Finding ‘heaven’ in Bengaluru
Set in a Bengaluru slum, this novel takes a poignant look at urban poverty and women’s lives
Why does Bengaluru feature so seldom in Indian English literary fiction? One of the world’s fastest growing cities seems to have few chroniclers of its explosive change. Mumbai has Salman Rushdie and Suketu Mehta, Delhi has Khushwant Singh and William Dalrymple, Kolkata has Amitav Ghosh and Jhumpa Lahiri. Bengaluru-based writers like Lavanya Sankaran, Anjum Hasan and Vivek Shanbhag (in translation) have made brave attempts, but the city still lacks storytellers.
Mathangi Subramanian agrees. Her novel, A People’s History Of Heaven, tells the story of two cities, old and new Bengaluru. “I don’t think I have lived in a city more worthy of literature," says the author. “I was fascinated with the simultaneous push for progress and the intense nostalgia for the past, the mix of linguistic traditions, and the diversity of people living there. It’s a place that’s rich with story, so it was easy to write there."
The novel follows five girls who live in Swargahalli, a slum which is the “heaven" of the title. Over them lurks the constant spectre of demolition, because Swargahalli is one of the slums that can no longer be tolerated in new Bengaluru. Meanwhile, the feisty five—including one transgender and one queer girl—want to live a life where “girls get jobs and boys make sambar".
Who: Subramanian is an Indian-American writer, teacher and educator. Both her previous books were for young adults. In Dear Mrs Naidu, published in 2015, a 12-year-old girl battles for her right to attend a posh school under the Right to Education Act. Subramanian also wrote a book on fighting bullying in schools; children and their concerns are pivotal to her work.
In 2012, she won a Fulbright fellowship to study anganwadis (government-supported child care centres) in Bengaluru. The work inspired this book. “I realized that anganwadis are some of the only spaces where impoverished Indian women can gather safely and publicly." She had conversations with everyone, from 80-year-old widows who had lived in slums all their lives, to 12-year-old runaways in children’s homes.
Subramanian makes a confident leap from writing for young adults to writing for adults. She wisely resists the usual temptation of the relatively new author: the urge to throw everything and the kitchen sink into her novel. She focuses entirely on Swargahalli and its concerns, and does not attempt to cover every social evil in India.
This focus allows Subramanian to explore the tender relationship between the girls in leisurely detail, and it is in the development of these characters—and those of their mothers—that she excels. The radical schoolteacher Janaki, for instance, a mentor to the girls, is described in one economical line. “Instead of taking care of a family like all the other women in Bangalore, Janaki maam is taking care of herself."
What: If the title of the book sounds familiar, it’s perhaps because you are recalling American historian Howard Zinn’s best-selling A People’s History Of The United States. Zinn’s 1980 opus described the battles of the dispossessed: slaves fighting slavery, unionists against capitalists, women against patriarchy.
If history is written by the victors, Subramanian’s novel will get you to see it from the point of view of the losers. She says she was loosely inspired by Zinn, but more specifically “wanted to explore who gets a history and who doesn’t, what it means to be denied a history, and what it means to demand one".
The girls of Swargahalli, of course, are those who don’t get a history. Subramanian is scathing about how the state erases slum dwellers. “Early on, I was troubled by the dissonance of calling slums ‘temporary settlements’ when they had existed for decades. In Bengaluru, this was particularly striking, since many of the slums were much older than the newly constructed buildings around them. For example, Ejipura (a slum near the posh Bengaluru suburb of Koramangala) was 30 years old when it was demolished in 2013."
The men of Swargahalli are peripheral; it is the women who run the world. As the grandmother of one of the girls tells a new widow: “We are women. Sometimes our husbands leave us. Sometimes they die. Sometimes they are here and we are still alone. Yet every one of us has survived. What makes you so special?"
With all the focus on character, dialogue, and a sense of place, sometimes the book feels like a series of observations, perceptive and poignant, but with little heft. The plot may feel a bit flimsy, and one wishes for a punchier storyline.
Why: Read this book if you are looking for that rare beast: a novel that talks about the Indian poor without succumbing to poverty porn.
Subramanian had a strategy: Her thorough research included reading the autobiographies of Muslim, transwomen and Dalit women, working with students who had learning disorders, and hiring beta readers from these communities.
“In writing the book, I decided early on that Heaven would be a kind of utopia where the girls could all be themselves, and that the problems they faced would be outside the confines of the slum and the school," she says. “The reason for this is that I made a conscious choice not to limit the characters to their trauma, but instead to give each of them some kind of triumphs. I wanted to write balanced humans, thereby avoiding the trap so many authors fall into, which is treating India’s poverty as a tragedy."
There is even dry humour. “If you ask our mothers, they will tell you Bengaluru has just one problem: engineers," is the opening to a passage that describes how Bengaluru went from being a city of lakes and gardens to one of towering glass buildings.
However, she does occasionally succumb to florid writing. The girls have “hips like palm fronds" and a variety of types of hair, from “soft and nervy like October skies" to “black and glittery, like a strip torn off midnight’s double-colour sky". Their teacher has “hair the colour of wishes" and “eyes cut like broken stones". The flowery passages jar, more so because her writing is mostly taut and effective. And it seems a little too pat and convenient that a group of five should include one transgender and one queer girl.
“I do still struggle with being a privileged woman who has written a story in English that the people who populate my book probably won’t be able to read," says Subramanian. She needn’t. This is a strong novel, which is thankfully free of the voyeurism that plagues the genre. It is also a promise of more to come.
Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru-based journalist and author.