Megha Majumdar’s novel, A Burning, released on June 2 is a highly anticipated debut by an Indian American writer this year. Majumdar grew up in Kolkata, India, and then attended Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University where she pursued graduate studies in sociology. She is currently an editor with the online magazine Catapult.
I approached Majumdar’s novel with a bit of trepidation. Advance praise from acclaimed authors like Amitav Ghosh and Tommy Orange made me feel that perhaps my expectations had been primed to an unreasonable high which the experience of reading the book would not be able to fulfill.
However, this novel actually captured me from its opening pages and kept me in its spell till the end. Its appeal stems from its taut narrative structure resembling the plot of detective fiction or courtroom drama, albeit without the typical resolution of such popular genres. This novel’s purpose is not so much to uncover who committed a heinous act of terrorism but to expose the ways in which the Indian state has failed its most marginalized communities.
The novel unfolds through the point of view of its three major characters: Jivan a young Muslim woman who finds herself accused of terrorism on the basis of a thoughtless comment she writes on Facebook; Lovely, a member of the transgender Hijra community who takes English lessons from Jivan and aspires to become a film star; and PT Sir, a physical education teacher who was once a mentor for Jivan but who, in his quest for political power, quickly abandons any moral compunctions.
The two female characters’ narratives are offered in first person while PT Sir’s sections of the novel are rendered in the third person. This parallels the greater intimacy that readers are invited to forge with the two female characters.
In the very first chapter, we are informed through Jivan’s voice that a train has been torched at a station near her house. She sees the burning train but just rushes home to safety. In the shanty home that she occupies with her parents, she follows a Facebook thread on the train burning incident and writes the reckless comment accusing the police and the government of inaction towards the victims and equating them with terrorists. Her comment goes viral and soon she is accused of being friends with a well-known terrorist recruiter. She is arrested and becomes an inmate of a women’s prison.
In the sections which follow in her voice, we hear of her family’s history of eviction from lands considered to be rich in minerals, the brutalization of her father by the police, the tenuous efforts to start a new life in Kolabagan driven by her searing ambition to step into the middle-class and rescue her parents from destitution.
Like Jivan, Lovely, too, is struggling to enter middle-class, overcoming the obstacles of poverty and the ostracism she faces as a member of the transgender/intersex Hijra community.
While we have seen representations of Hijras in Indian fiction, Anjum in Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness being a notable example, Majumdar offers a fully developed and complex emotional life of Lovely. She faces constant humiliation but never loses faith in her ability as an actress. Yet, traditional expectations of patriarchal society prompt her to push away Azad, the love of her life, and drive him to a traditional marriage that will give him children, even though he had resisted the idea before.
PT Sir is already a member of the middle class, unlike the two other protagonists. But he aspires for more power and more of a sense of importance beyond the humble borders of a teacher’s life. His ambitions lead him to seek refuge in the culture of political sycophancy, paying obeisance to the nationalist party leader, carrying out petty acts of subterfuge, and gradually dispensing with the last vestiges of moral conscience.
In depicting contemporary India under a neoliberal regime that on the one hand ushers in a consumerist urban culture, Majumdar is fearless in exposing its underbelly with its total disregard for the lives of the poor and the destitute, and the myriad ways in which the nation betrays them. To this, she adds an astute understanding of the role of social media platforms in exacerbating the dangers of disenfranchised citizens.
Everyone, including Jivan, can have a cellphone and a Facebook account, these platforms make her more vulnerable to becoming a target of social media outrage and scapegoating. Her impulsive comment on Facebook exposes her to being branded as a terrorist in the court of public opinion well before her actual trial. While social media provides Lovely the opportunity to disseminate her acting video and finally command the attention of a serious producer, it covertly censors her from expressing support for her friend Jivan, as the culture of fandom is fickle and aspiring stars have to carefully calibrate their personal and political comments to retain popularity.
Social media is depicted as a source of power and currency, all other institutions of a democratic society seem to be crumbling. The media, the police, the justice system are all shown to be mired in corruption. In an era of beef lynchings, attacks on journalists, police brutality on students in various universities, and scapegoating of individuals as anti-national, there is an uncanny correspondence between the fictional and the real events.
Currently, mass protests against police brutality on minorities in the U.S instigate a fight for global criminal justice reform and support for Black Lives; this novel and its concerns resonate with dreams of justice by oppressed people across continents.
Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.