In the 2010s, another movement to clear (read: demolish) slums in and around Bangalore, India. Mathangi Subramanian’s A People’s History of Heaven, a surprisingly funny book, tells the story of the demolition of a fictional slum that is based on the hundreds of slums that actually exist. As a group of children and their mothers protest against the bulldozers that have arrived a full month before the day the people were supposed to leave, we learn the histories of our protagonists in a series of short, interlinked episodes. This book had the potential to be very sad—and there are parts that are quite depressing—but I laughed more often than I teared up. I ended up loving all of the characters I was introduced to.
The teenaged girls at the center of the stories in A People’s History of Heaven met each other in a government school in Heaven, the slum where they live. (The name comes from a broken sign. All the letters broke off except for the ones that spell the word heaven in Kannada.) Deepa, the first girl we get to know, is a blind girl with a gift for dancing. Joy was born in a boy’s body, but she is so clearly a girl that she is allowed to use a girl’s name, wear girl’s clothes, and essentially live as a girl. Rukshana is the most combative, at least until she finds a girl who brings out protective and romantic feelings in her. Then there is Banu, who is not good at school. Banu has a talent for building things out of every piece of scrap she can find. Padma is the poorest of all of them, but she is the best student. Of all of the girls, perhaps Padma has the best chance at getting out of the slums.
All of the parents in the slum has a story about how they ended up there. For some, they were tricked out of their farms in the countryside and had to come to the city for work. Others came with their husbands who already lived in the city, albeit in Heaven. The girls have never known another life. There is no sense that they long for a richer life. They do, however, long to be free of the restrictions placed on girls’ behavior. They want to play like the boys. Banu wants to be an artist instead of scrounging for herself and her grandmother. Joy and Rukshana just want to be themselves. Joy wants to be married to a man and live as a woman. Rukshana emphatically does not want to marry a man.
Although there are characters on the fringes who do their best to help the slum dwellers, but this book isn’t about getting out of the slums. Instead, it’s about humanizing the masses of people who are there. Seeing the people of Heaven as actual, striving people means that they would need to be treated with a modicum of respect, that their homes could not just be destroyed to make room for airports and malls. It’s clear that people outside of the slums either see the residents of Heaven as either surplus population or as people who need to be rescued from their desperate plight.
I wished I could have stayed with the characters in A People’s History of Heaven longer. Each of the girls’ stories and the stories of their varied mothers connect to the stories of other characters; I wanted those stories, too. I loved that this book focused on the women, the ones who actually get things done around Heaven. (This book has a pretty cutting message about the failures of the men who are supposed to be the breadwinners.) Because I read about characters who were shifting for themselves, I didn’t pity these women. I deplored their circumstances, but I never saw them as helpless. I knew by the end of the book that, if the girls had a little bit of the right kind of help, they would be able to live the kind of lives they hoped for.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.