URI oceanographer’s book expected to climb the charts

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Coming-of-age novel set in British occupied India during WWII

KINGSTON, R.I. –April 3, 2008—A University of Rhode Island adjunct professor of oceanography’s debut novel Climbing the Stairs (Putnam, 256 pages, $16.99) is already climbing the charts and its official publishing date isn’t until May. Booklist’s April 15 issue will give it a starred review and Booksense will call it a notable pick for the month of May.

In a letter that accompanied a special galley mailing of the novel, Douglas Whiteman, executive vice president of Penguin, called the book “ a beautifully written story of love, loss and the power of one’s beliefs” and a “truly special book” which is “fascinating and heart-breaking, but redeeming at the same time.” See attached schedule for author appearances and events.

Although this is her debut novel, Padma Venkatraman has penned 20 other books on a variety of subjects for adults and children. She has plenty of story ideas, but not enough time to write them.

Writing isn’t her only vocation. In addition to being an adjunct oceanography professor, she’s the director of the Office of Graduate Diversity Affairs. And she and her husband, Rainer Lohmann, an assistant chemical oceanographer at URI, are new parents.

“I’m really most grateful to Lynn Pasquerella, departing vice provost at URI, for her support of my flexible schedule,” says the author.

Venkatraman came to the United States when she was 19 to pursue a graduate degree. She earned her doctorate in oceanography at The College of William and Mary School of Marine Science and conducted post-doctoral research at Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering. She lived in Germany and England after earning her degrees and prior to becoming an American citizen.

Yet her novel isn’t about oceanography, engineering, or living in Europe. It’s about a young female adolescent growing up in India where Gandhi is leading a nonviolence movement to Indian independence while World War II rages on.

Everyone told the novelist not to take the time to title the book since publishers always change it. She did and they didn’t.

“I think the title works on many levels,” says Venkatraman from her North Kingstown home. “The 15-year-old protagonist lives in a restricted household and is forbidden to go upstairs to the library because she is a female. She sneaks into the library anyway. Her climb is to womanhood and personal freedom. It’s also about India’s freedom from colonization to independence.”

The book is based loosely on her mother’s experiences as a teen-ager during World War II in the final years of British-occupied India.

“My mother was very impressed with India getting its independence. Now, at 76, she is still upset that she never got to hear Gandhi speak. She wasn’t allowed, although some women were.”

Venkatraman’s research unearthed a lot of Indian history that isn’t common knowledge, which she incorporated into the book. She also interviewed a number of people who lived in India during that time period.

“I don’t think that I understood how difficult it was in British India with signs that read ‘whites only’. I was aware of racial inequality in South Africa and apartheid, but not really aware of the racial inequality in India.”

The author also interviewed her mother. “Until I wrote this book, I didn’t fully realized how much my mother experienced and overcame,” says the 38-year-old writer.

Her mother, Ambujam Venkatraman, has always been her role model. She is a lawyer, not a practicing one, but a well-respected author of law books and chief editor of legal journals.

The professor remembers watching her mother struggle as a woman and as a woman in her field. “She did in her generation what women were starting to do in mine,” she says, admiringly.

She was also an indulgent mother when Padma, one of four children, was growing up. “I was writing and making up stories and poetry everyday and my mother thought everything I wrote was fantastic. But the best thing was that she didn’t push me toward writing or any other direction. She was just enthusiastic without making me feel I had to get a degree in English literature rather than one in science.”

Climbing the Stairs is being promoted primarily as a young adult novel with cross-over appeal for adults. The author, however, believes the book will appeal to a wider audience. Many books, Catcher and the Rye, The Secret Life of Bees, and Kite Runner to name a few have teen-age protagonists.

She sold her second novel last year. Although it’s not autobiographical, it comes closer to her own experiences as a researcher on India’s islands of Andaman and Nicobar. The publisher has asked for a few revisions. “I’ll do it,” this modern day Renaissance woman says with a laugh, “When I get the time.”

To learn more about the author and the book visit the author’s website, http://www.cliofindia.com/padma, for her blog go to http://padmasbooks.blogspot.com/, and for the summary page go to http://www.padmasbooks.com/.

Climbing the Stairs is available for pre-order through amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com and should be available at chains and independent bookstores nationwide by May 2008. Check http://www.booksense.com for independent bookstore locations.

Climbing the Stairs

A list of the author’s appearances in the area

May 1: 3 to 5 p.m. The Other Tiger Bookstore, 90 High St. Westerly, R.I.

May 6: noon to 2 p.m. URI Multicultural Center, 74 Lower College Rd, Kingston.

May 17: 2 p.m. Barrington Books, 184 County Rd., Barrington, R.I.

May 18: 2 p.m. Front Street Books, 88 Front St., Scituate, Mass.

May 31: 2 p.m. Books on the Square, 471 Angell St., Providence, R.I.