Hardcover Middle-Grade, 208 pages. Ages 10-14
When eleven-year-old Viji sits down to write what becomes The Bridge Home, it is because Celina Aunty insisted upon it.
“You’re full of feelings you won’t share and thoughts you won’t voice.”
She’s right about that. I don’t talk to anyone here any more than I have to. The only person I want to talk to is you, Rukku.
Maybe writing to you is the next best thing.
Instead of telling Rukku another story that always began with “Once upon a time, two sisters ruled a magical land, and ended with Viji and Rukku, always together,” Viji recounts the tale of how she arrived where she is, and why she’s writing to Rukku instead of speaking to her in person.
An epistolary form often takes on a structure of dates, and/or an episodic nature. Here, we are invited to merely listen to Viji speak to Rukku aka “You” in the (rare)* second-person point-of-view. A single letter that is undoubtedly sincere and with love, but will not close with a signature. The letter doesn’t end; the close, in a way brings us back to the beginning, encapsulating this moment in time as a recorded remembrance as everyone must move forward. It is as if the children always inhabit the abandoned bridges, the liminal spaces, transient in nature, moved by circumstances often beyond their control. Writing offers Viji a semblance of control. Her writing it offers us perspective. Padma Venkatraman is the most elegant in crafting our introduction to Viji while always being conscious that it is Viji who is speaking—and it is always Rukku who is her audience, “Viji and Rukku, always together.” The first two chapters alone are a study in creative writing.
The form lends a level of verisimilitude; a realness that is especially important to The Bridge Home. As Venkatraman writes after the close of the novel:
This story draws largely on first-person accounts of what real children have undergone. In writing it, I not only interviewed adult and children but also relied, very heavily on detailed journal accounts. […] Out of respect for the real people on whom this story is based, I felt I could not change fundamental events that took place if I truly wished to honor their memories and their lives.
Reflex might say: brace yourselves, but really, you need only be willing to place yourself in Venkatraman’s very capable hands and listen. Who she has in store are a cast of fierce and delightful children in Viji, Rukku, Arul, and Muthu. The adults vary.
Viji’s voice is compelling; she is bold and intelligent, and trying be her best for Rukku
“You always felt like a younger sister, Rukku. You looked younger, too, with your wide eyes and snub nose. You spoke haltingly, and you hunched your shoulders, which made you seem smaller than me, though you were born a year before.
Born when our father was a nice man, I suppose, because Amma said he was nice. Before.
Imagining Appa “before” took a lot of imagining. I was a good imaginer, but even so, I couldn’t imagine him all the way nice.
The best I could do was think of him as not-yet-all-the-way-rotten fruit. A plump yellow mango with just a few ugly bruises.
I could imagine our mother picking him out, the way she’d pick fruit from the grocer’s stall, choosing the overripe fruit he was happy to give her for free. (Chapter 2)
Rukku, whom they feared would be taken away to a “mental institution” should she ever have to go to the hospital. Which ups level of dread and vulnerability as their drunk Appa begins to turn his physical abuse from their Amma to them. The first time meant a few bruises, but Viji refused to risk worse. While Amma, fresh from the hospital with a broken arm, could see no way to leave, “We can’t manage without him. No one employs uneducated women with no skills,” Viji takes Rukku and heads to Chennai. She hopes to eventually resume her education and become a teacher.
Upon arriving they must escape a predatory male. And he won’t be the only one. They find their money inadequate and then stolen; inadequate, and then stolen yet again. And they will find some kindness in the wife of a tea shop owner, a gardener with oranges, school girls, and two boys already living in that spot on the abandoned bridge. Arul and Muthu help them (and us) navigate homelessness, work, rivals and danger in Chennai. Soon the four (and a puppy) are keeping each other alive in their own singular ways, informed by their personalities and trauma, their self-possession and concern for this chosen family.
Rukku’s developmental disabilities (?) are sometimes a source of frustration for Viji, and Viji admits to straying into bossiness. And if she won’t admit it, Arul will call her on it. But no one will walk away from this book thinking Rukku was anything but a source of joy. In truth, each child saves each other’s soul—as well as some piece of our own. Rukku is skilled with her hands and makes beautiful bead necklaces to sell. She keeps them in the present, in a childhood that would slip from them in the hardscrabble reality of their existence. She has a faith and ferocity of her own that Viji gets to discover and confront, and appreciate.
Arul who found Muthu are a duo that easily blends into the pair of sisters. As the story is recounted we learn Arul and Muthu’s backstories. These are children who live in the aftermath of tsunamis, being sold by relatives to “schools” (sweatshops) where they’re beaten, beatings in orphanages… All are vulnerable to starvation, exposure, predators, thieves, illnesses… In an exchange in a graveyard that reminded me of Everlasting Nora, it’s observed that “the living posed a greater threat.” There are moments of water play, earthworms, balloons, puppies, candles in churches, and fairytales.
“Our place is a home, inside my head,” Muthu insisted. “And those men can’t wreck it. Ever.” (103)
The children are unfettered in ways that have become a source of relief; and it isn’t something they will forfeit without a fight. It costs them some pretty serious things, but then it’s hard not to think about the tea shop couple, Amma, others and what costs they’ve calculated. Celina Aunty offers them a way to hold onto their pride while still moving forward and hopefully into greater stability and safety.
The children meet Celina Aunty in a church after this marvelous scene with Rukku and candles and Viji’s anxiety. An interesting dimension in The Bridge Home are the conversations of faith and religion.
I realized how different we were. Amma trusted that if she put up with things, she’d be rewarded with another, better life after she died. It made no sense to me why any God who made us suffer in this life would start caring for us in the next.
If I wanted a better future, I needed to change the life we had. Now.
The more I thought about our differences, the surer I felt that I could protect you better than she could.
Arul believes in Yesu (Jesus) and the Catholic faith tradition. For all Viji’s ability to spin a tale, one that involves faith in a god is a hard one for her. “Our togetherness was one of the few things I had faith in.” Her eyes are set on what she can see, has come to know, and with greater immediacy. She has a good gut-sense, but has yet to learn to rely on it fully. Trust in others, let alone her self is hard one. But the experiences after leaving home invite a developing conversation between her and Arul that is fascinating. The wisdom that these two children dispense between themselves in such breathtaking circumstances is beautiful. They are finding their way of coping and nurturing every life-giving resource—which seems to thrive in their own depths and each other’s.
The strength and determination in each of the children is heartening, and heart-wrenching. Rukku rescues their vulnerability and invites them to nurture it. What happens when she and Viji can no longer be together as they’d once been? [what Arul tells Viji on page 183…!!]
Venkatraman’s skill in writing The Bridge Home is stunning. The elegance in which she writes that sequence of Arul’s reunion on page 153, the image of the doll… How she writes Viji’s reunion with Appa on 181… Viji’s exchange with the school-girl… I can’t even talk about the dog; the kind of courage and kindness and endurance that can be relayed in the voice of a young narrator who is practical, who demands to be regarded with dignity. Writing characters with the nuance of their humanity, Venkatraman will not deny the children their dignity. She’ll write them and their stories in a such a way that you can’t look away. You won’t want to leave them on the page without knowing what will happen. Rest assured, Venkatraman does write hope into the pages and into that ending. Not all the adults are harmful, not all the resources are spent. The children will find their way on their own terms; and really, theirs are the only acceptable ones.
“Our place is a home.” They made their home on the bridge; it’s their bridge home. They have found a place to remain, and it will also take them where they want to go—together. “Those men can’t wreck it. Ever.” And that is a challenge for Viji. There are things (and people) that cannot, should not ever be taken away, or wrecked. Will this non-fairytale end with Viji and Rukku and Arul and Muthu together, always?
*2nd person POV is often employed to center the reader/listener and convince them of something. It is a difficult voice in that the assumptions necessarily made can alienate the reader. Hearing “you” in repetition can be as difficult as a professor or HR reading an overabundance of “I”. The Bridge Home is remarkable in that while Viji does center Rukku as “you”…the novel is convincing herself of something. The two really are inseparable. Rarely is the Writer so closely identified with the “You”…maybe 2nd-person would be more interesting to read in fiction if the Writer could manage it. Naturally, here, Venkatraman has constructed both the Writer and the You, but just the same, she uses it to bind them, rather than hold them in difference (deference).
Recommended for Readers of Hiranandi’s The Night Diary, or Saaed’s Amal Unbound. It’s recommended 10-14; depending on the reader, it could go younger, but there is a sensitivity to the content of the novel, some of which Venkatraman leaves off-screen. It’s a good bookclub choice–even for adults. This would pair nicely with Saroo Brierly’s story Lion: A Long Way Home. And it would pair nicely with a community outreach:
Hunger and poverty are not issues that affect South Asia alone. They are global problems that millions of children and adults face. In many parts of the world, children suffer without any end in sight, and without proper food, clothing, housing and education; they are frequently subjected to violence. As I wrote this novel, I also became increasingly aware of the plight of children in the United States and in my own home state of Rhode Island, where some children still experience problems as basic as hunger and homelessness. –note from the author
Padma Venkatraman was born in Chennai, India, and became an American citizen after attaining a Ph.D. in oceanography from The College of William and Mary. She is also the author of A Time to Dance, Island’s End, and Climbing the Stairs.