A Burning: Good Books Are Hard to Read

A Burning, by Megha Majumdar, p. 304, is available internationally under Penguin Hamish Hamilton Publishers. 

Good books – even as they are arresting – are often hard to read. This is not because they are difficult in themselves so much because of their content. Human societies are callous and viscous; cruelty, greed, and selfishness are manifest across the world, and one purpose of stories is to picture this layout. This makes for hard truths, often, and this is what I mean when I say good books are hard to read. It is also in such terms I read A Burning (Alfred A Knopf, 2020, p. 293), the debut novel by Megha Majumdar, a thoroughly good book. It is hard to read precisely because it accurately delineates with bleakness and compassion contemporary India. It is a story of prejudice and selfishness, as they are tied to everyday aspirations, and the ghosts such acts of calculations let loose in India today.

The novel centers around the stories of three people in a city in West Bengal, clearly Kolkata even though the city is not named. The first protagonist is Jivan, a Muslim girl, charged with terrorism in connection to an attack on a train at the Kolabagan Station, close to the slum where she lives with her parents. The second is Lovely, a hijra, dreaming of being an actress, and whom Jivan sometimes tutors in English. The third is PT Sir, a physical education instructor at the all-girls school Jivan attended, an ancillary teaching staff who becomes involved with the rising Hindu nationalist party in the state. Each of the three characters represents a different thread in the tapestry of India – the idea of rising to the middle class, the idea of becoming a star, and the idea of becoming a political leader. Their stories play out in the complex context of current-day Indian life, widespread anti-Muslim violence and inequality, the undeniable cult and power of celebrity, and the victimization of all those who are not Hindu men.

It begins with Jivan posting a comment on Facebook calling the government “terrorists” – late at night when most of our most careless mistakes are made. She is arrested the next day and charged with being part of the terrorist attack on the train, with the government using details of her Facebook conversations with someone they claim is a terrorist recruiter as evidence against her. Because she is poor and Muslim, Jivan is afforded no leeway and is quickly sucked into the opaque legal system that she cannot afford to navigate. Her hopes of freedom rest on her telling her life story to a news reporter, which she believes will accrue public support, and the facts of the day in question, provided by Lovely, whom she was taking books to at the time of the attack.

As the book barrels forward through Jivan’s story, it also narrativizes the lives of Lovely and PT Sir at the same time. Each of the two, one could read, as characterizing certain figurations of appeal in the ideological spectrum: the liberal and the conservative. Lovely navigates the cruel life of a hijra in Kolkata, trying to make money through blessings and begging, and paying most of it to go to acting lessons. She hopes that she will become a famous film actress, and in that way give voice to the loss she lives with because of who she is, a hijra who is poor and cannot ever have children and a family. PT Sir, aligning with the rising status quo of Hindu nationalism, rises quickly within the new political party. He hopes to make more of himself in life and believes in making society better, especially in improving the apathetic circumstances of schooling. He comes to be represented as a politician who provides an authentic voice of the people; written as particularly effective because he can delude himself about the cynical nature of political parties, wrapping themselves in high-minded rhetoric of nationalism and social responsibility. How these figures end up impacting Jivan’s story is the immediate thread of the novel, but Majumdar’s art as a writer is to flesh out all three characters’ trajectories in evocative thematic significance to contemporary India.

Stylistically speaking, A Burning is compulsively readable. It is told in short chapters, written in economic prose, alternating perspectives and foci on characters. Majumdar seems to be a skilled writer who knows our short attention spans intimately and recognizes the need to move briskly to appeal to our constraints. This compositional approach has become increasingly popular in recent years, with accomplished practitioners not necessarily losing out on the craft of storytelling in the process. Normal People, the Sally Rooney publishing hit of a few years ago, which has also been translated into an exquisite mini-series by Hulu and BBC is a good example of this style. In my college writing classes, I often assign Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime, another example of this style, precisely because it communicates complex issues in concise, terse chapters. I have found that my students can read the book more effectively because the chapters are so short, which helps them get through sections in one sitting and so actually helps them read better. I believe this is to be the same for A Burning. I read it quickly, within in a few days, largely because I was able to get through individual chapters in one sitting since each ran four to five pages at their longest. A Burning unfurls so much of itself in showing the moments making up its story precisely and incisively, enabling the subtlety of the meaning and consequences of events to only become fully apparent as the narrative progresses and the events accumulate. It reads, in some ways, like a mystery-thriller, but this genre-identity belies its real significance as a great piece of fiction by a tremendous new writer.  

In its bleakness and pathos, A Burning is evocative of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. There are clear parallels with this book and the Roy classic; both are powerful debut novels highlighting how badly Indian society treats its least. Whereas in Roy’s novel, violence upon the Dalit community is highlighted, in A Burning, the scapegoats du jour are shown to be the Muslims, the “beef-eaters.” Both can be read as fatalistic (a hallmark of Indian fiction), but both also flesh out how others’ choices over their own lives act upon ourselves – even as their consequences remain largely unknown and hidden from our direct perception. Majumdar, like Roy, can humanize our vulnerabilities as they are connected to our corruptions, and this makes her novel resonate beyond the political to what makes the essence of our personhood. Fostering empathy is often provided as a rationalized function of all good books and Majumdar, in Burning, makes a powerful new claim on this terrain. It is a story of urgency, told urgently, and that needs to be read urgently. 

This review was originally published in the Daily Star Book Review page.

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