Book Review: A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF HEAVEN, uniting saving a slum in Bangalore

A People’s History of Heaven
Mathangi Subramanian

When the city government sends bulldozers to raze the Bangalore slum nicknamed “Heaven,” a group of women resolves to save their home and physically blocks the equipment from moving forward. Five teenage girls, friends since childhood, decide to join their mothers in protecting their neighborhood.

Though the conflict with the city provides the overarching structure to the novel, the real stories in A People’s History of Heaven comes from the histories of the five girls: Banu, an enterprising engineer and artist who can build or repair anything; Deepa, whose parents decided to pull her out of school due to her visual impairment; Joy, a transgender academic whiz from a Christian family; Padma, a transplant from a rural area with a complicated family history; and Rukshana, a Muslim, who is beginning to understand her queer sexuality.

Heaven has been left to the women: men have for the most part abandoned them for alcohol, younger women, or death. The grandmothers, mothers, and daughters are enterprising entrepreneurs and savvy in their manipulation of government schemes—the only way they can survive in a quickly gentrifying city.

Though the girls face discrimination, hunger, and poverty, they are quick to warn readers not to pity them, in one case noting, “Poverty might make our lives ugly. But in Banu’s drawings, our survival is full of beauty.” Still, the novel is full of bifurcations: girls versus boys; children versus adults; rich versus poor. As one character explained to Padma, though, “You can’t understand other people’s stories if you don’t understand your own.”

In this book, the story is narrated by the quintet. I don’t remember reading a book with a collective narrator since The Virgin Suicides. While the books aren’t the same in any other ways, that underlying similarity gave me all the feels.

The New York Times criticized Heaven for being heavy-handed with the symbolism, and Kirkus Reviews thought the book might be better positioned as YA. Looking back, I can see why the reviewers made these observations, but I really did enjoy reading this book. It showed the realities of living in an urban slum in India while allowing the characters to be fully realized and empowered.

Have you read this book? What’s your favorite book set in India or Southeast Asia?