Padma Venkatraman shares the story behind her story:
When I started writing Climbing the Stairs, I was the head of a school in the United Kingdom. I saw students faced with different kinds of violence—overt and subtle—name calling, bullying, and caste-like cliques. At that time, I also decided to become an American citizen and was thus thinking deeply of the issues facing our nation. We were at war then, and we still are. As I grappled with the question of whether a person should ever act violently, and of when and if and why a nation should engage in a war, my mind flew back to a different era, a different circumstance, a different culture, and a family—my own—in which people I knew had debated the same two questions, many years ago: India, 1941. The time of Hitler and the time of Mahatma Gandhi. An era when the British fought for the freedom of the world, while denying freedom to the dark-skinned natives of its colonies; when Indians rose to protest inequality using their powerful and age-old tradition of ahimsa or nonviolence, and yet practiced the caste system within their own society; when women, even of the highest caste, were ill-treated by their men; when that cycle of cruelty was continued in so many extended family homes by women who oppressed one another.
The first character to form in mind, strangely enough, wasn’t the one who ended up being the protagonist. It was the protagonist’s brother, Kitta—whose struggles embody the question that fueled the story: is nonviolence always an option or is violence sometimes inevitable? Kitta’s character is inspired by those unsung heroes whose sacrifices are largely forgotten: Indian soldiers and soldiers from other British colonies, who, though they themselves belonged to conquered nations, volunteered to fight, to die for the cause of freedom during World War II.
When I started writing, however, something unexpected and magical happened. An image entered my mind—of a teenager standing at the foot of a staircase she was forbidden to climb. And I knew this girl would take the risk to climb those stairs, whatever the cost, because this girl was like my own mother—a woman who as a teenager in India in 1941, was forced, like Vidya, the protagonist to rebel against the norms of her society just to climb the stairs to the visit the library in her extended family home; a woman who encouraged me to explore the spiritual underpinnings of the Hindu faith just as Vidya does in the book; a woman who climbed the stairs for me as much as for her own self—although she didn’t know it at the time.
Although the novel was partly inspired by my mother’s experience growing up in an oppressive extended family home, and by the unsung Indian heroes of WWII, it also owes much to a very different group of people: the everyday Indians who had taken part in the Gandhian nonviolence movement and whose stories were also largely neglected in adolescent literature.
So, while I was writing, I was extremely conscious of not wanting to take one side on the question of violence vs. nonviolence. In Climbing the Stairs, Vidya and Kitta are unable to agree, even at the end, although they resolve their conflict when Vidya accepts her brother’s right to a different opinion. The central debate on the violence-nonviolence issue remains open-ended on purpose, because I believe that an essential aspect of nonviolence is learning to truly respect diversity of opinion.
I also wanted to ensure that all points of view were heard and respected equally in the story with respect to other themes in the book such as colonialism and Indian culture. It was important to me to show different sides to all these complex issues, and I did it by creating characters who expressed varied opinions and showing liberal and compassionate as well as unkind people belonging to both Indian and British cultures. Appa, for instance, is liberal as a result of his Indian culture and Hindu beliefs; the extended family, however, is oppressive because of what they consider to be Indian culture and Hindu beliefs.
When you read this book, you enter another culture and another time. But I hope that when you set it down again, when you discuss the book’s characters and conflicts, you will see that this book is not just about long ago and far away, Climbing the Stairs is about here and about now.
Kitta’s struggles confront many high school students every day in a different form and a different environment —the struggle over when, if ever, a person should resort to violent means; and the other question in the forefront of his mind, is one that remains unresolved in my own—the question of when a nation should go to war. Kitta’s inner debate about violence is nothing if not relevant in America today. And his choice is the choice made by every American soldier who fights for freedom across the world.
Appa’s sacrifice is no different than the sacrifice made by those who fought alongside Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement, nor is his dedication to the ideal of nonviolence different from that of Jane Addams and other Americans who were devoted to peace.
And the hope that Vidya preserves in the face of the oppression she endures is not just my mother’s hope, it is the hope for freedom that every woman and every minority must have in the face of inequality, anywhere, at any time, in our shared human history.
Ultimately, Climbing the Stairs is not just about a girl growing up in another culture. It is also about the teenagers I met at an inner city school who remain hopeful despite the violence they encounter each day; it is about the courage that people have in America and across the world to believe in themselves and their chosen way to fight for freedom; and most of all, it is about the validity of varied answers to a single question and about respecting and truly accepting our differences when we disagree—which is the basis of any democracy.
Learn more about Padma Venkatraman …
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