Megha Majumdar’s much-awaited debut novel, A Burning, opens with the firebombing of a packed train in West Bengal which leaves social media in a flux of public outrage, calls for justice, and anger at the incompetence and alleged complicity of the local police. It is here, on Facebook, that 22-year-old Jivan uses a new smartphone purchased from her own modest salary to register her indignation: “If the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean,” she writes, “that the government is also a terrorist?” It is not much later that she, a poor Muslim salesclerk, is hauled into a police van and promptly slapped with charges of sedition, anti-national sentiment, and terrorist conspiracy.
Both the title and opening of A Burning immediately evoke the current political climate in India; the book’s urgency flaring because of its release in the wake of the recent Delhi Pogrom, which earlier this year set India’s capital ablaze into fiery violence right under the authorities’ noses, and for which they continue to arrest and scapegoat student activists such as Safoora Zargar to this day.
Art imitates life in ‘the world’s largest democracy’
The fiery plot in this book is propelled by the lives of its three main narrators, intertwined by the terror catastrophe and by their respective desires for upward mobility: while Jivan years to leave behind the poverty that renders her life dispensable and inconsequential in the eyes of the world; Lovely, the lively transgender actress whom Jivan teaches English, aspires to attain stardom of the likes of her idols, Priyanka Chopra and Shah Rukh Khan. The third character, a man known simply as PT Sir, is a physical education teacher at Jivan’s former school, whose is enticed by the power and prestige afforded to him under the thumb of an ascending right-wing luminary — even if it comes at the cost of his morality.
In fact, morality and the politics of social ascent is as dominant a strain here as the injustice meted out by a broken system. Lovely knows that Jivan is not guilty of terrorism, but her virtue and eagerness to testify in favour of her tutor is challenged when it becomes a barrier on the road to her own dreams. Similarly, PT Sir faces a choice between conscientious responsibility and expedite ‘justice’ built on lies when he becomes witness to the brutal massacre of a family on falsified, communally motivated grounds.
Majumdar’s pen is even more unforgiving when it comes to her portrayal of institutional power. The living conditions and treatment that befall Jivan’s family throughout the book shed light on the crassness of officials as well as that of civil society, while Lovely’s experiences further accentuate the perilous way in which gender, class, religion and superstition figure in such a society. The corruption and complicity of so-called pillars of democracy are laid bare as Jivan’s trial progresses. The manipulation of Jivan’s story by a journalist shows what drives the Indian media, while the Jana Kalyan Party’s burial of the family massacre reveals the malevolence of vote-hungry parties.
Underlying every moment in A Burning is a scathing critique of a rotten, corrupt system — a machine whose cogs are oiled only by show of affluence or influence and whose courtrooms are similarly compromised; a system built on the undeterred abuse of power at the expense of the poor and the marginalised, all while maintaining a façade of integrity and rectitude.
In a country where justice is perpetually delayed, it is also equally bought, sold and mispronounced, as seen in the case of some of Jivan’s prison mates who are jailed for having acted in self-defence against an abusive husband or a streetside molester; whereas a film producer found guilty in a hit-and-run case is allowed to roam free. Similarly, the government sacrifices Jivan to please an uproarious public and secure their votes in further elections, even as students protest her fate and the true perpetrators escape unscathed. Indeed, A Burning emerges as a fierce literary indictment of a sham democracy at a time when such sentiment is needed the most.
As literary as political
Majumdar’s book with its poignancy and pointed critique of turbulence without systemic change is reminiscent of the works of Arundhati Roy and Rohinton Mistry, albeit with a far sparser prose style. Immersive and intensely readable, A Burning is written in short chapters whose brevity pack a knack for attention to small details and evoke locale, mood, and character with surprising, almost uncanny, expertness; the sights and sounds of Kolkata, in particular, are rendered with an acuity that can only come from experience.
However, peculiarities of translation make it evident that this is a book written chiefly for western eyes: certain phrases, figures of speech, names of movies are translated awkwardly, and the descriptions of Indian foods are doubly so (one tends to stop paying attention to these after seeing kochuri being described as “fried dough”). A similar issue affects the otherwise remarkable characterisation of Lovely, whose verbs always conjugating in the present continuous — “With my hips swinging like this and like that, I am walking past the guava seller” — is perhaps effective in hinting at her speaking in the Bengali, but also serves to somewhat infantilise her.
Yet, it is the writing — its nuance and vividness, its empathic understanding of variant lives, its honesty and ferocity, its gripping urgency — that makes this book such an unforgettably compelling read despite what some may call a predictable plotline. In fact, the very predictability of the story makes A Burning all the more heart-rending; a fictional world that comes alive with the aim to urge the reader to question what it is that makes such tragedy predictable in the first place.
A Burning (2020) is published by Alfred A. Knopf and Penguin-Randomhouse India.
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