Review: A People’s History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian

I’ve been thinking about this novel since the slum demolition at the Batla House dhobi ghat last month which left hundreds of people homeless in Delhi. In the novel, five teenaged girls are determined to stop the demolition of a slum called Heaven, which is their home. Their modus operandi is friendship. With the help of their mothers, grandmothers, schoolteachers and each other, they circumvent rats, poverty, patriarchy, systemic oppression. They like to watch aeroplanes, which prove that sky is the limit — ‘They built something that goes up in the sky… Anything is possible.”

The quintet of best friends — Banu, Deepa, Joy, Padma and Rukhsana — are an inclusive, diverse group: Hindu, Muslim, Christian, queer, trans, Dalit, visually-impaired, migrant, indigenous… But their voices are identical and interchangeable, they narrate the novel using a plural “we” — “If you ask our mothers, they’ll tell you Bangalore has just one problem: engineers.” They collectively tell a story of hope and resistance. “It’s funny, being a girl. That thing that’s supposed to push you down, defeat you, shove you back, back, and farther back still? Turn it the right way, and it’ll push you forward instead,” they say.

Subramanian is an Indian-American researcher and writer. She was a Fulbright scholar conducting an ethnographic study of anganwadis in Bangalore and this novel emerged from conversations with women at the public daycare centres. She has previously written Young Adult fiction, and much as I’d like to stay away from labels, this too is more YA. I’d highly recommend it for Gen-Z teens. I liked it too but I was also somewhat put off by its uncomplicated optimism. My opinion is outnumbered though. A People’s History of Heaven has been widely reviewed and acclaimed. It was longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award, America’s largest peer-juried prize for fiction.

In India, critics have applauded Subramanian’s artful dodging of tropes of “poverty porn”. Reviews have especially delighted in the recurring appearance of a clueless white photographer in the novel. This character’s uselessness is Subramanian’s way of mocking the futility of the self-serving white saviour gaze.

But she hasn’t been able to escape it herself. Halfway through, the novel drags on and begins to seem exactly the kind of India story that the West wants to hear: casualties and cruelties of development in developing countries, girl power in the face of poverty, vivid sounds, scents and flavours of modern Bangalore where “the air is as soupy as twice-warmed sambar” in the backdrop.

The writing is sublime, almost like poetry. The descriptions, even of minor characters are vibrant and indelible — a posh lady talks with “words pleated like she hired the ironwallah to press her tongue”. The insight in A People’s History of Heaven acquires an urgency because it is so current and captures precisely the mood of our times — “It’s enough to make you believe that all those enormous stone Kalis aren’t enough to hold the fury lying dormant in a single woman’s heart.”

But to me, parts of it read like incomplete short stories, like anecdotes and wisdom strung together. I thoroughly enjoyed some of these sections. Especially one in which the girls “play Metro” — they take the train pretending to be, among other things, film stars on their way to cocktails. They gossip about their imaginary filmi lovers: Salman has become a bore, all those Khans get old after a while, they say, Hindi film stars are better than Kannada ones, they tell each other, “although you’d want your lover to know your mother tongue” except that “language is the last thing you’d care about in a lover’s tongue.” A group of boys overhear their conversation, forcing them back into reality. It’s a sharp look at that precise moment young women notice changes in boys, “Bits and pieces of moustache spiking above their lips. Bodies bursting with needs we don’t understand.” In this way the novel becomes a kind of bildungsroman.

In another section, Padma, who accompanies her mother to the post office where she works as a cleaner, finds undelivered mail. She begins to reply to stacks of letters waiting to be returned to their senders, because the recipients have moved without forwarding addresses. She makes up stories about their lives, turns betraying lovers into dead ones, fathers into spies, she tells everybody to move on. She writes letters of love, forgiveness and resolute goodbyes, hoping to give people closure.

I rooted for these characters and their adventures. I remember some of its scenes vividly and fondly: two queer kids watching wedding parties from atop a tree, feeling feelings for each other; an anonymous artist spray painting scenes from Bangalore’s marginalised lives; family secrets tumbling out. All of it is often so tender and just so sweet, I almost feel bad about criticizing it.

Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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