A People’s History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian
Reviewed by Aravind Mitra
A People’s History of Heaven is an unusual title for a work of fiction, but it aptly works for Mathangi Subramanian’s debut novel. It doesn’t deal with incidents and events of the people buried in the pages of Indian history, but gives voice to the life stories, hidden past, and biographies of women who have been the subjects of patriarchy, gender norms, and domestic problems. Subramanian’s creative universe defies several ideas of novel writing. It cares less for a strong plot, the appearance of the characters is random and except for the slum called Heaven, nothing connects the inhabitants. Subramanian’s debut is an ambitious and an innovative attempt that extends the frontiers of Indian writing in English by addressing several concerns that are relevant to the present societies.
Swargahalli, a slum, is a blot on the beautiful geography of Bangalore. It is an odd landscape amidst the tall buildings, sprawling bungalows, and a busy airport. The authorities want to supplant Swargahalli with a swanky shopping mall and this effort is halted by the slum’s residents. This vapor thin storyline of power and resistance becomes interesting, unique and a strong social poetic commentary because of Subramanian’s characters. The narrative unravels the lives of five girls addressing a few issues that plague women’s life. Within a limited time frame, the novel reveals the past and conjectures the future of the flawed characters. Subramanian carefully crafts Heaven’s universe with women who belong to two different generations. Banu, Deepa, Rukshana, Joy, and Padma are not only young school going residents of the slum but also the representatives of the lost selves of Neelamma Aunty, Banu’s ajji, Selvi Aunty, Gita Aunty, and Fatima Aunty. The young women promise to continue the struggles of their mothers and grandmothers.
Deepa accepts her blindness and chooses her partner. Her rationality is limited to replicate the societal norms and she says, “Well I have permission from my husband to be here, so there’s nothing you can say.” In several places, she represents her mother’s unrequited love. Rukshana’s assertion, “I don’t dress like a boy. I dress like myself,” reminds her mother Fatima’s words to one of the representatives of the health department, “These people come and talk to us like we don’t know anything.” Banu’s unrecognized skills, “Poverty might make our lives ugly. But, in Banu’s drawings, our survival is full of beauty,” are similar to Banu’s ajji’s way of saving many women in the slum from their violent husbands and miscarriages.
The novel is a people’s history, a history chronicled to reflect several ideologies that project an egalitarian society. The characters’ lives become only a tool to prove Subramanian’s intentions. The novel’s language is musical, quite literally, as ‘rhythms’ and ‘symphony’ keep on recurring. Subramanian’s linguistic experiment is quite innovative and there are no parallels in the recent past except for Mohan Rao’s The Smoke is Rising. Many feelings are expressed in precise sentences abruptly punctuated with commas and periods. What makes her dialogues very innovative is that in the chapter ‘Frangipani’, the characters are called by the things they are associated with, “Earbuds says”, “Cricket Bat mumbles” and “Spectacles says.” The inner worlds of the young girls flow in a meandering river–like sentences, “Truths flat and round that fit in your palm like five-rupee coins.” Sentences are flavored with Kannada and a couple of Hindi words and carry a lot of references to popular cultures. Subramanian’s experiment is praiseworthy but doesn’t suit the context and the world she intends to create. Her ironical nomenclature Swargahalli is too Sanskritized to be the name of a slum. Poetic narration is too beautiful to be called conversations and result in inconsistent descriptions. A confident narrative voice declares, “Women who were fiercely loved, cruelly abandoned. Who woke up every morning with fists clenched, knees tensed, ready to fight. Desperate to live,” only to be contrasted with a statement like, “Everyone in Heaven is always losing all the time.” Swargahalli is populated by migrants, people hoping for a better life and orphans. Subramanian’s highly philosophical, artistic, poetic and aphoristic language does not infuse life into these characters.
To provide an inclusive universe, Subramanian forces the characters to easily accept gender differences and alternative sexual choices. Crucial scenes like Banu’s ajji witnessing her husband’s secrets get only a few paragraphs. The language, the characters’ journey and experiences are not organically related to the context but to the author’s convenience.
The scene of a foreigner clicking Swargahalli’s picture reflects the novel’s condition. “The foreign woman doesn’t call the newspaper. She doesn’t bring help. She doesn’t do much anything at all besides framing the photographs she took and hanging them in a gallery.” As the foreign woman remains alien to Swargahalli’s conditions, the narrative voices unknowingly distance themselves from the pain and agony of the slum. However, this history is a must for it genuinely tries to build a subaltern voice through various characters and hopes for a better future.
K Aravind Mitra is currently teaching in Government First grade College, Napoklu. He studied in English and Foreign Languages University and the Central University of Hyderabad. His reviews, articles and short stories have been published in The Hindu, Prajavani, and online platforms. Now, he is trying to read classical Kannada epics to write a book on Halegannada.