Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

Veda, a teen living in Chennai, India, lives to dance.  Ever since she was a young child, Veda has felt the music and dance of Shiva moving deeply within her.  She has studied classical  Bharatanatym dance for years, with the support of her father and her grandmother Paati, but not with the blessing of her mother, who would like to see Veda study engineering instead.

But no sooner does Veda win her first important dance competition, but the van she is traveling home in hits a tree.  The driver is killed, and Veda wakes up in the hospital to learn she has lost her right leg from just below the knee.  No one else in the van was hurt, including her dance rival Kamini.  For Veda, the music within her is gone and she is left with silence:
"It feels like Shiva destroyed my universe of possibility
like He's dancing
on the ashes
of my snatched-away dreams." (pg 44)
Her father and Paati are, as always, there for her; her mother, of course, it totally repentant, sorry she had been so hard on Veda's dancing dream; and her best friend Chandra feels awkward around Veda now.      But when the unspeakable happens, it's hard to find words to express yourself.

As luck would have it, an American doctor was in India working to develop better, more cost effective prostheses and when he invites Veda to take part in the project, he manages to get her up and moving, reassuring her that she isn't disabled or handicapped, just "differently abled." 

Eventually a new prosthetic is developed that may allow Veda to return to dancing and after being accepted at a school run by an elderly famous "differently abled" dancer, Veda meet Govinda, a young man who loves dance as much as she does.  No sooner does young love find Veda and Govinda than his parents demand he study for exams to go to university.  

Sometimes it feels like Shiva has abandoned Veda and her journey seems destined to be marked by loss, but in the process she does discover that the competition and applause she sought as a dancer before she lost her leg is nothing compared to what she now learns about herself and her spirituality and inner peace.

I loved Padma Venkatraman's novel Climbing the Stairs when I read it, so I was really looking forward to reading A Time to Dance.  And I am happy to say, it did not disappoint.  Written in free verse from Veda's point of view, the reader goes along on her intimate journey, experiencing her ups and downs, triumphs and disappointments, loves and loss.  

Venkatraman's portrayal of Veda is realistic, she is neither a martyr nor saint, just a teen who has experienced a trauma.  She has some really unkind things to say about her rival Kamini, she's angry, hurt, and there's some self-pity there, but the important thing is that she grows and learns, and that is what makes her such a great character.  And along the way, we learn lots of interesting things about Indian culture, religion and dance.  I found Veda's mother and grandmother's story, though not a big part of the novel, to be very interesting.  In fact, so interesting, I wish they could be expanded into their own novels.  

There are two things that bothered me a little.  First, I didn't get a good sense of time passing and I also felt that Veda didn't have enough time to mourn the loss of her lower leg.  I though maybe that was because of the free verse format, which leads me to the other thing.  As an American reader, I found that some of the poetic breaks came when I wasn't expecting them and I wondered if I understood Indian music better, if it would have felt more natural.  But these by no means detract from the narrative.  

Venkatraman is a talented writer and I hope she continues writing more YA novels set in India, sharing her first hand knowledge of this fascinating country.

This book is recommended for readers age 12+
This book was purchased from my personal library

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