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?


Dr. Trisha Raje, a brilliant neurosurgeon, comes from Indian royalty and the privileged upbringing associated with it. Her family is insular and reluctant to trust outsiders. When Trisha trusted an outsider fifteen years ago, disaster ensued, and her relationships with her father and brother never fully recovered. But now that her older brother, Yash, is on the cusp of announcing his candidacy for governor, Trisha has an opportunity to mend the rift in her family.

Meanwhile, she is working on a challenging case. Emma Caine, an artist, has a brain tumor. Other doctors told her it was terminal, but Trisha can remove it—only it will leave Emma blind. Emma’s brother, DJ, leaves his prestigious job as a chef in Paris to be at his sister’s side. Not knowing their connection through Emma, Trisha and DJ meet when he caters a fundraising event. They immediately loath each other but try to put their distaste aside to convince Emma to agree to the surgery, although Trisha can’t deny she salivates over his food.

Trisha’s family, particularly her father, view her relationship with the Caines as a threat to the Raje family. DJ himself carries a secret that might damage Yash’s reputation if it comes to light. Trisha has to weigh her newfound yet vulnerable place in the family against her responsibilities as a physician and her personal desires while DJ worries about earning enough to pay for Emma’s medical bills.

For most of the novel, Trisha was quite unlikeable, though towards the end she gained some perspective. I did like that Trisha, Emma, and DJ were all so committed to their careers which were actually more like callings. Trisha had some interesting family members but they were underutilized, particularly her younger brother, Vansh, and her cousin Esha. Another cousin owned a restaurant that had once been successful though was now on the verge of bankruptcy; I was curious about the backstory there.

Food, of course, plays a dominant role in the book, and it’s interesting to see how preparing and eating food can connect people and break down boundaries, particularly the way DJ approaches a menu. Recipes can also be shared secrets that serve to bond characters. Besides taste, sight is an important sense in the book both for Emma and fir Trisha who cannot see without glasses or contact lenses.

This is, obviously, based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice which I haven’t read, but I did skim a summary. DJ’s real name is Darcy James. A journalist named Julia Wickham seems to serve the same purpose as the character on which she is based. As in the original, the lovers must overcome pride and prejudice before they can admit their true feelings for each other.

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors is a light, breezy read, and I think that fans of romances or love stories will enjoy this in particular.