Indian author Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, begins with a young Muslim girl, Jivan, lying in her room in a Kolkata slum, scrolling through the news about a terrorist attack on her local railway station, in which almost 100 people have died. Her phone is brand new, purchased with her salary as a salesclerk at a shop.

She watches a video of a woman whose husband died in a burning train. The police stood by and did nothing, the woman cries. Getting increasingly angry (but also wanting more social media ‘likes’), Jivan writes a Facebook post that will change her life: “If the police didn’t help ordinary people [such as] you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?”

Jivan is arrested a few nights later, accused of aiding the terrorists who started the fire, and is held in prison where she awaits her trial. The story is frighteningly familiar in modern-day India, where cartoonists, farmers and climate activists have been arrested for being critical of Narendra Modi’s government, and where anti-Muslim hatred and violence is rising.

Majumdar grew up in Kolkata, India, moved to the United States at the age of 19 to study at Harvard University, and now lives in New York City. Her debut novel captures many of the themes of these tumultuous times. But the Big Question it asks is this: how much personal choice do we have when up against the weight of structural oppression, inequality and injustice?

The story is told through the intimate perspectives of three characters: Jivan, and the two people whose testimony can save her life — Lovely and PT Sir. The narrative moves between the three, each giving us a different point of view on the events that influence the trial and the eventual outcome.

A debut novel is full of sparkling prose and fast-paced action, but also carries a measure of predictability

Of the three, Lovely’s character is particularly endearing, and her liveliness and humour give some respite from the bleak events of the novel. She is also the only character who speaks to us in the first person.

“Sunday morning! Time to go to acting class. Fast fast, I am walking down the lane with my hips going like this and like that, past the small bank where the manager was demanding my birth certificate for opening an account. I was telling him, ‘Keep your account...’ I was telling him, ‘Birth certificate! Am I a princess?’”

An aspiring actress and hijra [transgendered person], Lovely lives in the same slum as Jivan, from whom she has been learning English. For Lovely, already living on the margins of society, testifying for Jivan threatens to get in the way of her hard-fought, heartbreakingly improbable dreams.

The third character is PT Sir, Jivan’s former schoolteacher. PT Sir’s political aspirations offer him a way to transcend the bounds of his middling life and, though he often feels uncomfortable with the lies he is asked to tell for the good of the nationalistic party he becomes a part of, ultimately he allows himself to be swept along and higher up the social ladder.

For all their individuality, by showing us how these three characters bump up against the world, Majumdar reminds us of how little control people have over their lives (or, in PT Sir’s case, how much of himself he willingly relinquishes to get what he wants). In Lovely’s words: “I am truly feeling that Jivan and I are both no more than insects. We are no more than grasshoppers whose wings are being plucked. We are no more than lizards whose tails are being pulled.”

While Lovely’s story sheds light on the lives of India’s poor and marginalised, where even good people such as Lovely struggle to do the right thing, PT Sir’s position in the story gives us a glimpse of politicians stoking hatred, even inciting violence, to get votes. Majumdar doesn’t even give him a name — he could be anyone, a cog in the machine, swayed by the promise of power and social mobility.

The novel is told in short, potent chapters combined with vivid prose, and there are some delicately precise details scattered throughout. When PT Sir wakes up one morning, “daylight fails. The sky turns so dark that lights are flipped on throughout the neighbourhood, lending the dawning of day a mood of dusk.”

When Jivan attends her first court hearing: “I stand tall, though colours appear bright in my eyes, the greens of trees luminous as a mineral seam, the ground beneath my feet composed of distinct particles.” Inside, “[i]n front, all I see is an aunty sitting at a typewriter. Tendrils of hair slip loose from the coil at the base of her neck.” While in prison, Jivan notices the veins on her cellmate’s legs are “crooked, like flooded rivers”, her towel “rough as a pumice stone.”

The parts where Jivan recounts her life’s story to the lawyer are also poignant. When stick-wielding policemen arrive to evict Jivan and her family from their home, Jivan notices: “Soon our houses were exposed to the sun, all lime walls and cracked corners. The sight of our houses, so easily broken, startled me.” When bulldozers wreck the remains, “[t]he policemen, finally calm, bamboo sticks limp by their sides, looked frightened. Maybe the houses looked too much like their own.”

The way we render language in English novels is always interesting. How do you translate a non-English speaker’s words into English prose? In many places, Majumdar does this very well. You can hear the rhythms of different languages within the English in which the novel is written. “No eyes or what?” “Where will I stand, on your head?” “What dialogue!” Lovely records herself in acting class “for study purposes.” The fan is running “on maximum speed.” Her lipstick is “gone on some cup of tea.”

Yet, despite how charmingly Lovely’s character is drawn, the language she is drawn in is the novel’s biggest flaw. The details Lovely notices about her surroundings, and her descriptions of human emotion and motivations, show her to be a sharp, empathetic character. It feels especially wrong, then, that the language in which she is rendered (grammatically incorrect, broken English) diminishes her into a stereotype, which everything else about her character resists. For instance: “At Mr Debnath’s house, he is resting in a chair, drinking tea from a saucer. That way the tea is cooling fast and he is not having to do phoo phoo.”

Lovely deserves better.

The novel sprints through the narrative. The events unfold quite quickly and it’s hard to stop reading, but when the long-dreaded end comes, you’re left expecting more. For all its sparkling prose and fast-paced action, there is a measure of predictability to the novel that you don’t want in fiction.

In the end, Majumdar leaves us in no doubt that everyone is complicit in how Jivan is treated, from the police to the media, to the politicians, to the courts, to the people. A Burning serves as a stark warning of how easy it is to be swept up in the mob, but it also shows how the freedom to choose is not bestowed equally. Lovely realises this: “In this world, only one of us can be truly free. Jivan, or me. Every day, I am making my choice, and I am making it today also.”

The reviewer is the founder of The Writing Room and talks about books on Instagram @thewritingroom.co

A Burning
By Megha Majumdar
Vintage, US
ISBN: 978-0593081259
304pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 21st, 2021

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