The word home has numerous meanings. It can be a physical place, open to the air or enclosed by walls, windows, doors and a roof. It can be a space providing sanctuary. It is where we begin and end each day. Home can be anywhere if those we love are with us.
Of the more than 7.7 billion people on our planet, the number of those without homes is stunning. Habitat for Humanity estimates 1 in 4 people live in conditions that harm health, safety, prosperity and opportunities. When you read The Bridge Home (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, February 5, 2019) written by Padma Venkatraman you are keenly aware of the overwhelming obstacles street children, numbering in the millions, in India encounter daily. You will come to understand how the term home and family are redefined by circumstances.
Talking to you was always easy, Rukku. But writing's hard.
"Write her a letter," Celina Aunty said, laying a sheet of paper on the desk. Paper remade from wilted, dirty, hopeless litter that had been rescued, scrubbed clean, and reshaped.
Even the pencil she gave me was made from scraps.
"You really like saving things, don't you?" I said.
Crinkly lines softened her stern face. "I don't like giving up." she said.
Viji and Rukku, sisters, live in a home cloaked in a cycle of physical abuse by their father. Their mother suffers broken bones but feels trapped by her lack of skills or education and won't leave. When the abuse reaches the girls, Viji, packs what belongings, food and money she can, taking Rukku with her, early one morning.
Being mentally challenged, Rukku, the elder of the two, sees the world differently than others. It is this difference which binds the girls together. They believe they will never be separated; not by a sly conductor or a cranky tea shop owner. They believe people like the kindly shop owner's wife will supply them with food and hope. They believe the arrival of a stray dog Rukku names Kutti will grow that hope.
Very early in their stay in this new city, the sisters meet Muthu and Arul, two homeless boys living on an abandoned, crumbling bridge over a river. The girls take up residence there too. Viji begins working with Muthu and Arul, climbing up and down and wading through piles of garbage to find glass or metal they can sell to buy food. Using beads given to Rukku on a return visit to the tea shop, she weaves necklaces they can also sell to buy other necessities; food and mats to place on the stone for sleeping. As meager as their conditions are, the four humans and one canine form a family out of necessity and a growing fondness for each other.
Justified uneasiness on Viji's part results in them running for their lives, leaving behind what they have gathered. When the monsoon season begins, they are hiding and living in a graveyard. The rains and hordes of mosquitoes take a toll on two of the children. Heart wrenching decisions come too late. Reality descends with unbearable heaviness. How will hope grow again?
The technique of Viji writing to Rukku employed by Padma Venkatraman to tell their tale is the work of a master storyteller. It brings us intimately into the lives of the sisters, the two boys and Kutti. It is also a foreshadowing. Although Viji indicates in the beginning writing is hard, her descriptive phrases, thoughtful musings and embedded conversations are breathtakingly beautiful. We feel a constant connection to the characters in each of the forty-four chapters; each as long as necessary to convey a particular moment.
Religious beliefs, Hindu, Islam and Christian, are woven in the story in discussions of faith and one's purpose. Each night the stories Viji weaves for Rukku, and then for Arul and Muthu, are her way of helping them all to hold fast to their dreams. Here are several passages.
"Viji and Rukku together?" you asked.
"Viji and Rukku," you repeated. "Always together."
We had no roof or walls to keep us safe, and that probably should have worried me more, but you seemed content.
You pointed at the sky. "Look, Viji."
"No roof means we get the best view of the pretty stars, right, Rukku?" I said.
"Pretty," you agreed.
We lay shoulder to shoulder and watched the stars sparkle, while Kutti slept beside us. Your eyes sparkled, too, and the light inside them pierced through my fog of worry.
I'd seen you laugh before, but never quite like this. This was the first time you'd broken into a laugh halfway through a tantrum. And the first time you laughed without hiding your mouth behind your hands, as if you were scared to be happy.
Now you threw back your head the way Muthu was doing. And as the three of you howled away, like a pack of jackals, hungry and homeless though we were, I felt I'd done the right thing by leaving.
I breathed in its citrus scent. I started to peel it, noticing things I'd never noticed before: how the leathery peel isn't colored the same all the way through, how the papery sections inside feel like leafy veins, how the pulp is shaped like raindrops.
When, at last, I placed a section in my mouth, I could hear it burst as my teeth met the flesh, squeezing the juice out into my tongue, tart at first and then sweet. Everything else melted away except for the taste, the smell, the feel of the fruit on my tongue.
I ate the fruit slowly. The way you liked to do things.
Until then, I'd thought it was a sad thing that you were sometimes slower than the rest of us. But that day, I realized that slow can be better than fast. Like magic, you could stretch time out when we needed it, so that a moment felt endless. So the taste of half an orange could last and last.
There are books you remember reading for the first time, the rest of your life. The Bridge Home written by Padma Venkatraman is one of those books. Would it be a great read aloud? Absolutely. Would it be a super selection for a book group? Without a doubt. Will it make a print on individual hearts? It will. It has. It does. There is an extensive author's note. You will want to consider having multiple copies in your professional collections.
To learn more about Padma Venkatraman and her other work, please follow the link attached to her name to access her website. Padma Venkatraman has an account on Instagram and Twitter. You can read an excerpt at the publisher's website. Padma Venkatraman reads aloud for the audio book. Padma Venkatraman writes a guest post at Cynsations, author Cynthia Leitich Smith's site, titled Padma Venkatraman on Golden Silence, Gilded Words.