A People's History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian
Published by Algonquin Books
Publication date: March 19, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Coming-of-age, Cultural, Fiction
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It’s funny, being a girl. That thing that’s supposed to push you down, defeat you, shove you back, back, and further back still? Turn it the right way, and it’ll push you forward instead.
A People’s History of Heaven was one of my winter picks. It’s set in a 30-year-old slum called Heaven in Bangalore, India and centers around the lives of five young girls: Banu, Padma, Joy, Deepa, and Rukshana. Heaven is now being demolished to build a new mall. When the novel opens, bulldozers are already moving in and the girls’ mothers are rising up to fight for their homes and their lives. From this starting point, Mathangi Subramanian weaves a story of these girls, soon to become women, and their determination to live life on their own terms.
Each of the girls in A People’s History has a life that is recognizable while utterly foreign. They are of different religions, some with burdens beyond the norm—Joy is born a boy, Rukshana loves another girl, and Deepa is blind, but they are all held down by a society that sees them as only marginally useful. Their mothers have been shamed, and in some cases abandoned, for not giving birth to boys. They must work as soon as possible and be married off just as quickly to make them someone else’s problem. This they fight, each in her own way, whether it’s attending school, cutting their hair and wearing trousers, stealing construction supplies to improve the shacks they call home, or painting political graffiti on expensive buildings. But mostly, by banding together to give each other the unconditional support that can’t be found anywhere else in their lives.
It’s clear the effort and care Subramanian put into her characters and their lives, but her writing style is such that there’s a superficial feel to A People’s History. Each of the girls has a lot of story to tell, but while it’s shared there isn’t much beyond the narrative. It left me feeling almost as if the reality of life in Heaven was being downplayed. This feeling may have been due to the fact that I read Katherine’s Boo’s nonfiction book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, (a real-life story about life in an Indian slum) and couldn’t help comparing the two.
I might not have connected with aspects of A People’s History of Heaven as much as I hoped to, but I did find the representation of women in the face of insurmountable odds to be powerful. Despite having been abused, misled, and ignored, the mothers in Heaven were fierce in their desire to protect their daughters. This, plus the girls’ friendship, comes through loud and clear on every page. Good, but not great reading.