Book Review|A Jailed Indian Boy Chases His Scrap of Sky
BORN BEHIND BARS
By Padma Venkatraman
In 2013, a 19-year-old who had been born in an Indian jail managed to use the wages he earned stitching clothes to free his mother. It turned out that all that time she had needed only $180 in bail money.
The story brought attention to India’s cruelly inefficient criminal justice system, and planted a seed in the mind of Padma Venkatraman, a middle grade novelist (and oceanographer) who is drawn to stories about marginalized but plucky children who must learn to navigate on their own in a world where kindness is closely rationed.
The early chapters of “Born Behind Bars” introduce us to the circumscribed world of Kabir, who can see a scrap of sky from the cell where he and his mother — his amma — sleep on a floor mat. Needless to say, the conditions are grim. But Kabir’s inner world is rich. He has evocative private nicknames for the other inmates: Grandma Knife, who has a “sharp tongue” and can kill a rat with a stone, and Aunty Cloud, whose mind has floated away.
The book begins on Kabir’s ninth birthday, with the news that a strict new warden has decreed that he is now too old to stay on. A kindly prison teacher tries to prepare him for the outside world, explaining practical matters like how to ride a bus. Amma warns him never to reveal where he was born. But the most useful piece of advice comes from Grandma Knife, who says he must trust his instincts — and not be afraid to chuck a stone at someone who tries to hurt him.
It is a lesson Kabir will soon need. He is collected by a man who is supposed to be his uncle but turns out to have a plan to sell him into servitude. He escapes with some help from a clever girl and her clever parrot. “Such a strange world we live in,” she says upon hearing his tale. “They lock up nice mothers. But guys who buy and sell kids get to roam free.”
The girl, Rani, and the parrot, Jay, become Kabir’s friends, making his crash course in the harsh realities of street life in Chennai feel like an adventure. Rani gently mocks Kabir, the “Prince of Complainers”; teaches him how to sleep in a tree; and ultimately joins his quest to find his real family and help his mother.
Venkatraman has never met a heavy theme she did not like — Kabir’s amma, who is wrongly accused of stealing a necklace, has been abandoned by the outside world in part because she is a Hindu who married a Muslim man. Kabir is low-caste and Rani is Kurava, a traditionally nomadic people once known as Gypsies; both of them experience prejudice and economic hardship. At the story’s climax, the children stumble into a scene of mob violence against Tamil-speaking people, sparked by conflict over scarce water in a warming world.
Somehow, it all manages to feel like a story instead of a treatise. There are moments when Venkatraman asks her dialogue and motifs, including a dead butterfly, to carry a bit too much explanatory freight. But most of “Born Behind Bars” has a confidently stripped-down, crystalline style, with ultrashort chapters that propel the action, and details — like Rani’s song recounting her family tree and Kabir’s first barefoot step onto smooth, clean tile — that are allowed to speak for themselves, quietly. Borrowing elements of fable, it’s told with a recurring sense of awe by a boy for whom the world, for most of his life, has existed only in stories.