Children outside their home in a slum in Mumbai.

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

290pp, 599 rupees; Hamish Hamilton Penguin

I’ve been thinking about this novel since the demolition of the slum at Casa Batla dhobi ghat last month it left hundreds of people homeless in Delhi. In the novel, five teenagers are determined to stop the demolition of a slum called Heaven, which is their home. His modus operandi is friendship. With the help of their mothers, grandmothers, school teachers and each other, they avoid rats, poverty, patriarchy, and systemic oppression. They like to look at airplanes, which shows that the sky is the limit: “They built something that rises in the sky … Anything is possible.”

The quintet of best friends – Banu, Deepa, Joy, Padma and Rukhsana – are an inclusive and diverse group: Hindu, Muslim, Christian, queer, trans, Dalit, visually impaired, migrant, indigenous … But their voices are identical and Interchangeably, they narrate the novel using a plural “we”: “If you ask our mothers, they will tell you that Bangalore has only one problem: engineers.” Together, they tell a story of hope and resistance. “It’s funny being a girl. That thing that’s supposed to push you down, beat you, push you back, back, and even further back? Twist it the right way and instead it will push you forward, ”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 grew out of conversations with women in public nurseries. He’s written young adult fiction before, and as much as I’d like to stay away from labels, this is more ALREADY too. I highly recommend it for Gen-Z teens. I liked it too, but was also a bit put off by its uncomplicated optimism. However, my opinion is outnumbered. The story of a people from heaven it has been widely reviewed and acclaimed. It was included in the long list for the PEN / Faulkner Award, the largest juried fiction award in the United States.

In India, critics have applauded Subramanian’s ingenious dodging tropes of “poverty pornography.” Critics have been particularly delighted with the recurring appearance of a clueless white photographer in the novel. The futility of this character is the way Subramanian mocks the futility of the selfish white saving gaze.

But she has not been able to escape herself. Midway, the novel drags on and begins to look like exactly the kind of Indian story the West wants to hear: victims and cruelties of development in developing countries, female power in the face of poverty, vivid sounds, smells and tastes. of modern Bangalore. where “the air is as thick as twice heated sambar“In the background.

The writing is sublime, almost like poetry. The descriptions, even of minor characters, are vibrant and indelible: an elegant lady speaks in “pleated words as if she has hired the ironwallah to press her tongue.” Intuition in The story of a people from heaven it takes on an urgency because it is very current and precisely captures the mood of our time: “It is enough to make you believe that all those huge stone Kalis are not enough to keep the fury simmering in the heart of a single woman.”

Author Mathangi Subramanian

Author Mathangi Subramanian (Fid Thompson)

But to me, parts of it read like incomplete short stories, like anecdotes and wisdom woven together. I really enjoyed some of these sections. Especially one where the girls “play Metro”: they take the train pretending to be, among other things, movie stars on their way to cocktails. They gossip about their imaginary movie lovers: Salman has gotten boring, all those kans get old after a while, they say, Hindi movie stars are better than kannadas, they say to each other, “although you would want your lover to know your mother tongue ”except that“ language is the last thing you care about in a lover’s language ”. A group of boys overhear their conversation, forcing them to come back to reality. It is a keen look at that precise moment when young women notice changes in children, “Chunks and bits of mustache rising over his lips. Bodies full of needs that we do not understand. ”In this way the novel becomes a kind of bildungsroman.

In another section, Padma, accompanying her mother to the post office where she works as a cleaner, finds undelivered mail. She begins replying to the 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 betrayal lovers dead, parents spies, tells everyone to move on. Write letters of love, forgiveness, and determined goodbyes, hoping to bring closure to people.

I supported these characters and their adventures. I remember some of their scenes vividly and fondly: two queer kids watching wedding parties from the top of a tree, feeling feelings for each other; an anonymous artist spray painting scenes from Bangalore’s underserved lives; spilling family secrets. Everything is often so cute and so sweet that I almost feel bad for criticizing it.

Saudamini Jain is a freelance journalist. Lives in New Delhi.


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