In A People's History of Heaven, Mathangi Subramanian celebrates female bonds in an unlikely 'feminist utopia'

  • Mathangi Subramanian, in her third literary outing, foregrounds female lives in a city slum, in a fictional tale.

  • The Indian-American writer and educator researched anganwadis, which inspired her to tell the story of people who are often denied a history.

  • The novel was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.

A blind dancer, the queer daughter of a hijabi social activist, a transgender individual who's recently converted to Christianity, a graffiti artist, and a woman who holds them all together, join forces to guard an unlikely 'heaven' in Bengaluru — a slum named 'Swargahalli'. The formidable five and their intertwined lives mark a celebration of female bonds, as they come together to save their homes from being demolished. The city has finally outgrown their less-than-humble shelters, and is now struggling to make space for the myriad dreams they nurture.

Mathangi Subramanian's third literary outing, A People's History of Heaven, is a work of fiction foregrounding female lives in a city slum. Such hovels, representing a megalopolis' dark underbelly, are often invisibilised in popular imagination and discourse. The Indian-American writer and educator's research on anganwadis — on winning a Fulbright-Nehru Scholarship in 2012 — inspired her to tell the story of people who are often "denied" a history.

In an interview with Firstpost, Subramanian talks about writing as an ally of the lesser-privileged, her novel's "feminist utopia" that stands against social oppressions, and the schismatic politics of documented history.

 In A Peoples History of Heaven, Mathangi Subramanian celebrates female bonds in an unlikely feminist utopia

A People's History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian

Your novel is pregnant with metaphors, imagery and abstractions, including the name 'Swargahalli' for a slum. What made you choose this technique of storytelling?

These are common devices in literary fiction and in poetry. I wanted to write about slums in a literary way because they are so often ignored, or thought of as undesirable. To quote (Vietnamese-American writer) Ocean Vuong, I wanted to prove that these places were "worthy of literature." Using poetic devices was one way to do this.

How easy or difficult was the transition from a young-adult writer, to writing for an adult audience? Which audience did you enjoy writing for more, and why?

I'm not concerned with how other people label my work. I'm only concerned with writing great stories as well as I can. I choose the voices in my book based on the stories I want to tell. It's up to others to decide what the audience is. I write for everyone.

In Indian literature, Bengaluru is not often the city where all the action takes place. Why did you choose to situate your story in this city?

I was living in Bengaluru while writing and researching this book, and I just felt like it was a city so packed with story. The juxtaposition of old and new, the feeling of everyone hurtling into an uncertain future, the linguistic and ethnic diversity of the people — these are all the elements you need for a good story. I only lived there briefly, but I have a deep love for the place.

The men in your story have been relegated to the peripheries, while the women assume centre stage and play formidable goddesses in their very own heaven. To me, it felt like the bulldozing governmental forces stood for a hyper-masculine, patriarchal society. Did you consciously conceive this binary in the story, or did it happen organically?

I didn't notice this was happening until a much later draft, honestly. But yes, Heaven became a kind of feminist utopia, and the bulldozers became symbols of all kinds of oppression: homophobia, transphobia, classism, casteism, and, of course, patriarchy.

The title of your book is incredibly reminiscent of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. Did the book inspire your story in any way?

I read the book ages ago, when I was in college, and it was the first time I thought about not only who gets to write history, but also who gets a history at all. Right now, the Indian government is rewriting textbooks and writing out Dalit and Muslim history — in other words, the histories of the population in my book. Furthermore, the slums where I did my research were considered temporary settlements, even though many were much older than the new high-rises and tech-parks that surrounded them. With the title, I wanted us to question what history is, and who makes it, and what it means to be allowed a history as well as to be denied one.

Mathangi Subramanian

Mathangi Subramanian. Photo courtesy: Fid Thompson.

Do you personally relate to, or feel attached to any of your characters from A People's History of Heaven? If yes, who, and why?

I don't have any favourites. I relate to all of them.

Your book consciously steers clear of romanticising poverty, while creating a utopia for the women inhabiting it, despite their traumas. How did you manage to strike this delicate balance?

I remain supremely conscious of the fact that I'm writing about a population of people who — at least in this generation — are unlikely to be able to read my book, since right now it's only in English. Knowing that no one was going to hold me accountable except myself, I tried to consciously write as an ally. To me, that meant being as nuanced as possible. I didn't want to ignore the tragedies of slum life, but I also didn't want to make tragedy the whole story. I tried to balance the hope and defeat in the lives of every single character, usually by making Heaven the site of hope, and the outside world the site of trauma.

How handy has your experience as a school teacher been to you in your writing process? What inspires you to keep telling the stories that you do?

Teaching in under-resourced rural and urban public schools in the United States was an education in humility. I realised how little I knew about the world, and how much I could learn from checking my biases, and forcing myself to listen and watch with an open mind. Teaching also helped me see first hand how entrenched, overlapping systems of oppression lock people — and especially women and children — into poverty. These lessons have shaped everything I've done, personally and professionally, and I can't overstate the power they've had on my life.

What can we expect from your desk in the future?

I'm currently working on two works of fiction and a memoir. All of my work continues to focus on women's lives.

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Updated Date: Oct 30, 2019 10:27:13 IST