The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #163: Padma Venkatraman

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Oceanographer-turned-writer Padma Venkatraman’s fourth novel The Bridge Home is set in the city of Chennai, in southern India, and details the experiences of eleven-year-old Viji, who, along with her developmentally disabled sister Rukku, runs away from her abusive alcoholic father. Viji must find a home safe from predatory men, and figure out how the girls can earn a living. She meets two other homeless boys Muthu and Arul, who teach the girls to scavenge for sellable scraps in the city’s enormous garbage dump. The four children become fast friends and make a home together on an abandoned bridge, but it’s a precarious existence—a single piece of bad luck might upend everything.

Meticulously detailed settings, believable and likable characters, unsentimental portrayals of poverty and deprivation, and a healthy dose of humor all come together to make a stirring, unforgettable story. The Bridge Home is aimed at middle-schoolers, but it’s certain to make adult readers’ eyes water, too.

Venkatraman lives in Rhode Island, but is currently based in Germany where she’s the recipient of the Fiction meets Science fellowship from the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg in Delmenhorst. I recently corresponded with Venkatraman about her transition from science to writing, her authorial choices when writing fiction about child poverty, and Christianity’s knotty history in India.

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The Rumpus: You lived in India when you were the same age as the characters in the novel. Did you know children like them? If you did, I think this sort of social interaction between classes/castes in India would have been quite unusual, especially back in the 1980s?

Padma Venkatraman: It was unusual. I was born into a wealthy Brahmin family, but my parents separated (which was highly unusual). After that, unlike any other South Asian American author I’ve met, I experienced economic hardship firsthand. But it was nothing like the dire poverty I saw around me.

Despite our fraught monetary situation, my mother volunteered to help at schools for children who had much less than we did. At one such school, I quickly became good friends with a boy called Nagabushan. I had a sort of childish crush on him—I really admired how deftly he could throw clay and shape a vase on his father’s wheel. Years later, I realized that he came from the Dalit community and would have been considered “untouchable.” Viji’s character is inspired by a friend who is Roma, who once sheltered in a graveyard and scrounged through trash, and asked if I’d write her story.

Rumpus: Four good-natured children making a living in the harsh city—this tale could so have easily slipped into sentimentality, but you keep such a firm hold on the narrative. I loved the finesse with which you tell this story.

Venkatraman: The Bridge Home was actually the second novel I started, but I shelved it for many reasons. The spate of stories about socioeconomically underprivileged Indian children (Slumdog Millionaire for example) made me wary, because I didn’t want to be accused of opportunism. Gender bias was another issue. Male authors tend be described as sensitive if they write about abuse and focus on relationships, whereas female authors writing about female protagonists are more likely to be labeled maudlin.

But the story just didn’t let go of me. I knew I had to tell it. I knew it was unique. I realized I could trust my agent, Rob Weisbach, and my editor, Nancy Paulsen, to guide me. Nancy’s edited several brilliant books that deal with tough topics like award-winning work by Jacqueline Woodson, for example. Saying enough to immerse a reader in the character’s experience without saying too much is a fine balance.

Right from the beginning, I think the thread of humor in the book saved it from sentimentality. Muthu has a lively sense of humor, and makes a lot of statements that are wry and funny. Some of the kids I knew had a remarkable ability to laugh. I wanted to honor their courage by ensuring their vibrant humor and genuine wit was evident, despite the sadness that infuses the narrative. My characters often laugh despite the terrifying obstacles they face.

As for Rukku, she’s also based on a real person. While I don’t identify as a person with a disability, I have a chronic condition and several close relatives with disabilities whom I love, respect, and have known all my life. I’ve also spent time at a school for children with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Finally, I always solicit honest feedback from several well-informed beta readers. My books take many years to write. I spend a tremendous amount of time and energy revising, because the characters who possess my soul are very real to me and I feel a strong sense of responsibility to tell their stories as well as I possibly can.

Rumpus: Speaking of humor, one of the funniest lines in the book is when Viji mishears the Lord’s Prayer as “Our Father, O. R. T. Narayan.” To me, that line encapsulates the confusion and misunderstanding surrounding Christianity in India—there’s the ongoing furor about conversion, for instance, as shown by Arul’s stance. And of course, all discussion of Christianity in the country is further complicated by India’s colonial past. Can you talk a bit about these issues?

Venkatraman: My sister attended a Catholic school, where, for years, she recited: “Hail Mary, Mother of God, Sadeswari, amassmet, blessaadha, blessaadahoomjeesus…” Viji’s interpretation is based on a true account, too! Arul’s take on Christianity reflects attitudes some of my Christian friends had in India. One of them wanted me to convert because she was convinced I’d otherwise end up being tortured in hell for eternity. I’ve also witnessed resolute opposition to religion in children who’ve experienced violence, like Viji and Muthu, who remain staunchly agnostic/atheistic throughout. Religion is something we seem to either turn to or turn away from when we’re challenged by horrific problems.

Rumpus: The Bridge Home has no mentions of markers of popular culture or politics that would hook the story to any particular year or even decade. But then, you deliberately anchor the story by mentioning 2004’s Indian Ocean tsunami as the reason why Arul is now orphaned and homeless. Can you talk about your authorial choices regarding (not) picking a specific time for the story?

Venkatraman: One of my most trusted readers, editor Stephen Roxburgh, cautioned me to avoid specifics that restrict stories. Shortcuts (like using brand names) can distract or exclude certain readers by over-emphasizing a narrow time period (although, if used judiciously, they may add flavor). So I select—rather than collect—details.

In The Bridge Home, markers of popular culture would be lost on many readers, give the book a dated feel, and risk jerking readers out of the emotional zone they’ve entered. Mentioning the tsunami, however, allows the story to retain a timeless feel, because it provides a realistic backstory (based on an interview account) that draws readers closer and allows them to better understand (and feel more “invested” in) Arul’s character.

Rumpus: You’ve lived longer in the US than in India, but all your fiction is set in the land of your childhood. Can you talk a bit about the pull of the homeland (not necessarily home)?

Venkatraman: I don’t think home is where the heart is; I think we carry many homes in our hearts. And home to me is people, not just places.

I lived in five countries before becoming an American citizen, so I feel convinced that despite differences (which we need to honor), there’s an underlying universality to human existence. One way to experience both this diversity and this unity is by reading fiction that doesn’t just transport you to some other part of the world but also transforms you. Reading can be an empathetic exercise that motivates readers to think and act inclusively.

When I write a book set in India, I’m inviting my readers to inhabit the bodies, minds, and souls of Indian characters, if only for a little while. At a time when jingoism and nationalistic movements are on the rise, global narratives can enhance mutual understanding, if only in small ways.

Rumpus: Each of the characters looks for comfort in different things—in religion, in companionship, in small daily joys. In our troubled times, where do you seek and find comfort?

Venkatraman: Despite the traumatic things I experienced as a child, I realized, like my characters, that I could rejoice in little things. I wrote poems celebrating everyday moments and finding symbolism and hidden beauty in mundane things like a horsefly’s glittering eyes or mud-spattered weeds sprouting during the monsoon.

I started learning yoga directly from Shri Krishnamacharya as a child, and yoga definitely helps me temper my passion with an inner calmness and keeps me from swinging too widely between extremes of happiness and depression. I also enjoy being outdoors (although these days I prefer fair weather). I also have family, and friends who are family (like the characters in The Bridge Home), whose affection keeps me positive. Most important of all is the family I chose to create. My spouse and my daughter are my comfort, my strength, my greatest joy, my most wonderful companions, my deepest loves, my vital source of hope and light.

Rumpus: You trained as an oceanographer, and now you teach creative writing.

Venkatraman: I’ve always loved reading. I never acquired any formal training in writing, but learned to write subconsciously, by immersing myself in literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry. My impulse to teach writing was spurred by how much I enjoy volunteering and helping people. I missed teaching and mentoring after I stepped out of oceanography, and teaching creative writing seemed a way to give to and assist others. I miss oceanography sometimes, but I love being a writer. I became an oceanographer because I care about Earth’s environment and humanity’s future. I left when I felt convinced that access to factual knowledge doesn’t cause rapid change; increasing our compassion might.

Stories have a power science doesn’t. Emotion motivates most of us faster than the intellect. Books can be packages of compassion.

Rumpus: And you’re currently on a Fiction meets Science fellowship in Germany. Can you tell us about your experience as a writer inhabiting the intersection of fiction and science?

Venkatraman: The fellowship supports authors who seek to braid science into story in an authentic way—by writing books that show how scientists work or feature a scientist as a protagonist (and deconstruct associated stereotypes) or else combine nonfiction and fiction. Ages ago, a friend suggested that I write lyrically about science, but it scared me. As a graduate student, I wrote articles about science for magazines and newspapers, but I considered that sort of writing a mere hobby. Only when I started writing my debut novel, Climbing the Stairs, did I feel I truly became a writer.

Since then, for over a decade, I was terrified to involve my scientific self in a creative writing project. I admire writers like Kazuo Ishiguro who experiment with different styles and voices, and I did that—Climbing the Stairs is historical fiction; Island’s End is written in lush, evocative prose; A Time to Dance is a verse novel written in lean, spare style; The Bridge Home has an epistolary feel as it uses direct address. Finally, after pushing myself to stretch my wings with each new novel, I feel I can write in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the beauty of language for the sake of clarity or vice versa.

I realize not many people love mathematics, science, and words; to me an elegant solution to a mathematical equation is similar to a beautiful sentence. There are many books inside me and some of them are inspired by the wonder I felt as a scientist. And I feel an increasing urgency to write books that speak to problems facing humanity—like climate change. When I was a scientist, I was once asked, “Dr. Venkatraman, do you believe in climate change?” I said, “No, I don’t.” My colleagues gaped. There was a sort of stunned silence in the room. And then I pointed out that climate change isn’t a question of belief. It’s fine to ask me whether I believe in God; as for climate change, I know it’s occurring because I have the knowledge and training to evaluate the data. We have accumulated evidence.

Moreover, I’ve had unique experiences as a woman of color who worked in a white-male-dominated field which I also think are vital to share. I finally feel compelled to share them and confident enough to attempt writing about science and scientists and scientific problems and questions in a way that is powerful enough to reach hearts, satisfy intellects and, hopefully, galvanize change.


Niranjana Iyer is a writer and editor based in the SF Bay Area. You can read more about her work at thecompellingstory.com. She tweets @ninaiyer. More from this author →