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Born Behind Bars Kindle Edition
The author of the award-winning The Bridge Home brings readers another gripping novel set in Chennai, India, featuring a boy who's unexpectedly released into the world after spending his whole life in jail with his mom.
Kabir has been in jail since the day he was born, because his mom is serving time for a crime she didn't commit. He's never met his dad, so the only family he's got are their cellmates, and the only place he feels the least bit free is in the classroom, where his kind teacher regales him with stories of the wonders of the outside world. Then one day a new warden arrives and announces Kabir is too old to stay. He gets handed over to a long-lost "uncle" who unfortunately turns out to be a fraud, and intends to sell Kabir. So Kabir does the only thing he can--run away as fast as his legs will take him. How does a boy with nowhere to go and no connections make his way? Fortunately, he befriends Rani, another street kid, and she takes him under her wing. But plotting their next move is hard--and fraught with danger--in a world that cares little for homeless, low caste children. This is not the world Kabir dreamed of--but he's discovered he's not the type to give up. Kabir is ready to show the world that he--and his mother--deserve a place in it.
★ “Their experiences reveal the invisibility of low-caste people in Indian society, tensions between neighboring states over water supplies, and the unexpected kindness of helpful strangers. Kabir’s longing for freedom and justice underscores bittersweet twists and turns. . . . Kabir engages readers by voicing his thoughts, vulnerability, and optimism: While his early physical environment was confined within prison walls, his imagination was nourished by stories and songs. This compelling novel develops at a brisk pace, advanced by evocative details and short chapters full of action. A gritty story filled with hope and idealism.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
★ “Thoughtfully and gently explores a troubled justice system, interstate conflicts over increasingly commonwater shortages, and a frustrating caste system. . . An optimistic and earnest tale of the power of hope and the gift of family in all forms.”—Booklist, starred review
★ “This novel is for readers who are seeking realistic fiction that tug at the heartstrings. The story is authentic, and the emotion behind Kadir and his mother’s relationship will induce tears. This is a true window book for many readers unaware of caste systems and the struggles within them. Venkatraman takes these complex topics and makes them heartfelt and resonant. A well-rounded story of a boy and his struggle to survive alone in the world. A suggested read for lovers of timely tales of children surviving all odds.” —School Library Journal, starred review --This text refers to the hardcover edition.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Beyond a Patch of Sky
Beyond the bars, framed by the high, square window, slides a small patch of sky.
For months, it’s been as gray as the faded paint flaking off the walls, but today it’s blue and gold. Bright as a happy song.
My thoughts, always eager to escape, shoot out and try to picture the whole sky—even the whole huge world.
But my imagination has many missing pieces, like the jigsaw puzzle in the schoolroom. All I’ve learned here in nine years from my mother and my teachers is not enough to fill the gaps.
Still, it doesn’t stop me from imagining we’re free, Amma and me, together, exploring the wide-open world that lives beyond the bars.
"Up! Up!” our guard yells at us. I call her Mrs. Snake because she hisses at us every morning. “Lazy donkeys!” She’s the meanest of the guards, but also the most elegant, with her neatly combed hair pinned into a tight knot.
Looking at her crisp khaki uniform and shiny boots always makes me feel extra scruffy. I wiggle my bare toes. At least I have slippers. Amma and the other women go barefoot.
My mother’s hands reach to cover my ears as the other guards join in, calling us worse names than donkeys. Doesn’t Amma know I can hear them anyway? Doesn’t she remember I’ve turned nine today?
I’m no baby, but I don’t shove her hands away. I like her fingertips tickling my ears, even though Amma’s skin is as rough as the concrete floor. Only one thing in this room is soft: Amma’s voice, saying, “Looks like the rainy season is over and the sun-god wants to wish you a happy birthday, Kabir.”
“Today’s your birthday? Best wishes, Kabir.” Aunty Cloud gives me a quick smile and returns her gaze to the floor. Aunty Cloud likes looking at the floor as much as I like watching the sky.
“You think Bedi Ma’am will bring me a treat?” I ask.
“Of course,” Amma says. “Your teacher is fond of you.”
“Almost twice as old as he should be to still be living here,” Grandma Knife cuts in. “Too old.”
Too old for what? Everyone in this cell’s way older than me, and she’s by far the oldest. I give Amma a questioning look, but she avoids my eyes.
Grandma Knife stretches her long arms and rolls up her straw mat. “Can’t believe you’re, what, nine? You still look as small as a six-year-old.”
I slip my hand into Amma’s, where it feels safe tucked inside her palm.
Grandma Knife is not family. Grandma Knife isn’t her real name, either, just what I call her in my head, because it fits with her sharp tongue. Amma forces me to call all the women living in our room aunty or sister or grandma, though we were just packed in together by the guards.
Only Amma and I are family. At least, Amma and I are the only family I’ve seen with my eyes—the others I’ve only imagined from stories she’s told me on nights when she wasn’t too tired.
Everyone in our cell is awake now except Mouse Girl, the newcomer. She manages to sleep through the morning racket—until Grandma Knife’s big toe prods her, making her yelp.
Only last night, a guard shoved Mouse Girl into our room. She stood by the door, twitching with fear, until Amma waved her over to us.
“You can squeeze in here.” Amma yanked our mat closer to the wall to make space where there wasn’t any.
“She didn’t say thank you,” I whispered.
“Her eyes did,” Amma said, but I only saw them fill with tears. “She’s just a teenager,” Amma said. “So young.”
I’m a lot younger, but I always remember to say thank you.
Mouse Girl’s quiet, but she appears to be quite sneaky too. She tries pushing past Aunty Cloud to be the first out the door for the bathroom.
“Respect your elders!” Grandma Knife’s bony fingers clamp around Mouse Girl’s wrists like handcuffs. Mouse Girl stumbles back and steps on Aunty Cloud’s feet.
Aunty Cloud doesn’t say a thing, just floats by, ghostlike.
As I shuffle forward, Grandma Knife cracks her knuckles. I try to keep from peeking at her fingers, but I can’t help sneaking a look. Grandma Knife’s hands are strong enough to snap a rat’s neck. I’ve seen her do it.
Amma says we should be thankful for Grandma Knife’s incredible fingers, and I know Grandma Knife helps keep us safe, but I can’t help fearing she’ll someday pounce on me.
"Don’t push!” Mrs. Snake hisses as we join the line to use the bathroom.
Mouse Girl tugs on my raggedy T-shirt to hold me back as she elbows her way ahead. My T-shirt rips even more. I glare at her, but she doesn’t apologize, and now I’m sure I picked a bad
nickname for her. She’s a pushy one, not a frightened mouse.
“Never mind,” Amma says. “She probably needs to go really bad.”
“We all have to go really bad,” I mutter.
The stench of the toilets is as strong as a slap in the face, but I try concentrating on the one good thing about the toilet: It’s the only place I can actually be completely alone.
After I’m done, I stand at the cracked sink and use my fingers to rub tooth powder on my teeth. Then I join the crowd waiting to fill their plastic bottles and buckets with water to wash with and drink for the day.
As the water trickles out of the rusty tap, I imagine I’m standing near a wide river, like in a poem my teacher read to us about rivers singing.
Rivers can’t sing! They don’t have mouths! Malli had objected. Malli is sort of my friend, although she’s only five. Her thoughts don’t float out of jail as often as mine.
“Hurry up, you—!” someone barks.
I shrug. I can’t make the pale orange stream of water trickle into my bucket any faster. I tune out the grumbling crowd of women behind me and think about how good it would feel to sink both feet, both ankles, both knees, even my entire body all the way up to my shoulders, in a river of cool, clear water.
A Piece of Candy
"Power cut!” Grandma Knife curses as the tiny ventilation fan in our cell stops puttering.
It never cools the room much, but when there’s no electricity and it can’t even move a tiny bit of air, I feel like a grain of rice boiling in my own sweat.
“I’m going to faint,” Mouse Girl says as a stream of sweat trickles down the tip of her pointy nose. “If I don’t die of hunger first.”
My stomach grumbles loudly, but I say nothing. Complaining won’t make our morning meal appear any faster.
Aunty Cloud presses a handful of candies into my palm. Aunty Cloud’s children visit her on Saturdays and bring her sweets—and she always brings some back to share with us.
“Thank you, Aunty.”
I offer the candy to Grandma Knife, who displays her uneven teeth. “You know I can’t, boy. They’ll just make my teeth rot faster.”
Amma never takes any candy either.
I know I should offer to share with Mouse Girl because it’s the right thing to do. Amma keeps telling me to be good. But I’m angry with Mouse Girl for tearing my shirt and being so whiny.
Once, I asked Amma why she was always lecturing me about being good, and she told me it was because she didn’t want me to end up in jail. That made me laugh. “We’re already in jail,” I reminded her.
“I can’t help that you were born in jail, Kabir,” she told me. “But once you grow up, you can make sure not to do any bad things that might get you sent back here.”
“But, Amma, what’s the point of being good if the police might lock you up anyway? Especially if you’re poor, like us?” I’d asked.
“If you’re good, God will be happy,” Amma said. “God hears and sees everything that happens.”
“So God is like a spy? He’ll tell the guards if you’re not good?”
“No!” Amma said. “God is the greatest being of all!”
“Never mind about God, boy!” Grandma Knife told me. “Be good for your own sake. If you’re good and make friends with good people, you’ll have a better chance of a good life once you get out of here.”
“And if you live a good life,” Amma said, “Muslims, like your father, believe you’ll go to heaven.” Heaven, she had explained, was up above the clouds, a place where people of pretty much every religion agree God lives.
“Or else you’ll end up in hell,” Grandma Knife added, “which is supposedly hotter than anywhere on Earth.”
It’s hard to imagine a place that’s hotter than our jail cell in summer when the fan cuts off and the smell of sweat and sewage clogs my nostrils worse than usual.
I decide I’d better be good because I don’t want to end up in hell. And because I don’t want to risk getting sent back here after we leave. And, most of all, because I know it’ll make Amma happy.
I’m hungry enough to stuff all the candy into my mouth at once, but I open my hand to Mouse Girl. “Want some?”
She grabs almost everything.
Greedy piggy, I want to say but don’t. Instead, I pop the remaining candy into my mouth.
Amma beams me a smile sweeter than the candy melting on my tongue. I’m glad I was good, because her smile will stay inside me long after the candy is gone.
Mouse Girl elbows her way ahead of us again as we line up for the first of our two daily meals.
“Don’t grumble, Kabir,” Amma says. “Poor thing isn’t used to being in jail yet.” I don’t know why my mother continues to make excuses for her—she’d never let me get away with such bad behavior.
“Guess what we have today? Stale rice and water that’s pretending to be spicy rasam,” Grandma Knife says. “What a surprise!”
“Actually, there is a surprise today,” I say. “Look. My rice is topped with a dead fly.”
“Aiyo! Take my plate,” Amma says.
But Grandma Knife interrupts, “No, no, I’ll swap. I’ve been missing meat.”
Grandma Knife grabs my plate and shoves hers into my hands. “On second thought, probably too late to change my vegetarian habit.” Her long fingers scoop out the fly and flick it away. “Though it might have been a tasty change.”
“Thank you, Grandma,” I say. She might be a bit scary sometimes, but she’s always looking out for us and making us laugh too.
Amma knows I like her to tell us stories while we eat to take our minds off the horrible food. I don’t understand a lot of what she describes because I’ve never left here, and I’ve only seen other places in books or on TV: bazaars where vendors sit behind hills of spices; temples filled with the most beautiful smells. My mood lifts just imagining it all.
“How about Lord Krishna’s story today?” I ask. I love hearing about the blue-skinned Hindu god who was born behind bars, like me.
Amma tells how, on the night of Lord Krishna’s birth, the guards fell asleep, and the prison doors magically swung open. Quickly, his mother, whose demon brother had imprisoned her and her husband, ripped a piece of her sari and swaddled the baby in it.
His father spirited Krishna away, not stopping until he arrived at a river swollen in flood. As he wondered what to do, the water parted to let him walk through. He left the baby on the doorstep of a home on the other bank and returned to his waiting wife, and the prison doors clanged shut, locking them in once more.
The demon never found the baby, though he searched for years and years. As Krishna grew into a man, so did his strength and his wisdom, and one day he fought the demon and returned to rescue his parents.
I’d like to do that too. Amma always says being born in jail doesn’t mean I can’t do great things. Someday I will break out of this place, and then I will set my mother free.
It’ll be tricky to figure out how, though, because our doors are always locked, our window always barred, our guards always awake. --This text refers to the hardcover edition.
- ASIN : B08TTRV3HM
- Publisher : Nancy Paulsen Books (7 September 2021)
- Language : English
- File size : 2266 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Not Enabled
- Word Wise : Not Enabled
- Print length : 273 pages
- Page numbers source ISBN : 0593407644
- Best Sellers Rank: #308,811 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
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I have read and loved everything Padma Venkatraman writes. May she continue to grace us with her talent!