A Fiery Debut

India is known for its size. It covers a vast stretch of land and is jotted with different features that make it one of the more prominent nations in the world. Its vast tract of land was the cradle of some important civilization and was the birthplace of important religions. It is a melting pot that houses a spectrum of colorful cultures and diverse races. It has also risen above the quagmires and developed into one of the world’s largest economies. But as time has proven, development comes with a price, and India’s case is no different.

In her debut novel, A Burning, Indian-born writer Megha Majumdar paints an evocative picture of the social and political atmosphere in her city of birth, Kolkata, and native country of India. The story commenced when a train plying the slums of the city was set to fire. The titular and literal burning resulted to the death of over 100 commuters. It was an unfortunate event and the general public wants blood, and they want it soon. Immediately, a young Indian Muslim woman named Jivan was zeroed in as the primary suspect. It was alleged that she was abetting terrorists and helped carry out the attack.

What linked Jivan to the grisly crime? First, she was seen to be at the scene whilst carrying a suspicious box. Through scrutiny of her personal social media account, it was learned that she was communicating with a terrorist recruiter. Furthermore, the authorities uncovered several unpatriotic comments she made on a couple of Facebook posts referencing the event. However, Jivan insisted that she was innocent of the crime she was being accused of carrying out. But the public wants retribution and they all turned their collective backs against her.

“A train is like a film. You see, on the train we can be observing behaviors, arguments, voices. How people are looking happy or upset. How they are speaking with their mother, and with their fellow passengers and with a pen seller.

~ Megha Majumdar, A Burning

Majumdar then takes the reader to a rollercoaster ride that traverses the political and social atmosphere of India, a nation renowned not only for its size but also for its diversity, its distinct colors, and vast culture. In exploring this, Majumdar used terrorism as the grand blanket that shrouds the narrative. Over the past couple of years, India has seen a couple of these gruesome attacks such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks, a series of terrorist attacks perpetrated over a couple of days in the month of November. In using terrorism as her novel’s primary plot driver, Majumdar also rendered the story a universal tone.

In A Burning, Majumdar cleverly used the train, a modern infrastructure that, on some levels, was emblematic of the rapid development of India. It is also one of its primary modes of transport but it is also vulnerable to terrorism attacks. Two years before the infamous 2008 Mumbai attacks, on July 11, 2006, Mumbai was again the epicenter of terrorist activities when seven bombs were detonated over a period of 11 minutes on the Suburban Railway.

Beyond the subject of terrorism, A Burning, covered a vast ground, as vast as India itself. In the process, Majumdar introduced a colorful trio of interesting characters – Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir. Jivan’s fate hinged on the testimonies of Lovely and PT Sir. Lovely is a hijra, a third sex recognized in India. She dreams of becoming a successful Bollywood actress. In order to fulfill her dreams, she was taking acting lessons and also English lessons from Jivan. PT Sir, on the other hand, was Jivan’s former gym teacher who looked after her when she had nothing to eat. PT Sir is both ambitious and opportunistic and he ended up getting entangled with the right wing political parties.

Through the varying perspectives of the three main characters, the readers were given an insight on the plethora of challenges that hound modern India, from abject poverty to corruption to political extremism to internal discrimination. In painting the poverty gripping the nation, Majumdar mined inspiration from her own childhood memories. Before settling in the slums of Kolkata, Jivan and her family lived in a were forcefully evicted from their former neighborhood for miners to extract the coal underneath it. The community’s personally crafted “bombs” were no match to the army of bulldozers the policemen arrived with.

“Society is telling that I cannot be dreaming this dream. Society is having no room for people like me because we are poor, and we may not be speaking perfect English. But is that meaning we are not having dreams?”

~ Megha Majumdar, A Burning

The picture of India that Majumdar drew was neither pretty nor pleasant, a world away from the glamorous and romantic flare of the Taj Mahal. It was also in these facets that A Burning resonated to a global audience as these are subjects that readers are all familiar with. A Burning is also a timely novel as it underscored the role of social media in our daily lives. It portrayed how social media is now being used as a tool to recruit terrorists; and a government surveillance tool. It can no longer be denied that social media has taken over our lives.

The novel is also filled with moral intersections that defined and altered all of the characters’ lives. Majumdar did an amazing job of driving the readers into the heads of the characters. They are all complex and they have their own motivations but one thing was for sure, they all want to get ahead in life. It was a sad reality but in a nation where the denizens strive to keep afloat, getting ahead is synonymous to survival. After all, life is all about getting ahead of the race, not all the time but most of the time. And in getting ahead, we sometimes have to compromise because, ultimately, we have to survive. At times, even a small whiff of power, of political clout, is enough to tip one’s morals and values.

On a brighter note, the narrative is about dreams and hopes. It is about reaching for those elusive stars, and overcoming the obstacles that block the path to success. Lovely was the epitome of tenacity and optimism. She was mocked for her being and was even subjected to abuse. However, her spirit never wavered. She once remarked, “Nothing is simple for a person like me, not even one hour on the train. My chest is a man’s chest, and my breasts are made of rags. So what? Find me another woman in the whole city as truly woman as me.” She had to make some sacrifices along the way but she remained resolute about her dream. She chased it, notwithstanding everything that stands in the way. Jivan, on her own, also had dreams she wanted to fulfill. In a nation where poverty remains prevalent and the path to success fraught with obstacles, dream is the one tangible thing one can hold on to.

All throughout the heavy themes the novel explored, Majumdar’s writing held its own. She had a descriptive prose that was lush and vibrant. She managed to capture powerful moments and scene with precision. Her capable writing came up with an immersive narrative that propels the reader from the onset. She did, however, make blunders by accentuating the narrative with ill-timed interludes. They were to enrich the reader’s understanding and appreciation of the story but most of the time, they were unnecessary.

Daughter, never let anyone tell you those lies. You are coming from the most previous place. Not from my womb, no, but from the deepest dreams of my heart.

~ Megha Majumdar, A Burning

A Burning isn’t a perfect novel, as most are. At its heart, it is the story of three social outcasts. However, the three characters’ stories rarely brushed up on each other. Although they were connected by invisible and deeper strands – prejudice, discrimination, poverty, ambition – their stories rarely intertwined. Moral conflicts aside, there were few emotional strands that connected the characters to the readers. At times, A Burning felt more like a social, political, and cultural commentary rather than a literary work.

Flaws aside, A Burning is a relevant and timely read which had the right mix of political, cultural, and social elements. Whilst Majumdar painted a picture of India with vivid colors, she also managed to resonate on a universal scale. It was an ambitious undertaking and it did achieve some of its vision. There were parts that could have been polished but it was still a great and insightful read. A Burning was still a literary spectacle, a fiery debut worthy of its accolades.

Rating

72%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 19%
Writing (25%) – 19%
Overall Impact (15%) – 10%

Earlier this year, while browsing for books to include in my Top 10 Books I Look Forward To list, Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, immediately captured my interest. Initially, I had a challenging time finding a copy of the book but luckily, an online bookseller had one so I grabbed the opportunity. The premise of the novel was the first facet that immediately grabbed my attention because it is grounded on relevant and timely themes – the use of social media, discrimination, terrorism, among others. Of the three primary characters, Lovely’s wit and humor warmed me although I was torn by the end because of the choice she had to make. But I guess it can’t be helped. It was a promising debut although it did feel more like a commentary rather than a literary piece, the same issue I had with Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.

Book Specs

Author: Megha Majumdar
Publisher: Knopf
Publishing Date: June 2020
Number of Pages: 289
Genre: Political Fiction, Domestic Fiction

Synopsis

Jivan is a Muslim girl from the slums, determined to move up in life, who is accused of executing a terrorist attack on a train because of a careless comment on Facebook. PT Sir is an opportunistic gym teacher who hitches his aspirations to a right-wing political party, and finds that his own ascent becomes linked to Jivan’s fall. Lovely – an irresistible outcast whose exuberant voice and dreams of glory fill the novel with warmth and hope and humor – has the alibi that can set Jivan free, but it will cost her everything she holds dear.

Taut, symphonic, propulsive, and riveting from its opening lines, A Burning has the force of an epic while being so masterfully compressed it can be read in a single sitting.

About the Author

Megha Majumdar was born and raised in Kolkata, India. In 2006, she moved to the United States to pursue a degree in social anthropology at the prestigious Harvard University. While studying at Harvard, Majumdar also took creative writing classes. After graduating from Harvard, she moved to John Hopkins University to pursue a Ph.D. in social anthropology but she ended up graduating from the graduate school with a master’s degree instead.

Majumdar works as an editor for Catapult Books. In 2020, she made her literary debut with the publication of A Burning. It was released to positive and critical reviews. It was also shortlisted for the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medal for fiction.

Majumdar currently resides in New York City.