A Burning by Megha Majumdar
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date: June 2, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Cultural, Debut, Fiction, Literary
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Jivan is a young woman living with her parents in a slum in India. She is a sales clerk at a nice clothing store. Everyone around her is shocked then when she is arrested for the bombing of a commuter train that killed over 100 people. She is the nexus at the center of Megha Majumdar’s novel, A Burning. The novel’s other two narrators are PT Sir, a gym teacher who knew her when she was a school girl and Lovely, a transsexual Jivan was tutoring. Both have the power to save her, but will they?
Jivan’s life is one of abject poverty which she is working hard to escape. They have moved to the city only because the coal mining village where her mother used to work, destroyed their home to mine more coal. Her father owned a rickshaw until injuries made it impossible for him to work anymore. She tutors Lovely, a hijra—a transsexual who is largely outcast from society, but is also seen as blessed and earns money by conferring her blessings on brides and babies. Lovely wants to get into movies and is the lightness in A Burning. She is sassy, sure of herself, and speaks in exuberant sing-song, stilted English. She knows the package Jivan was carrying was books for her, not a bomb, but speaking up will cost her everything she’s fought for because Jivan is Muslim and the state wants an easy villain.
Into this mix comes PT Sir, a man with no teaching credentials, whose desire is for prestige and money sends him into an up-and-coming right-wing political party, that uses fear to gain power. He performs multiple ‘favors’ that largely include giving false testimony in court against Muslim defendants. His connection to Jivan is wafer thin, but he portrays it as something more important in an effort to increase his standing with party leaders.
…PT Sir joins his hands in greeting, bows his head. In the great humility of this gesture he feels a shiver of electricity run through him. How close to power he is.
In chapters alternating between the three characters, Majumdar puts forth a bleak picture of Indian politics. Corruption is endemic as is persecution of the nation’s Muslim population. After Jivan is arrested she is immediately sent to prison where she joins hundreds of other women, many who have been waiting years for trials. Her income supported her parents so they are destitute. Every step of her path leads downward with no hope in sight.
It is a sad truth that important reading, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, is generally heavy. This axiom fits A Burning because although Majumdar’s writing is strong and the story realistic, that realism is bleak. This is depressing reading and while I know reading diversely and being aware of the difficult circumstances of others’ lives is important, it can be overwhelming. I’m currently reading nonfiction about systemic racism in America and have to admit it leaves me little mental or emotional bandwidth to read oppressive fiction. If you are in a mental space where absorbing injustice and pain is possible, then A Burning is a well-crafted novel about life in modern-day India.
Backlist reading about life in India: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (nonfiction), A People’s History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian (fiction)
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