As a child, I remember watching the movie Little Miss Sunshine and being introduced to the idea of having a cast of characters that, by conventional definitions, is flawed in every way. In the movie, they overcame challenge after challenge, obstacle after obstacle, and the whole movie is just a sequence of ‘Murphy’s Law’ playing out in all possible ways.
After the nth obstacle, the notion that the movie is relatable or close to reality in any way is completely rejected by the viewer. Such a rejection leads to a loss of empathy for the characters and makes the plot entirely predictable. At all subsequent points, one thinks, ‘Oh yeah, I bet that goes wrong too,’ and all one can do is sigh as it does.
The blurb for Mathangi Subramanian’s A People’s History of Heaven reads similarly. It talks of a slum sandwiched between high rises in Bangalore – Bengaluru, if you must. Known as ‘Heaven’, this is home to a neighbourhood that, through its years of common struggle, has become a family. A tight-knit group of five girls – a graffiti artist, a transgender Christian convert, a blind girl, a migrant, and the queer daughter of a hijab-wearing union leader. The slum is to be demolished soon to make way for a shopping mall.
The girls take their place on the front lines as they fight for their own little piece of heaven. They stand before the bulldozers – dupattas and hijabs waving in the air – just as their mothers had before them and their grandmothers before them. At this point, one expects Subramanian’s work to follow Little Miss Sunshine trajectory. It is therefore a matter of great delight and surprise that the book does not.
What Subramanian achieves through the deft juggling of time is remarkable. The bulldozers, with their threat of demolition, is a mere bookend to limit her stories in the river of time. Through the stories of the mothers, the grandmothers, the wives, and the teachers, she manages to create a tiny microcosm of the world women face at large.
One also gets an ant-farm view of an equal society, where everyone is accepted entirely without hesitation – an oasis for those society labels ‘different’ and hesitates to integrate. Heaven welcomes everyone with open arms. It is rather tragic that extreme poverty and the threat of imminent homelessness seem to be precursors for an egalitarian, tolerant, and kind people.
It is perhaps Subramanian’s crowning achievement to suffuse with light, laughter, and wit the dark future that faces Heaven. She does this in the most relatable way possible – through the banal tides of everyday life.
The girls battle with a rodent problem, participate in inter-school talent contests, look for jobs for those they love, fall in love and deal with heartbreak, help each other dress up, and protect each other’s secrets. There are passages where the reader for a moment forgets exactly where these incidents take place and, in those moments, they cheer for each of the girls.
As Subramanian writes, “The world is full of almosts. Almost living, almost dying. Almost husbands, almost wives. Almost together, almost apart.” To her credit, at several points in the course of the narrative, the reader is almost one of her characters.
In the effort to flesh out the roots of her characters, Subramanian captures with great eloquence and insight the dynamism and evolution of Bangalore. In striking prose, she portrays the essence of migration from villages to cities, the hollowness of the promises modern and urban cities offer, and the tokenism and hypocrisy of the city dwellers. The same people who tell Selvi Aunty about how her caste no longer matters in the city are those that keep a separate cup and mat for her in the corner of their kitchens.
She also tackles the business of poverty – NGOs that use charity money to run ads asking for more money. As the girls age, so does Bangalore, and with age comes change and compromise. The negotiation the city must make between tradition and modernity is the same the girls make between individuality and authority; is the same that Banu’s Ajji makes in her marriage between love and respect.
Subramanian’s portrayal of Indian mothers is on point. Take, for instance, the bit about the mothers being worried that their daughters might use the demolition as an excuse to sneak around with boys; this, in their eyes, would be a bigger tragedy than the demolition itself.
If there is one dissonant note in Subramanian’s sonata, it is that of the narratorial prose. It acquires in places this velvety texture that seems in stark contrast to the soundscape of Paradise and those that call it home. The narrator is one or more of the girls and at times acquires an out-of-place omniscient quality. The howl of a pack of stray dogs is likened to a symphony, the noise of ceiling fans to a contented purr. This puts an undue strain upon the credulity of her characters.
A People’s History of Heaven is a work of singular triumph. As Subramanian puts it, the game of life has two teams – adults and children, and sometimes, the children win. The book is a triumph because in Heaven, the children win and for once, the readers wish they too could suspend adulthood and play for the other team.
The book is a triumph because of how Subramanian chooses to save Heaven. How her girls learn to use the very systems that undermine them to their advantage. It is a triumph because at 300 pages, the book still feels short. One wants to know more about Banu, Padma, Joy, Rukshana, and Deepa. It is a triumph because Subramanian gives us what we need most in these dark times – a little bit of Heaven.