A Burning

Frustrated? Disappointed? Cynical? I can’t quite nail down how I was feeling after finishing Megha Majumdar’s A Burning. The book lights a fire, burns and builds up hope, but ultimately comes crashing down, disintegrating the ashes bit by bit.

I wanted a happy ending to this novel—I was somehow hopeful all along that one of the characters’ conscience would be ignited such that our protagonist Jivan (who is in prison after having been accused of committing a terrorist bombing of a train station) would get out of prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Maybe it is because I am so accustomed to this idea that right trumps over wrong… or maybe it is because I believe in a sense of justice, however illusory the concept may in fact be?

There are two potential saviors to Jivan’s plight: 1. Her friend Lovely and 2. Her ex-physical education teacher PT Sir. Both struggle between morality and their newfound fame, power, and wealth.

  • Lovely is the sole witness who can testify to the where/why—Jivan was teaching Lovely English and was at the train station that precise date/time with a package of English books for Lovely. Yet Lovely is also a hijra (a specific social category at the intersection of gender and class in India) who aspired, previously on the awkward fringes of society, to be a movie star and is now getting her first taste of being one after testifying at Jivan’s trial.

While I am lying down in bed and closing my eyes, I am feeling my heart teaching me its own lesson. My heart is saying: This is who you are, Lovely. You are growing from a family which was betraying you, so this is nothing new. Jivan can be going forward without you also. In fact this heart is reminding in my chest, you are not even her family. Leave her, this cold box is saying. Weren’t you dreaming of being a movie star? Weren’t you dreaming of being so close to fame? This night, I am sleeping in shame, and I am waking in shame, and still shame is weaker than the other thing. —Lovely

  • PT Sir is a key witness for character evidence—PT Sir can provide background to Jivan’s upbringing (and testify that no, the girl he taught in secondary school couldn’t have bombed a train station). But PT Sir is also the newest member, climbing to ascendance with rapid pace, of an emerging political party who is grasping (and winning) power.

Paying for the tandoor in a sheaf of cash, he feels rich. He feels powerful in how casually he decides that he will buy it, that he will pay the full amount right away. Monthly installments are for the common man. He? He has ascended. —PT Sir

Majumdar offers glimmers of hope—yes, you think to yourself, Jivan will be saved. She is innocent. At first, you enjoy the ride because Majumdar writes with a richness that evokes the imagery of the India you are in, replete with flavors, scents, and sounds. For example:

“Outside the door, a man slowly pedaled his rickshaw, the only passenger his child, the horn going paw paw for her glee.”

And you also keep reading because the book is so funny at the same time that it is so sad. This is because Majumdar lays bare issues—socioeconomic class, gender, and religion to name a few—smack dab in the reader’s face. She presents all these issues plaguing any current society with short, fluid sentences that all pack powerful punches. As an example, Jivan and her prison inmates witness the booking (for the shooting of an endangered rhino of all things) of Sonali Khan, a famous movie producer—they all eagerly wait for her arrival to the woman’s prison, envisioning the “luxurious” changes that will come along (regular servings of chicken curry and an upgraded television). But Sonali Khan doesn’t ever arrive.

Then we hear that Sonali Khan is being kept under house arrest, which means that she lives, just as before, in her own house. Even the meaning of “prison” is different for rich people. Can you blame me wanting, so much, to be—not even rich, just middle class? —Jivan

There are moments when you want to turn away because Majumdar doesn’t sugarcoat anything. Sure, you can try to push the discomfort out of the way by cabining the novel as political fiction (and sure, voices in your head tell you: this is getting political and no, no I don’t enjoy political commentary mixed with fiction). But despite knowing that this story is mere fiction, the discomfort is real because there are real degrees of truth is this work that keep reverberating at the back of your mind.

So do yourself a service and plunge into this book. Don’t turn away from the uglies. Don’t bury the inevitable outcome. Don’t hide behind a fairytale facade that as long as we turn away, things won’t take a downward turn, things won’t touch us, and things will go away and resolve on its own.

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