The Birth of Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman

I'm honored to turn over my blog for the day to Padma Venkatraman. Thank you, Padma! 

Illustration Credit: Jen Bricking

Padma Venkatraman: My mother says as a young child, I’d sometimes say to her – “Can you hear this poem in my head?” When she said no, she couldn’t, I’d apparently command that she should write it down. She always supported me and faithfully recorded my early efforts without ever making me feel self-conscious.

With my previous novels, I can’t quite pinpoint the date when the voice first spoke to me. With 
Born Behind Bars, I can. In 2013, I came across an article about a boy in India who had been born in prison, and was sent away alone when he became too old to stay there, although his mother remained incarcerated.

Soon after that, I heard a young boy singing a snatch of a song. He flitted through my dreams sometime later, and I saw him awake in a cell, staring through a high, barred window, at moonlit clouds. Longing to be free.

Nearly a decade later, when the pandemic hit, I returned to a draft of his story that I had written and set aside. As the world entered a “lockdown” I was drawn to this character who had spent his whole life locked up.

I sent a draft of 
Born Behind Bars, along with drafts of other novels, to my legendary editor Nancy Paulsen, and she loved Kabir as much as I did. “This has the feel of a fable” she said – and so we decided this would be our next project.

Although the seed of Kabir’s story was planted by the newspaper article, he had, with the intermittent research I’d done over the years, grown into his own person. Yet, although I knew who he was, I had to write through the story to find out what happened to him after he was forced to leave prison and set out on the streets of Chennai city all alone.

He yearned for his mother, just as I, even as an adult, yearned for my own mother who is still half-way across the world, in India. He did not know if he would ever see her again, just as I don’t know, given all the suffering that continues to this day because of the pandemic, if I will ever see mine.

Kabir, in 
Born Behind Bars, faces far more desperate circumstances than I have ever faced; orders of magnitude greater injustice and tragedy. But despite the horror of his situation, he battles to preserve his hope and his sense of humor. And as I followed him on his journey, a character from The Bridge Home reappeared – to my great joy (because readers from all over the world had asked me what happened to the characters from The Bridge Home).

I wrote and rewrote during the pandemic – and I am immensely grateful to introduce Kabir’s story to readers at last, as our nation slowly begins to open up.

Padma Venkatraman was born in India and became an American after living in five countries and working as an oceanographer. She also wrote The Bridge Home (Walter Award, Golden Kite Award, Global Read-Aloud), A Time to Dance (IBBY selection, ALA Notable), Island’s End (CCBC Choice, South Asia Book Award), and Climbing the Stairs (ALA/Amelia Bloomer List, Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People). She lives in Rhode Island.

Look for Born Behind Bars on September 7, 2021. 

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.


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