Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, begins with a terrorist attack at a train station in Kolkata that claims over one hundred lives. Jivan, a Muslim teenager who lives in the nearby slums, happens to witness the attack, but when she makes a post on Facebook that is critical of the government response, she finds herself under arrest as a suspect. Majumdar deftly weaves several narrative threads together in a novel that is fast-paced enough to feel like a literary thriller, yet also turns a wise eye toward the complexities of life in contemporary India.
A Burning is filtered through the perspective of three characters, each of whom dares to dream of a better life. Jivan, newly employed at the clothing store Pantaloons, hopes to ascend to the middle class. Her neighbor, Lovely, fantasizes about becoming a Bollywood star, an aspiration that seems all the more unlikely as Lovely is a hijra; in the West, she would likely identify as a transgender woman, but in India she falls into a category of the gender ambiguous who earn a living by begging and giving blessings at weddings. PT Sir is a physical education teacher and Jivan’s former instructor who yearns to trade in his job at an all-girls school for a government position in an air-conditioned office. Lovely has information that could support Jivan’s case, but must decide whether to come forward as public opinion turns against “the terrorist.” PT Sir also has some power to intervene in Jivan’s case. In both instances, the characters must weigh their own self-interest against the uncertainties of a corrupt judicial and political system
Majumdar grew up in Kolkata, came to the U.S. to attend Harvard, went on to earn a graduate degree in anthropology from Johns Hopkins, and now works as an editor at Catapult. In her debut, she reveals herself to be keenly attuned to the injustices of life in contemporary Kolkata, especially when it comes to issues of class and gender. The novel renders the physical landscape of the city in brief, vivid imagery, including the appalling conditions at the women’s prison, where cockroaches circle the hole in the ground that serves as a toilet. One of Jivan’s fellow inmates has had half of her face burned away; “Her husband threw acid on her but, somehow, she is the one in jail. These things happen when you are a woman.” When Jivan’s family is forced from their original home near a mine, they protest the eviction by throwing bags of their urine and feces at the police. Jivan writes that, as the poorest of the poor, “We had no weapons. We had our bodies and our voice.”
A Burning also takes on the workings of party politics and the rise of Hindu nationalism. Trying to ingratiate himself into the opposition party, PT Sir finds himself giving false witness testimonies at trials, work for which he is financially compensated. Of one of the innocent defendants, he notes that, “It is true that he also belongs to the wrong religion, the minority religion that encourages the eating of beef, but that is a peripheral matter.” Majumdar skillfully reveals the ways that her characters rationalize their own moral compromises in a system that rewards them for doing so. In this regard, A Burning is not just a novel about India, but also a mirror through which American readers might contemplate the failings of our own increasingly degraded political system.
Yet it is Lovely whose ambitions are the greatest, and whose consciousness most animates the novel. Majumdar renders her first-person narration in a perpetual present progressive tense, a reminder of the way her Bengali-accented English might sound if she actually spoke English. After a power outage in the Kolobagan slum, Lovely tells us, “Now the sky is holding more light than the ground. There is a half-moon, with gray spots on it that I was never noticing before. Like the moon is having pimples also. Clouds like cotton pulled from a roll are moving under the moon, sometimes hiding it, sometimes revealing it. I am feeling that the world is so big, so full of our dreams and our love stories, and our grief too.” With passages like these, it is almost impossible not to root for Lovely, even as we come to realize that her personal success must come at a great cost.
The novel ends on a dark note, a stark reminder that those who rise to power often do so at the expense of the poor and the powerless. In this way, A Burning is very much a novel for our times.
By Megha Majumdar
Knopf Publishing Group
Published June 2, 2020