Climbing the Stairs
Fifteen-year-old Vidya lives in Bombay in British-occupied India. It is 1941, and while many other Brahmin girls are living cloistered, marriage-focused lives, Vidya has more freedom, and cherishes it. She climbs trees, is best friends with a Jewish girl, enjoys sports at school, and would like to go to college. She dreads the thought that she might be married young, as her cousin will soon be. Vidya and her brother Kitta, along with their parents, spend summers in Madras with their father’s relatives. This extended household is extremely traditional, with men living upstairs and women downstairs, meeting only when women serve men their meals. Vidya’s world changes overnight when catastrophe strikes and they have to move into this household. She is worked hard, loses all her freedoms, and her new school and teacher in no way compare with those she left behind. She can’t even enjoy the companionship of her brother. Eventually, she finds the library on the men’s floor of the house, and begins sneaking in to take solace in the books. When she meets an appealing young man also living in the house, she starts to question her lack of interest in the opposite gender. However, the focus isn’t always so narrow. The British occupation, pacifism, and the encroaching war all play critical roles in this first novel.
While the dialogue seemed stilted at times, the novel slowly drew me in to a very unfamiliar world. The cultural, religious, and period details, along with a most engaging protagonist, led to a satisfying read.