prison “aunties” comments that Kabir is “almost twice as old as he should be to still be living here.” I asked Venkatraman about that.
“The rule in India,” she explained, “is that children are usually sent out of prison at age six to a relative or an orphanage.”
The school for homeless children connects The Bridge Home and Born Behind Bars. Venkatraman didn’t plan for that to happen, but as she wrote on Schu’s blog, “… as I followed [Kabir] on his journey, a character from The Bridge Home reappeared—to my great joy (because readers from all over the world had asked me what happened to the characters from The Bridge Home).”
Rani’s experiences at the school show respect for alternative learning pathways and cultural needs, and I wondered if schools like that were common in India and who ran them.
“There are state-run schools and private schools run by charities,” Venkatraman told me. “Both can be tough places or wonderful places, depending on who the director and teachers are. The schools in my book are modeled on places I’ve actually seen.”
Venkatraman is the personification of the empathy and compassion she strives for in her writing, and she genuinely cares about those on whom the children in The Bridge Home and Born Behind Bars are based. Author’s Notes in each book offer additional information and resources, but there’s always more to share.
“There are links on my website to some charities that I think are doing good work in case readers feel they want to contribute to causes that fight against hunger, homelessness, and other kinds of social injustices in India and in our own country,” she added.
She was true to herself when she shared with me, “I think of my books as packages of empathy, NOT entertainment. I hope every work I’ve created makes readers/listeners ask questions and think deeply and take positive action in the world, even if that’s just something small. I don’t try to provide answers—just hope that there’s greater understanding that there may be many different equally valid or nuanced answers to important questions—and by asking them, we may increase our compassion.”
Already earning well-deserved starred reviews, Born Behind Bars with its spirited, unforgettable characters and heart-twisting, revealing conflicts will stay with young (and old) readers long after the final word is read. Perfect as a read-aloud at school or a read-together at home with parents, it is a life-enriching book that inspires empathy and compassion and stimulates discussion and action.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association. She also is a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee, SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), and NCWN (North Carolina Writers’ Network).