A People’s History of Heaven
By Mathangi Subramanian
Algonquin Books/Workman Publishing, 2019
$26.95, 304 pages
Review by Maria C. Goodson
“Swarga?” people ask. “As in Sanskrit for Heaven? This place?”
“Heaven?” we say with them. “This place?”
Sometimes they laugh. Sometimes we do too. But most of the time, we don’t.
Because the sign isn’t right. But it’s not wrong either.
What do you picture when you picture heaven?
I was asked this question recently, and I found it hard to imagine the world the way I want it to be without first untangling it from the mess it’s currently in. How do I begin to imagine a heaven where sexism didn’t exist, when one can’t go to 7-Eleven to buy feminine products and ice cream without a man saying something inappropriate (true story)? How do I describe a place where racism and homophobia don’t exist, when young African American men fear for their lives walking down the street, or the Pulse nightclub shooting still lingers in families’ hearts? How can I see what Rabindranath Tagore called a heaven of freedom when right now, children are in cages at the Mexican border, separated from the people that love them?
Our world is not supposed to be unjust, but it is.
In A People’s History of Heaven, Mathangi Subramanian imagines a perfect world, and sets that world the least likely place. In this narrative, Heaven is a slum in the middle of Bangalore, India. It’s called Heaven because half of the sign labeling the area has been destroyed, leaving behind the word “Swarga.”
We follow the lives of five young girls and their mothers (and in one case, grandmother). Deepa is blind, Joy is trans, Rukshana is queer. Padma’s is her mother’s caretaker, and Banu is an artist whose teachers have low expectations of her in school. The five girls at the center of this book are fiercely loyal to each other, even when annoyed by each other, even when they don’t agree, even when it would be easy for them to go their separate ways. They accept one another entirely, without hesitation, agenda, or regret.
“New student?” Janaki Ma’am asks.
“Yes, ma’am,” the girl says.
“Is that another of those construction site kids?” Yousef says. “Or is it a rat?”
Joy smacks Yousef across the face.
“What?” Yousef turns red. Maybe from Joy’s hand, but probably from her eyes.
“Don’t call her a rat. Here, new girl,” Joy says, patting the chair next to hers. “Come sit with me.”
“Are you…” the girl asks Joy.
“I’m a builder,” Joy interrupts her. “Just like you. Now tell me your name.”
“Padma,” says the girl.
Who, from that day on, was one of us.
My favorite thing about this book is the point of view – the story is told in the first-person plural, from the collective point of view of the five girls, using the pronoun we, unless when referencing an individual character, when she uses their name.
As we learn about each girl and their mother’s stories, weaving through time, we touch base in the present as their community is being threatened by bulldozers aiming to turn their homes into a shopping mall. The approach unifies the complicated, rich, and compelling individual strands and drives their narrative against outside opposition.
In Heaven, we are used to treating our girlhood like a territory that must be defended, staving off intruders and fending off disasters with each strategically plotted move.
In our mothers’ eyes, in our eyes, it’s a war we have a chance of winning. But in the foreign lady’s photographs, it’s one we’ve already lost.
The choice is not just a clever way for Subramanian to tell her story, but commentary on what makes the girls’ friendship so strong, and their bonds with each other so unique. On their own, none of these characters are perfect. They pick on each other, make mistakes. But their interconnectedness is what makes Heaven actually like heaven — they protect their homes and each other, pulling each other through their ever changing and difficult circumstances, and loving one another till the end.
The women in this book endure unspeakable acts of violence against their bodies, minds, and community. This book is by no means a walk in a rose garden – one woman is sterilized in return for a safely delivered baby, one woman is left mentally unstable after trauma, many women’s husbands have left them for wives that can bear them sons.
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. Between the machines and the broken stone, our mothers blaze like carnations scattered at the feet of smashed-up goddesses. Angry, unforgiving goddesses, the kind with skulls around their necks and corpses beneath their feet.
The kind that protect their children.
That protect their daughters.
The town is not supposed to be called Heaven, but it provides a heaven all the same. In People’s History, Subramanian posits we can all build the world we want to live in, but it’s going to take a lot of time, and it will not be without each individual act of kindness and acceptance in everyday life. We cannot discount the power of a smile at someone you pass on the street, the conversation you have with the squeegee kids, or the piece of trash you pick up on your street. The women in Subramanian’s novel show us this, in a very real, unapologetic way.
Our world is not perfect, but then again, maybe it could be. Maybe the question is not about how we should picture heaven, but where can we find beauty and solidarity in the world we already live in?