Mathangi Subramanian’s A People’s History of Heaven is set in a fictional slum in Bengaluru. Swarga, or Heaven as everyone calls it, is a make-shift, precarious, and resilient place bordering far more affluent neighbourhoods. It is a place that could realistically exist in any large Indian city, its residents coming from various geographies, castes and religions.
A close-knit group
At the heart of the narrative is a group of girls who have grown up alongside one another, and who form a fiercely loyal pack in Heaven, protecting each other, sharing food and companionship.
Joy is the ringleader, self-assured, determined, academically bright, and a recent convert to Christianity. Banu is the quiet one, who builds useful contraptions using waste material gathered from construction sites and garbage dumps, and lives with her grandmother. Rukshana is the argumentative one who is least comfortable with the feminine, the one whose mother is a union member and a health worker. Deepa is blind, and dances “like she’s got her feet on the string between sadnesses.” Padma is the nurturer who does her best to shield both her friends and her family.
The girls support their mothers who traverse lives that are far from the ones they’ve know. Occasionally, they lend the comforts of their friendship to others who cross their paths, knowing that a little solidarity goes a long way. In Heaven, everyone’s home is on the way to elsewhere. In Heaven, friendship and a strong sense of community are the resources that most consistently see these girls and their mothers through. In Heaven, being blind, transgender or queer matters less than it does beyond the slum’s limits.
So when bulldozers arrive to demolish the slum to pave the way for new, lucrative development, the women of Heaven must use their combined will to try and save the only shelter they know.
The novel focuses on the women of Heaven, relegating the men and the boys to cameos. Sometimes, the men are no longer in their family’s lives. Other times, they take on the role of adversaries or providers whose long working hours mean they are rarely seen. It’s clear that for the daughters and wives of Heaven, home is where the majority of their lives play out, and it is in the company of other women that they’re least on their guard, and most likely to be raucous and indelicate. For them, the bridges between Heaven’s different communities are real even as they hold (to some degree) the prejudices that have long shaped how they interact with one another.
Subramanian traces the origins of many of the adult women in Heaven, taking the reader back to their birth families, their villages, the people who helped raise them. Two of the most fascinating women in the novel are the girls’ headmistress, Janaki Ma’am, and Banu’s grandmother known universally in Heaven as Banu’s ajji. Both have seen multiple generations pass through the school and the slum. In the case of both characters, Subramanian introduces their layers to us slowly.
Janaki Ma’am watches over the lives of her students, carefully foreseeing hurdles to the girls’ education. Banu’s ajji is the one present at births, the one whose watchful eye keeps young people out of trouble. Both embody an accumulated wisdom that only comes from having seen things not work out many, many times. When the girls are impatient to grow up and outgrow the constraints of childhood, Banu’s ajji explains, “It’s not easy to be a girl. But trust me, my dear. It is much, much harder to be a woman.”
Still, there is a joy in these girls’ lives that Subramanian doesn’t neglect to depict. They dance, imagine alternate, glamorous lives on the arms of movie stars, laugh, and derive comfort from sharing meals and linking arms.
Steadfast and true
The usual dangers apply when setting a novel in a slum but A People’s History of Heaven doesn’t fall into the traps of romanticising poverty or of engaging in trauma porn. Told from the viewpoint of the residents whose lives have been painstakingly built in Heaven, and which would be dismantled overnight by a forced migration, it interrogates the morality of government officials and builders who demolish and evict without proper notice, and without providing feasible alternatives.
The stories of the people remain foremost in the novel – showing how much change the characters have weathered between them, and the utter miracle of having steadfast friendships through girlhood in the face of so much transience.
There are moments when the novel feels compelled to spell out the significance of a scene rather than allow the readers to gauge for themselves. Those moments are a disservice to a novel whose scenes are well-written enough to lead readers to their own conclusions. There is an implausible event or two in the novel, but largely a realism permeates the central plot lines – the friendships between the girls, the pasts of the mothers and grandmothers, and the history of their home.
In some ways reminiscent of another novel about shared girlhood in isolating circumstances, Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn, A People’s History of Heaven is a gentler story. There is hope threaded through the lives of these girls who are clever, resourceful and flexible and to whom Heaven isn’t limiting so much as it is nourishing. The novel focuses on their younger selves, and one hopes Subramanian will return with a sequel one day that shows us the adults they’ve become, the lives they have and have not been able to make for themselves.
A People’s History of Heaven, Mathangi Subramanian, Algonquin Books.