Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman

The Bridge Home is a story of family, loss, forgiveness, redemption and second chances. Two sisters flee an abusive home, living on the streets with two boys until illness forces one of them to take a chance that will change all their lives.

Eleven-year-old Viji and her intellectually-challenged sister Rukku live in Chennai, India with their Amma and Appa. Their Appa is a violent man who beats Amma. One night Amma is so badly beaten that her arm is broken and she has to go to the hospital. The next day, Appa attempts to apologize by giving Viji and Rukku gifts but Viji rejects her father's attempt and he becomes physically abusive. Viji knows that unlike her Amma who hopes the beatings will stop someday, she must leave. The next morning taking food, extra clothing, a book her teacher gave her and some money, Viji leades Rukku out of their home to the bus station where they take the bus from their village to the city. In the city they barely escape from the bus driver who attempts to kidnap them. Their first bit of luck happens when they meet a kindly lady who runs a teashop with her husband. When Rukku breaks a glass cup, Viji offers to work to pay for the broken cup and it is then that they meet Teashop Aunty.

At night they wander onto an abandoned, ruined bridge with their newfound puppy Kutti. There they meet two boys, Muthu and an older boy, Arul. The next morning they return to Teashop Aunty who gives Rukku a large bag of beads and shows her how to tie knots and braid the strings together. The two girls wander to the temple looking for work but end up encountering a wealthy woman and her daughter Praba who wants Viji and Rukku's little dog. They are chased away by the gardener and their first day ends without work or food.  That night Arul brings them food and a tarp for shelter. While telling Rukku a story, Muthu refers to Viji as Akka or older sister, which makes her feel like they are family.

Viji, Rukku, Muthu and Arul spend the next months working as ragpickers on various dumps in the city.  This job disgusts Viji as it is smelly and covers her in grime and filth. Rukku uses the beads to make necklaces and they manage to sell all but one, earning a small fortune of hundreds of rupees. The four children are eventually forced to leave their tent homes on the bridge after they are pursued and set upon by the waste mart man who tries to kidnap them. Salvaging the remaining money from the necklaces they sold, the four children relocate to a graveyard and set up new tents against one of the tombstones.

The monsoon rains arrive and with them hordes of mosquitoes. On a visit to a Catholic church, the children encounter a kindly woman, Dr. Celina Pinto who is the director of  Safe Home for Working Children. Celina Aunty as she is called, offers them a place to live, go to school and work. Viji is immediately attracted to this offer because she has a dream of some day becoming a teacher. Muthu and Arul run out of the church with Viji and Rukku following them, but not before Celina Aunty hands Viji her card. Later on Muthu reveals that he doesn't believe Celina Aunty because he was sold by his stepbrother into slave labour in a factory making handbags. There he was beaten and starved.

The monsoon and mosquitoes bring illness to both Muthu and Rukku. At first Viji tres to help by selling Kutti and buying medicine but it soon becomes apparent that both are very very ill. Viji must trust her instincts and reach out to Celina Aunty in the hopes she can save them and herself.


Venkatraman who grew up in India, the daughter of a single mother, was introduced at a young age to charitable work for underprivileged children in her native country. Her interest and work with organizations devoted to helping the thousands of homeless and underprivileged children both in India and in the United States were the inspiration for this novel. It is evident from her portrayal of  homeless children in India, that this is an issue close to Venkatraman's heart.

With sensitivity and compassion, Venkatraman portrays the plight of two young sisters who flee from their abusive father. Viji makes the decision to leave, partly to protect her younger, disabled sister. "If I wanted a better future, I needed to change the live we had. Now." Fiercely protective of her sister Rukku who is developmentally challenged, Viji promises that they will always be together no matter what. It is a promise that is destined to be broken, although through no fault of Viji's.

Living on the street is difficult  especially for Viji who wonders if her dream of being a teacher is lost forever. Viji wonders, "Could we ever recover enough to clean ourselves up and go to school? Or was that dream as impossible as pretending the trash dump was a treasure trove?" When Viji challenges Arul and Muthu to consider the future they tell her they only worry about each day but Viji is determined to hope and dream. "I couldn't -- wouldn't let the boys destroy my hope we'd find a better life, somehow." She wonders how they can live without dreams.

When Rukku becomes very ill, Viji wants to reach out to Celina Aunty, a kind woman who has offered them help, but she doesn't know if she is able to trust her feeling that this woman is a good person. Eventually though, she must find the courage to trust Celina Aunty who proves that Viji's initial impression was correct.

Rukku's death from dengue fever and pneumonia devastates Viji. With Rukku gone, Viji's life seems to have no purpose. Celina Aunty attempts to help Viji cope with the loss of her sister, attempting to get her to write about it since she can't seem to talk about what has happened. Viji mistakenly believes that Celina Aunty is attempting to convert her and tells her that she doesn't believe in God. But Celina Aunty encourages her to "have faith in the goodness within yourself."

Viji must contend with the immense guilt she feels over Rukku's death. She reasons that Rukku would be alive today if she hadn't forced her to leave home. That guilt is "like a rock was sitting on my chest, weight me down so I couldn't rise out of bed." Viji is angry that her sister is gone; the loss of her sister makes her feel alone. Arul points out that he and Muthu are now her family and he admonishes her, "Start looking at what you haven't lost...Start giving thanks for what you do have." He points out that she has a second chance "to do something more with your life..."

Perhaps the most touching scene in the entire book occurs when Celina Aunty takes Viji to a home for people with disabilities like Rukku. The realization that Rukku could have gone to school causes Viji immense pain and grief. But out of this experience comes the first reawakening of a purpose in Viji's life; the desire to return and help at the school. Celina Aunty's suggestion that Viji may one day be able to teach there gives her hope. "Celina Aunty's words made my dream glimmer again. Faint and far away, but not lost."

Viji takes the first steps towards achieving that dream when she refuses to return home with her Appa during his visit to Celina Aunty's home. Recognizing that she must move forward Viji refuses her father's offer to return home. With a mixture of forgiveness and pity, and maturity and courage far beyond her years, Viji understands that her home and future is with Celina Aunty, despite her father's promises to be better.

Not only has Venkatraman crafted a feisty, strong heroine in Viji but her supporting characters are also well drawn. There is the thoughtful Arul who brings Viji and Rukku a tarp after their first night on the beach, and who offers to go to the waste man so that Viji and Rukku can "see the nice part of the beach..." There is Muthu whose playful ways help Rukku and there is Rukku who surprises even Viji. Viji marvels at how Rukku grows during their time out on the street. "Ever since we'd left, you'd been behaving so differently from before. You hadn't once lost your temper. You'd made friends. You even looked different, because you'd been holding your back straight all the time." In the end it is Rukku who helps Viji move forward in life, who gives Viji her purpose again, who gives her the strength to forgive and to remember. At the end of the novel Viji recognizes how Rukku really helped her in her life.
"All this while, I thought I'd looked after you, but now I see it was often the opposite.
You gave me strength.
By never letting me get away with a lie.
By showing me small miracles.
By laughing at all the wrong times.
Together we were such a good team."
Because of Rukku, Viji decides that she will face life "living with my whole heart...And imagining with my whole mind."

The Bridge Home is another fine novel by Padma Venkatraman, one that offers insight and understanding about the plight of poor and homeless children in the developing world, ending with a message of hope. Her novel gives young readers a sense of the childrens' humanity and dignity, by portraying them as young people with dreams and hopes like children everywhere, deserving of a childhood that is safe and nurturing. Perhaps we can all take Celina Aunty's advice to "try thinking about Good. About doing Good."

Book Details:

The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman
New York: Nancy Paulsen Books      2019
191 pp.

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