Did this book turn out the way you had originally visualised?
The book began as a series of disconnected short stories that were inspired by the ethnographic research I was doing in South India’s anganwadis as part of my Fulbright-Nehru fellowship. As I wrote more, I started to populate them with the same group of girls, and with the same narratorial voice. It started to turn out more like a novel, and the plotline about the slum being destroyed—which originally was a separate story—began to appear more organic, and relevant to all of the stories.
Your novel weaves together a diverse, dynamic group of girls. How did you zero in on these protagonists?
They were all loosely inspired by girls and women who I met who challenged my thinking about impoverished communities, and about Indian ideas of womanhood and girlhood. I did originally have more characters than this, but the five girls and mothers who ended up at the centre of the book were the ones who felt the most truthful and the most interesting.
Did you consciously want to write about marginalised women?
Originally, I intended to write about girls and women academically: I have a doctorate in education, and this book was inspired by research I did as a kind of DIY post-doc. But the academic frameworks I had at my disposal didn’t seem robust enough to capture or explain what I was seeing, so I turned to fiction.
What gave birth to the rebellious tone of the book?
This is the first time someone has used that word to describe the tone! The narrator is the collective voice of the five girls, and I wanted to capture the fierce loyalty and love that we women often have for our friends when we are teenagers. That loyalty comes with a kind of toughness that I think maybe you are reading as rebellious. It’s up to the reader to interpret it.
You seem passionate about the plight of Indian girls subjected to a patriarchal system. Tell us more.
I’ve spent my whole career working with marginalised girls and women. I think patriarchy is a source of oppression for both women and men. I would love to read more literature centering female protagonists and their lives—so, to paraphrase Toni Morrison, I wrote the kind of book that I would like to see in the world.
Any particular reason in naming a slum, Swarga/Heaven?
The slum is a kind of Heaven to the girls who live there. Since I was writing as an ally and not someone who has experienced that kind of poverty myself, I didn’t want to catastrophise their lives. Heaven, therefore, became a way for me to imagine a world in which everyone was accepted for exactly who they are. The name followed.
Here the men are all cameos. Why?
Rather than answer that, I’d pose a different question: why do women only make cameos in most South Asian works of fiction written by men?
Many writers, while tackling a similar subject, end up romanticising poverty. How did you sidestep the issue?
As I wrote above, I was deeply invested in telling a balanced, nuanced story. I therefore created geographies for myself: within Heaven, and the school, girls would be able to be their full selves. Outside, they would face discrimination, poverty, and other related issues. This helped me balance between writing a narrative that was wholly devastating and naively optimistic.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working on a memoir and two works of fiction. All of them centre the lives of South Asian women, and all of them are set in America.
A writer who has had an impact on your style and why?
Sandra Cisneros, whose book The House on Mango Street is such a gorgeous, lyrical example of writing about girlhood truthfully and compassionately. Cisneros is a poet, and I often find that my favourite prose writers are the ones who are deeply familiar with poetry.