Capturing Change

  • Mathangi Subramanian at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. Photograph courtesy Mathangi Subramanian
  • Mathangi Subramanian (second from left) at a panel discussion at the San Antonio Book Festival. Photograph by Allison Ponce

Indian American educator Mathangi Subramanian has recently released a book inspired by her Fulbright-Nehru scholarship work on anganwadis in India.

Mathangi Subramanian is an award-winning Indian American writer and educator. A former public school teacher, senior policy analyst for the New York City Council, and assistant vice president at Sesame Workshop, Subramanian has received several fellowships, including a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholarship.

As part of this scholarship in 2012-13, she conducted a qualitative ethnographic study of India’s anganwadis, or rural child care centers. This culminated in a participatory photo project, called Picturing Change. It also inspired her book, “A People’s History of Heaven.”

Excerpts from an interview.


You have recently released your book, “A People’s History of Heaven.” Could you tell us a bit about it?

It’s the story of five girls and their mothers, who grow up in a slum in Bengaluru, called Heaven, which is about to be demolished by bulldozers. The characters are diverse and include women who are queer, transgender, disabled, Muslim, Christian and Dalit. It’s a story about making a home, and fighting for it, even when the rest of the world tries to convince you that you don’t belong anywhere.


Is your experience as a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar at the core of the book?

It’s definitely a part of it; inspired by my Fulbright research around South India. I didn’t know it when I started, but anganwadis are some of the only free, public spaces where women can gather safely. There, I suddenly found myself surrounded by girls and women ranging from 4-year-old students and teenagers to widowed grandmothers. Their diverse voices inspired the novel’s characters. The participatory photography project, which I co-led with Bengaluru-based photographer Greeshma Patel, gave me the details for the setting. In many ways, the city itself is a character in the book.


Could you elaborate on your experience of working with the grassroots anganwadis in India?

It changed my life. I grew up hearing stories about Indian women who didn’t seem to match what I knew about Indian women, including myself. Everything I read featured submissive characters—women who were basically invisible. Going to India and getting to spend years working with women living in poverty helped me develop a sense of the country I came from, on my own terms. It also made me face my privilege, and gave me a perspective on motherhood, sisterhood and community that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. I can’t thank Fulbright enough for the opportunity.


How does your background in anthropology influence your writing?

I think that my background as a trained anthropologist makes me see the world in a different way. I am constantly looking for details, and trying to see settings that I consider familiar through fresh eyes—a process we call strangemaking. I think, it also helps me figure out how to do the in-depth research to write diverse characters with sensitivity and rigor.


How was your experience of working as an educator in the United States?

I taught for three years after I graduated from college. I worked in public schools as a science teacher and again, like the Fulbright fellowship, it was a life-changing experience. This was the first time I was around impoverished communities, and it made me realize how falsely they are represented in pretty much every kind of media. The mainstream media would have you believe they are either tragedies or success stories. Getting to know students and families, first in the Rio Grande Valley and then in New York City, helped me start the process of addressing my own biases and confronting my privilege.


What are your future plans?

I have a few projects cooking! One takes place in India, the other in the United States. That’s all I’ll say for now.

I feel like everything I write stretches my craft. I’ve even written picture books, and they are really hard! I’d love to write a screenplay or a play some day.


Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.