Climbing the Stairs by Padma Wenkatraman is a novel set in British-occupied India during the Second World War. The plot revolves around Vidya and her family who live in Bombay. They are of the Brahmin caste and are wealthy, with Vidya being driven to school every day in the family's Austin.
When her father is seriously injured in an Indian demonstration against the British, the family's fortunes take a downturn and Vidya, her brother Kitta and her mother must go to live with relatives in Madras, who live a more traditional way of life. This traditional way means that women live separately from the men, with the women living on the first floor and men on the second floor of the home. But it is on the second floor that Vidya learns there is a library - a place she as a woman, is not allowed. Hence the book's title, Climbing the Stairs. Raman, a young student living with Vidya's aunt and uncle, helps Vidya obtain permission to use the library and soon a strong friendship develops between the two.
Vidya also begins to assert her strong will and pursue what she wants in life - to be educated. Against the backdrop of World War II, it is world events that help bring about the climax of this story.
Climbing the Stairs is well written and engaging. Readers will be able to develop a sense of the culture of India, especially with regards to the food, dress and customs, but not a good understanding of what Indian society was like during the war years and near the end of the British occupation of India. The lack of a glossary is somewhat frustrating as Indian terms are used throughout the book. In some ways, the book ended too abruptly for me. Several situations were resolved too quickly and without much depth.
A second novel, "Koyal dark, mango sweet" was much more interesting and enjoyable. The story revolves around Jeeta and her family's attempts to marry off three sisters (including Jeeta). Set in modern-day India, the novel opens with Jeeta's family desperately seeking a groom for their eldest daughter, Nimita, who has a serious eye condition. There are interesting descriptions of the family searching through the "matrimonial pages" in search of a suitable husband, followed by the readings of horoscopes and a first meeting. After enduring meeting at least seventeen young men, finally a spouse is found for Nimita - a good young man, Girish Mehta, from a nearby orphanage.
Next in line is Jeeta's sister Mohini. It is during this time that Jeeta meets Sarina, a young classmate whose mother is a lawyer and whose father is a judge as well as a young man named Neel. Sarina has a strong, positive influence on Jeeta. She widens Jeeta's perspective on what she can obtain in life through education. Until she met Sarina, Jeeta looked forward to marriage at a young age with little chance to see the world and participate much in it. As for her growing friendship with Neel, Jeeta must keep this a secret, because any contact with members of the opposite sex outside of family, is strictly frowned upon.
The descriptions of Indian rituals and food, the various religious festivals and customs, the type of dress and descriptions of places make this novel more interesting and help the western reader develop a sense of India. Indeed some of the chapters are named after Indian festivals and there is also a glossary at the back of the book to further explain Indian terms used throughout. As with "Climbing the Stairs" the title, Koyal dark, mango sweet also has significance, which I leave the reader to discover for themselves.
Climbing the Stairs by Padam Venkatraman
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2008
Koyal dark, Mango sweet by Kashmira Sheth
Hyperion Paperbacks, 2006