Born Behind Bars

Born Behind Bars

Born Behind Bars by Padma Venkatraman, 257 pages, Can be read in 3-4 hours depending on your speed, Middle Grade

A quote that I really appreciated: “But, Amma, what’s the point of being good if the police might lock you up anyway? Especially if you’re poor like us?” Kabir, p. 9-10

This was not a book I had on my radar. I went to the library to return a few books. I promised myself I would not check out another book that day because I have so many unread ones at home. For whatever reason, I decided to return the books inside rather than use the outside book drop. As I was walking away from the front desk, I randomly glanced at the shelf of featured books and this title jumped out.

A title like this may not appeal to all readers, but as a criminologist, I was instantly drawn in. I gave the description on the inside flap a very quick skim, but honestly, I was sold from the title alone. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized it was written by a South Asian author. Clearly, I was meant to read this book.

Photo of the book Born Behind Bars on a bookshelf next to decorative silver mushrooms.

Born Behind Bars is a moving read about a nine-year-old boy named Kabir. We first meet Kabir waking up in a jail cell in Chennai with his mother and several other incarcerated women. In the first few pages, we learn Kabir was born in the jail, that his mother was wrongly imprisoned, and that he was being forced to leave and would soon be out on his own. As one can imagine, suddenly being sent into a world by oneself at such a young age causes a lot of anxiety and fear for Kabir.

While most of the story takes place in the span for a few weeks, a lot happens. In that time, Kabir must learn to take care of himself (which includes figuring out whom to trust or not), meet new friends, and adjust the massive culture shock of life on the outside. Part of the plan includes finding his grandparents and hoping to find a way to get his mother released. 

It’s an affective story that centers on love (I greatly appreciate stories that highlight the different ways love plays out beyond romantic love), perseverance, and finding oneself. It’s a coming-of-age story, but also not. It is in the sense that we see Kabir find strength in himself and begin to discover the principles he believes in and not just the ones his mom raised him on. We also see him stand up for himself against those who would criticize him or the people he cares about, including standing up to his grandparents. But it’s not in the sense that there is clearly far more growing to come after the book closes a few months after it began. We don’t see the full transition over several years of a traditional coming-of-age story. But what we do see is the seedling of what’s to come.

Reading this book as a criminologist was interesting. While the story is based in India, there are a lot of similarities between the criminal justice system presented in the book and the one in the US. The conditions inside the jail, while appalling, seemed on par to what I know about conditions inside many US jails and prisons. The design of the jail cell was different, but the relationship with the guards and the treatment of the women being held weren’t. The portrayal of almost all of the police officers as good people trying to do good felt off, though. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of good people who are police officers but considering Kabir is a lower-caste individual and is traveling around with another lower-caste character, I find it difficult to believe that all of the ones he actually spoke to would be as kind as they were. At the same time, there was some great commentary on the criminal justice system as a whole views and treats those who are poor and lower caste (or, in the US, poor and Black or Indigenous). And the author’s note at the end is a good summary of the issues that drove the author to write the story as she did. I’m actually considering adding this book to the syllabus of my master’s Media, Crime, and Justice course as I think it would lead to some really interesting conversations on perceptions of police, justice in the criminal legal system, and social justice broadly.

Overall, I’m glad I randomly picked up this book. It’s a very sweet story and tackles topics I don’t typically see in the books I read. And while the ending was predictable (for an adult reader that is), I still teared up. So if you’re looking a good, quick read with writing that draws you in, you can’t go wrong with this one.

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