Climbing the Stairs
It’s 1941, but in India, the oppressors are the English, not the Axis. Fifteen-year-old Vidya’s progressive father shields her from most unpleasantness, promising her an education rather than an early marriage. But when tragedy sends Vidya to live in the traditional and very conservative family home, her future looks lost. This coming-of-age story with romantic elements transported me to a setting I rarely see from the Indian point of view, and while the characters were not the strongest, I very much enjoyed seeing their world.
By far the strongest aspect of this book is its depiction of life in a conservative Hindu Brahmin home. Bringing Vidya to this house from her progressive upbringing was a good choice by the author, as I could experience the newness of the setting through Vidya’s eyes. The “stairs” of the title separate the male and female floors of Vidya’s grandfather’s traditional home (married couples use a single sharable room in rotation). The coffee goes through three brewings: the men get the first and best, the women a second brewing, and the servants a bitter third preparation. We see Vidya exiled to the “outhouse” for three days during her period, when she is “unclean.”
Caste is also a major theme in the book. Vidya’s aunt demands that Vidya wash dishes which have already been washed by the maid to remove any trace of lower-caste pollution. By contrast, Vidya’s father argues that caste is a tool used by the British to magnify divisions within India to facilitate their rule. At Vidya’s father’s house, the servants are known by name; at Vidya’s grandfather’s, they are nameless. I enjoyed learning more about that topic. However, other public-issue elements, like the Indian independence movement and World War II from the Indian point of view, are less developed.
Vidya is pretty much the same heroine in all of YA these days – a headstrong intellectual unique in her freethinking. If she were in a dystopia, she’d be rejecting a faction; in a contemporary, she’d be reading Sylvia Plath and making profound black and white drawings. Teen readers probably won’t mind, but I had hoped for a little more complexity and originality. The strongest trait she has is her voracious desire to read, particularly English fiction and Hindu theology, but when she decides what she wants from her future, she chooses medicine like her father. It seemed like the author had a formula somewhere – “Here is where we have a tribute to the father” – rather than allowing Vidya’s dream to grow out of her own personality. (Interestingly, in the author’s note at the end, we learn that Vidya’s love of reading is based on the author’s mother – who went on to study law.) The plot about Vidya’s school life also fizzled out, which was a missed opportunity to show us more about Vidya and India.
The supporting cast is mostly one-note, written to keep the plot moving forward. They do this smoothly but not with originality. Vidya’s mother is weak and grieving so Vidya will be on her own, her aunt and cousin are a classic wicked stepmother/stepsister duo so she will be oppressed. Her grandfather is an abstracted patriarch not because he is busy (I never noticed what he does) but because his absolute authority could resolve any conflict instantly if he were paying attention. Vidya’s brother Kitta weighs Hindu nonviolence, or ahimsa, against the threat of Japanese invasion because someone needs to connect the story to the World War II setting. It’s never problematic, and it all works, but I thought there were missed opportunities for a more sophistication and nuance.
Vidya has a romance with a young man named Raman who lives in the family compound. While it’s not a core component of the story, I liked it, and found him a welcome deviation from the bad-boy heroes I’ve come up against a lot lately. Raman’s more complex than most of the supporting characters, open to Vidya’s feminist point of view but definitely suffering from some privileged myopia. He makes a serious relationship mistake, and Vidya rightfully calls him on it. Climbing the Stairs is a rare YA book that acknowledges that its leads may be too young for an HEA, instead choosing to end the book with the two main characters on paths that seem likely to bring them back to each other and an HEA at a later date.
For its intended YA audience, I’d give this book a B+, but for adults, it’s lower, due to the fact that we’ve seen all these characters before. Still, if like me, you prioritize setting, and you’d like to visit one that represents a seventh of the world’s population but a lot less of its English-language fiction, Climbing the Stairs fits the bill nicely.