A high-tech city. A settlement of homeless people who are in the way. The city government sends bulldozers to clear the “ragged jigsaw of tilted tents, angry quilt of rusted roofs, maze of sagging sofas.” It’s not Seattle — it’s Bangalore, India, where the gulf between rich and poor is wider than in the United States.
Yet, “A People’s History of Heaven” is not as much about poverty as it is about the solidarity of a group of five teenage girls who are growing up in a shantytown. Swarga is the name of the neighborhood — it’s imprecisely translated into English as “Heaven,” but in Sanskrit it means the heaven where really good people go before they’re reborn. And while this heaven has its share of interpersonal conflict, in some ways it seems to be about what life in a shantytown could be if everyone stuck together and supported each other.
The attempt to clear the neighborhood is author Mathangi Subramanian’s frame for a series of flashbacks about the girls. She writes the chapters almost as fables, and each one comes with metaphoric overtones. In one chapter, a middle-class woman tries to keep Padma, a recent migrant to the city, from picking special ritual flowers in her yard. Padma wants them because when they’re offered to the gods, you get whatever you ask for. Children from the woman’s neighborhood ask her why Padma can’t have some.
“How can she explain to these children, whom she would never begrudge a blossom or two, that in the game of life there are two teams: rich and poor? That she and these children are on one team, and Padma is on the other?” In the end, the children, none of whom Padma knows, gather flowers for her from up and down the street; when she asks them why, one answers: “‘Just because.’ Because in the game of life, there are two teams: adults and children. Sometimes, the children win.”
The girls’ lives are a series of small victories. Deepa, who is blind and therefore doesn’t go to school, manages to get included in a school dance festival and, when the CD player breaks down, shows that she can dance “with [cawing of] the crows...with the motorcycles honking...with [croons of] the vegetable vendors.” Anand, who is Dalit, the lowest caste, and biologically male, lets everyone know she is a girl “just in the wrong shape.” When her mother decides to convert to Christianity as a way out of caste bias, Anand takes advantage of her mother’s decision by wearing girl’s clothes to her baptism and taking the name “Joy,” leaving the mother facing the choice of accepting her daughter or losing her child.
Integral to the stories is the need to overcome the particular difficulties the girls and their mothers face in traditional Indian society, including a belief that girls don’t need to be educated in the way that boys are; arranged marriages and an assumption that girls need to marry; submission of wives to the demands of their husbands; and the tendency to divorce or put aside wives who don’t bear children, particularly sons. “Success” for traditional women is defined as marrying a successful husband, and none of the mothers in Heaven are successful in that way.
The girls are trying to find a different measure of success among themselves, even as they face the likelihood that they will not end up any better off than their mothers. Their hopes for alternatives center around their school, whose headmistress is determined to make sure that the girls are able to continue their education and benefit from the economic development going on all around them.
Subramanian sets her story within the harsh reality of Indian slum life but neither sentimentalizes the poverty of the girls nor dwells on it. Instead, she shows their potential and the joy that they can find with each other.
As a contrast, a recurring image in the novel is the “foreign lady” who comes to photograph the protests against the bulldozers: “‘These people, I’m telling you. Always around when we’re at our worst.’” The photographer aims to capture the poverty, the dirt, the garbage, all part of the reality — but what she can’t capture is the relationships between the girls and between their mothers, which have made it possible for this neighborhood to survive for more than a decade as Bangalore was transformed from a sleepy market town into a booming high-tech city.
Nevertheless, the “foreign lady” has a role to play in saving the neighborhood, as does the headmistress, who herself escaped a traditional woman’s role because she grew up in an orphanage. It’s a weakness of the novel that, ultimately, the girls’ hopes lie in the possibility of benevolent aid from outside the slum, even though the reality is that this is the likeliest way they will find a way out of poverty.
Even so, that outcome seems a bigger fantasy than any of the minor miracles that can take place because, in Heaven, people will support each other.
Read the full July 31 - August 6 issue.
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