title: The Bridge Home
author: Padma Venkatraman
date: Nancy Paulsen Books, 2019
main character: Viji
note: this review contains spoilers. I’ve marked where they begin and end.
Padma Venkatraman has now published four books for young readers. She most often writes stories based in her Indian heritage and just as often reflects themes of social justice and activism. The Bridge Home, her activism shifts in a more spiritual and inward direction.
The Bridge Home is an empowering story. Its literary techniques combine with well-crafted storytelling allowing it to layer meaning and messages throughout. I realized this perspective after preparing a review for a journal. I think it’s a brilliant review (of course I do!) so, I let it stand choosing to veer in a different direction here.
Some will view The Bridge Home as an intense book for young readers. The girls are physically abused (once) by their father, they run away from home becoming homeless and there is death. However, it’s important to note that Ms. Venkatraman is extremely sensitive to her readers. She foreshadows throughout the book and even goes so far as to deliver the essence of the story in the first chapter. Ms. Venkatraman is neither careless nor gratuitous in incorporating these traumas.
Viji and Rukki live in a modest home in India with their parents. After their amma chose to marry a man she loved who was from a lower caste, she was cut off from her family. Their appa didn’t seem to have a family. He is an abusive alcoholic, usually directing is rage at his wife. On Viji’s 11th birthday, this changes when he also struck the girls. Viji feels that she and her sister will no longer be safe in their home, so she convinces her sister to run away with her. Rukku is Viji’s older sister who she has developmental disabilities. Viji loves her sister unconditionally and does everything for and with her. The two are inseparable.
The girls relocate to a new city where they find a home on a bridge, two boys, Muthu and Arul, who become brothers to them, and a dog. It can be easy to expect the children to be cynical, hard and bitter but not these children! Because each of them had faced some sort of abusive situation, they view their life in the streets as a sort of freedom. They’ve freed themselves from harm and in doing so, they can choose where to live and what to do with each day.
Even in this freedom, Viji comes question her existence by examining hope, faith, religion, and gratitude. Most often, the consideration of these concepts happens in conversation with the Muthu and Arul.
“It’s silly to skip meals, I said. “How are you going to live a nice long life if you don’t eat properly?” [Viji speaking]
“What’s the point of living longer?” [Arul speaking]
“Well, what’s the point of dying sooner?”
“I don’t mind going off to meet our father who art in heaven as soon as I can.”
“Our father who art in heaven? Oh, you said that last night. Your father is dead?”
“Yes. But I wasn’t praying to my father,” he said. “I was praying to God. He’s called our father.”
“God’s our mother, too.”
“Only if you’re Hindu,” he said. “Hindus have a million names for God, but all are wrong, because Hindus worship the wrong Gods.”
“I’ve never heard any say there’s a right name or a wrong name – let along a right God or a wrong God,” I said. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter to me, because I don’t pray.”
“You really never pray?” Arul looked horrified. “Even the wrong Gods are better than no God.” (p. 52)
UNAVOIDABLE SPOILERS BEGIN HERE.
As mentioned, Ms. Venkatraman foreshadows throughout the book. We know death is coming. And it’s not difficult to tell who it will be. What concerned me most about this death, is that the most heavily marginalized character, the one who is both disabled and homeless, is the one who dies. Are we playing into that horrid trope of making her expendable? In answering this question, I realized the most beautiful element of this book: that of Viji’s spiritual journey.
Rukku isn’t expendable. She brings much value to the group and is valued by them. Rukku’s safely is key to Viji’s decision to leave home and her bead making brings more income to the group than the work the children do collecting and selling recyclables.
“In less than an hour, you’d sold all but one necklace and we had earned a small fortune.
“You’re a miracle, Rukku!” I said. “Your necklaces are worth their weight in gold.”
“Golden roasted corn,” Muthu said dreamily. “Rukku is a miracle Kutti, do you know that?” (p.74)
Yet, Viji loses Rukku. Why??
Why did Viji lose that one person who is closer to her than anyone in the world? Doesn’t that seem like a rather cruel thing to do in a children’s book? I think that only Rukku’s death would move the story to completion. Here’s why. Ms. Venkatraman slowing and skillfully peeling away everything that has meaning to Viji. She begins by creating a family with no ties and then removes Viji from her home. While she finds freedom, she still has a very deep yearning inside. Viji continues to search for something higher and as she grappling for answers, for reassurances that will fulfill her, she becomes more and more isolated losing one thing, one person after another [they do not all die!], until she loses her sister. he has no one left other than herself. Without reaching this level of despair, Viji would never have found what she was seeking. It seems Viji is on a spiritual journey and she was unable to find her answers until she was alone.
SPOILERS END HERE
A Bridge Home is a beautiful book through which many themes can be explored however, I found the most meaning in considering Viji’s spiritual journey. The conversations surrounding religions offer her a faith system, but she doesn’t choose one in the story. The children’s conversations offer perspectives that compare religions, particularly Christianity and Hinduism while including the perspective of having no religion. The book, a bittersweet story of survival, can easily be appreciated without delving in its religious aspects; it’s a very rich in content. The story is quite relatable; it sent me wondering about homeless children her in this city, where they would live and what ways I can support them.
Ms. Venkatraman based this story on children she knew growing up in India. She currently lives and writes in Rhode Island.