A Burning, the author’s debut novel, is a story about the push and pull of desire and its frustration, and the price people will pay to live their dreams
A Burning (originally published in the US last year) comes to the UK on a wave of high praise. And it deserves it. Yet, on a superficial level, it would be easy to file Megha Majumdar’s debut novel in the ever-expanding folder of works that probe the disappointments that have followed India’s independence and the inherent injustice and unfairness of the world’s largest democracy today.
The novel follows three main characters, whose lives are interconnected, but who exist on the fringes of society in a variety of ways: Jivan, a slum-dwelling young Muslim woman arrested and convicted on terrorism charges following the blowing up of a train in Kolkata; Lovely, a hijra and aspiring actress to whom Jivan has been teaching English and who can potentially provide an alibi; and PT Sir, Jivan’s school PE teacher, who looked out for his impoverished student during her studies and can now attest to her good character in court, but who also finds himself accidentally involved in state politics and on the up.
In the end, this is a novel about the push and pull of desire and its frustration, and the price people will pay to live their dreams. The lives of all three are propelled by a combination of corruption, public opinion and its manipulation (by, among other things, social media), a patriarchal society and various forms of exploitation. ‘Jivan and I are no more than insects… grasshoppers whose wings are being plucked,’ Lovely reflects as the novel approaches its climax. No one can help them, she continues; broken wings or not, the only people who can help them are themselves. Yet the more Lovely and PT Sir progress in life (Lovely towards an acting career; PT Sir towards political office and the wealth that comes with it), the more their individual agency becomes compromised. And that agency is precisely what Jivan requires of the pair as she seeks their testimony to avoid death. A thriller, a social commentary and a story about people who are silenced and yet struggle to be heard, this is a novel of relevance far beyond the borders of the subcontinent in which it is set.
A Burning, by Megha Majumdar, published by Scribner