Sunday, September 19, 2021

#MMGM: Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman

When she was pregnant with him, Kabir Khan's mother was accused of a crime she did not commit and put into a Chennai jail where he was born. He has lived there since that day, in a cell with several other women besides his mother. Small for his age, no one paid much attention to Kabir until the new warden decides that at age 9, he is old enough to be released. Before he goes, his teacher at the prison school tries her best to prepare him for the outside world, as do his cellmates. 

On the day of his release, Kabir is picked up by a man who says he is his uncle. But it doesn't take long for him to realize that the man is not a relative and that he plans to sell Kabir. Using his wits, Kabir manages to escape and in the process he meets Rani, a Kurava (Roma) girl a few years older than him and living on the streets with her pet parrot. 

Rani take Kabir under her wing, teaching him how to survive on the streets, educating him on India's caste system that makes low caste people like them invisible to others. Together, they manage to earn money for food - Rani tells fortunes and Kabir sings. Kabir knows all about his father and how much his dad loved his mother, but his father never told his parents about his wife before he left for Dubai because she is Hindu and Kabir's father's family are Muslim. Now, Kabir is determined to go to Bengaluru to find his grandparents. 

A stroke of good luck and Kabir's strong sense of honesty enables him to get enough money to buy train tickets to Bengaluru for him and Rani. Sadly, they face caste discrimination buying the tickets and riding the train, but also kindness of strangers helping them. In Bengaluru, they find the mosque that the Khan family worships at and follow a man to his business thinking he might be a relative of Kabir's. But when fighting over water breaks out, Rani manages to help the man save his business. In return, he posts their pictures on social media and luck is once again on Kabir's side. His grandparents see the post and manage to find him and Rani. Soon, Kabir finally has new, clean clothes, enough to eat, a room of his own and he even makes another friend who teaches him how to play cricket. Rani, who hates being confined indoors, is introduced to a woman who runs a school that allows her to live in a tent of her own with her parrot,  and get an education. The woman also knows lawyers who may be able to get Kabir's mother released so that they can be reunited. 

Born Behind Bars is told in chapters that consist of short paragraphs and that are narrated entirely from Kabir's open, honest, observant perspective. Though his eyes, readers learn what jail is like for the women and children who are incarcerated there, and also what life on the streets is like for so many children in India. Kabir's story is a nice mix of good and bad things happening to both him and Rani as Venkatraman explores themes of poverty, tolerance and intolerance of religious and caste differences, justice and injustice, loss and revelation. I also think it may be surprising for young American readers to realize that children can find themselves alone in the world on the streets of India and that it isn't just a thing of the past. 

But is Kabir's luck too good to be true? I wondered that as I read the book and perhaps the story focused on the upshot of his good luck rather than the alternatives. Think what could have been if his fraudulent uncle has managed to sell this plucky, hopeful boy into what would have amounted to slavery.

I have always enjoyed reading Padma Venkatraman's novels set in India and this is no exception. The writing is beautiful, the story is poignant, and Kabir is a character you won't soon forget. He is honest, with an engaging sense of humor regarding his circumstances (I loved his private nicknames for the women with whom he shared his jail cell) and the challenges he faces on a daily basis. It is, in short, an enlightening, compelling novel.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from

Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, 
now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle


  1. I have a sweet spot for India because I met my late husband there. This sounds like such a powerful book. I hope I can find it at my library.

  2. I must read this one. Sounds like a deeper and more emotional journey than even another "parent in jail story"—All Rise for the Honorable Perry T Cook. Thanks for featuring on today's MMGM.

  3. I loved Born Behind Bars and had originally scheduled to release my review today. So glad I waited. Excellent review. This story really meant a lot to me, because we adopted a 13-year-old boy from a Catholic orphanage and industrial school in 1985 -- just before he was to be released to the streets to fend for himself. He looked 10 years old when he arrived. So, Kabir's story was of particular interest to me. I enjoy reading any and everything Padma writes. He's now grown and very successful.

  4. I keep seeing this book. I'm fascinated. Thanks for the review. I'm going to have to see if I can get a copy!

  5. Sounds like a good adventure story, too.

  6. This sounds like such a powerful read, and it's nice if possibly unrealistic that it isn't soul-crushingly painful! I haven't had the chance to read any of Venkatraman's books, but I hear good things about them. Thank you for such a thoughtful review of this story!

  7. Wow. What a story. Nice review! I want to read this one and will be looking for a copy. Thanks for telling me about it.


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