Title: A People’s History of Heaven
Author: Mathangi Subramanian
Publication: Hamish Hamilton
Price: Rs 599
The most striking part of Mathangi Subramanian’s novel is its voice, the “we” that narrates this often delightful, always empathetic novel about Swargahalli, a slum somewhere in Bengaluru. But the collective voice that leaps off the page — a people’s history, as we are told — is distinct for another reason, too. It is female. This is a novel “spoken” by girls, but in this chorus, you also hear the formidable women who come before them — the mothers and grandmothers, from whom flow stories, memories, prejudices and knowledge.
A People’s History of Heaven opens with these women taking a stand against the bulldozers that have come to level their houses. “Our houses may break, but our mothers won’t…Instead, they form a human chain, hijabs and dupattas snapping in the metallic wind, saris shimmering in the afternoon sun…[they] blaze like carnations scattered at the feet of smashed-up goddesses. Angry, unforgiving goddesses…”
The slum they are defending is hardly “heaven”, but it is home to our five protagonists. “Born the same year in the same slum”, Deepa, Banu, Padma, Rukhsana and Joy are friends with different talents and histories. All girls, matter-of-factly aware of how that hobbles them in life: “Early on, we girls learn that life owes us nothing.” Banu is the subversive graffiti artist, her ace kolam skills her precious inheritance from her ajji; Joy was once “shaped like a boy” till she embraced her true self, with her mother’s support; Padma is a migrant from a verdant village, with the burden of mothering her displaced parent; Rukhsana is the plucky daughter of a women’s union member, one you can easily imagine in the many Shaheen Baghs erupting all over India; and Deepa is the blind child, out of school, but invaluable friend to the others.
A People’s History of Heaven is blurbed with fulsome praise from foreign publications, though it is less heralded than the new literary sensation, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, both surprisingly — or, should that be unsurprisingly? — novels about children in Indian slums. To the reader’s relief, however, Subramanian opts out of the painful business of “explaining” the Indian city to an alien audience, or painting a picture of deathly (dull) squalor. (In fact, some snark is reserved for the cluelessness of a white woman photographer, though, given the overall optimistic arc of this novel, even saviour complex is put to good use.)
The novel’s language, too, is flecked by the English we hear on this city’s streets. True to Bengaluru, Swarga is a place of many tongues, and many communities. It was once a “bunch of blue tarps” strung up into haphazard tents, “a for-now kind of place, not a forever kind of place”. Outside is ranged the city, morphing relentlessly, with snazzy malls and hospitals (“Even the diseases there are posher than us.”). The slum is driven by women, and their fierce instinct for survival, as they take on poverty, disloyal and drunk husbands, casteism and fledgling Hindutva. The boys are wastrels, the men absent.
Subramanian’s last book, too, Dear Mrs Naidu (2015), was about the battle of a girl, armed with the Right to Education, to study in a private school. Reading A People’s History in the backdrop of the anti-CAA protests, its articulate no-nonsense band of girls, one senses that it captures the ripple of an important change in urban working-class India: the pushback of young girls and women, who have had democracy seeded in their minds.
Subramanian is a fine writer; the natural wit of young people flow through the dialogues; sentences leap out for their beauty (“Rukhsana was as frantic as a just-hatched dragonfly, shimmering and eager to test her brand-new wings.”)
Nevertheless, there is something about this novel’s determined sunniness, its well-meaningness, that makes it shiny with fairydust. From its poster children of diversity (could they be the Fierce Five for our times?) to the mentor-principal Janaki Ma’am who opens doors for them, from the mothers who invariably stand by the difficult choices of their daughters to the roadblocks which seem to melt away.
Some of it might have to do with how close its style is allied to the strategies of children’s or YA writing. Not that that in itself is a bad thing: what is To Kill a Mockingbird but an address to the idealism of the young? A children’s book draws its readers — imagined as being essentially good souls — into its fold by a nudge and a wink, by turning tiresome grownups into funny caricatures, by eyerolling at the absurdities of the world. In its commitment to the readers, who are indeed the future, it has its eye on all that is possible, even wondrously so. But in this novel about inequality, these strategies only serve to simplify the messiness of the world.
Early on in the novel, the narrators wonder: “It’s funny, being a girl. The thing’s that 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.” Subramanian remains committed to this hopeful inversion, but I will be curious to know of the results, if and when a writer this political and skilled allows more of the darkness into her work.
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