Megha Majumdar’s novel A Burning, set in today’s Kolkata, is the current toast of the literary world. Speaking from New York, the 32-year-old is still coming to terms with the accolades flooding her way. She talks about living in the US for 14 years, what she misses about India and how the craft of editing honed her writing. Excerpts:
You work as an editor at Catapult. In what ways did being an editor help you write your own manuscript?
I found that editing really nourished my own work. Because you read so many manuscripts, and you really get a sense for the kind of pace, movement, surprise and complexity that you like to see on the page. So, it felt like I had very specific craft aims articulated to myself, which was very helpful. And, of course, I found that I was able to be kind of ruthless with my own pages, which was really helpful. I felt that I was able to ask questions like, ‘Why should anyone care?’ And in later stages, I read drafts thinking about moments where I was bored, you know moments where I wanted to put it down and look at my phone and that feeling of boredom is devastating to a writer. That is what you want to avoid. So, I was able to look at it coldly as a new reader. I hope.
When it comes to editing, it can always feel like you can edit some more. How do you know when to stop?
That is very true. I feel like even when I pick up the book now to do a reading for an event or something, I’ll find myself changing a sentence or just tinkering with a paragraph. You can really keep editing a book forever.
What were the challenges of getting that first draft down?
A big challenge was time. Like with anyone who has a full-time job and is also pursuing some kind of creative practice on the side. Some days, I felt like I had no more than 15 or 20 minutes before work. On good days, I maybe had an hour to work on this book. So, I wrote it, you know piece by piece. So, it moved quite slowly. But I think because I was very aware that nobody was waiting for this book, you know, nobody cared if I wrote this book or not, it was just up to me if I wanted to tell the story or not. I felt I had to reach into this reserve of discipline. It’s the same discipline, we turn to as school kids, that same discipline is sometimes tedious. But you have to sit down with your pages and be with them.
You mention how not having anyone wait for this book was liberating. As a journalist I find the deadline is my greatest inspiration! Where do you find the motivation from?
Part of what motivates me is the reminder that I gave myself—an unfinished novel is not a novel. I felt that I could write this book, but I had nothing until I had finished it. So, I think it was just kind of retreating to that place where you are quite hard on yourself, and you say, either you do it or you don’t. Either you do it, or you live with the regret that you didn’t do the work that you could have done.
This is a novel on contemporary India. And the starting point of the action is a burning train. In India, we associate burning trains automatically with the Godhra incident. Is that an association you made too?
You know, I know that the burning train is read as pertaining to Godhra by some people. But coming into it for this book, I was really thinking about trains in various ways. And one of them happens to be that it made narrative sense to have this incident at the start. Part of why I was interested in trains was I’m just very drawn to trains as these brief temporary societies where you can see the formation of these temporary but strong bonds, you can see how people respond to each other. It has its own economy with different sellers and vendors coming by, and I just felt that it was a rich society. It comes up in other ways in the book as well. In addition to it being part of the catastrophe at the start.
What are your own memories of trains?
Well, I remember taking trains for holidays and I loved the experience of doing overnight train journeys, where we would go to Delhi or Chennai [from Kolkata]. And there was something so magical about it. You get on the train at some odd hour and then you have all your food with you and then the people around you open up their snacks. I think of it all so fondly because it was such an expansion of your world. You know, as a kid, you are so focused on school and homework and exams and your friends and that’s just kind of your life. And then you go on these holidays, you get on a train, and there’s this great anticipation of a big adventure coming. And just recognising the vastness of the world. It was a great reminder of how big the country is.
Jivan, the young Muslim woman, who is the fulcrum of the novel, when did you first see her? What was the seed of that character?
That’s so funny that you ask, because the starting point for her was actually something that has become kind of peripheral in the book now. I had this image of a kid who is fleeing on a train in order to pursue some kind of better life and to improve their parents’ lives somehow. So the original place of high emotion that this character came from in some ways was this feeling of how poignant it is to get to that point in life where you feel responsible for your parents, and you feel that something has flipped and you have to take care of them in the way that they took care of you.
How essential was it for you to make her a Muslim woman? Was that something you started off with or did it come up while writing?
I realised that in order to speak forcefully about this state which imposes a certain narrative upon certain people and to really show the might of the state, this character had to be Muslim. She had to be poor. She had to be a woman. So, you know, it’s up to the reader to decide if I’ve been able to do that with complexity and truth. It was important for me to show that this person who is not really religious, what she wants is to rise to the middle class. She wants to keep her job at the mall. She wants to enjoy her new smartphone. These are the things that she thinks about. This person who would tell her own story in a different way has to contend with the burden of this foreign narrative imposed on her by the state.
You have so many precise and vivid details in the novel. For example, Jivan buying her phone on an instalment plan, to her changing from a ‘cabbage eater’ to a ‘chicken eater’. These details allow an Indian reader to place the character in a very particular context. How did you get it so right?
I think one thing that I was attentive to was that I wanted—I tried—to make sure that every detail in the book feels insightful. I didn’t want a feeling of randomness or clutter in the book and I felt that there were some details—like the ones that you’re talking about—which anybody living in India would be able to read and hopefully they would be able to imagine the world in which that detail can exist. I felt that that detail would spark their own imagination, so they could see their own street, or their own encounters with food sellers, and bring that richness to the page themselves.
Do you think it was essential for you to leave India to write this novel? You required this distance?
You know, in one way, it’s impossible to tell. I’ve no idea what I would be writing if I had stayed in India and what kind of self I would have now. But I do think that being away perhaps sharpens what you feel strongly about. I think it kind of brings into focus what you find funny and moving and angering, so I think that helped.
Staying in the US, what is it you miss most about India? Other than family, of course.
Yeah, well aside from my family and seeing my friends and the people I love, I miss so much, you know. I miss the great food. That’s a big one for me. I miss just the texture of the place. I miss going out for a walk and seeing all of these big trees and maybe getting a samosa from a little shop and just the freedom to do that kind of thing, just the feel of the place. Whenever I go home, I always notice all the sounds that you hear. You see a coconut tree outside your window, and you see a crow that comes to visit you every lunchtime and wait for your fish bone. It’s just the rhythms and textures. I miss how hard it rains, it never rains that well here, when it rains it’s always a disappointment.
How crazy have the last few weeks been for you? What are your days like?
My days are very busy. It is a very strange new reality. I’ve several interviews and podcast recordings every day, and most days I have virtual events with bookstores here in the US. It has been very surreal. I’ve been so grateful for this level of attention, which I had never expected. When I was writing this book, I didn’t think that there would be this kind of interest in it. I would have been very happy just to get a few readers. So, it has been a huge surprise and it’s definitely strange to see this private document that you worked on for so long become this public object that is out in the world that people are able to pick up if they want to.
It’s definitely been something to be really, really grateful for. Especially now, with the pandemic everywhere and the protests here in the US, it’s such a hard time to publish fiction, and to say, ‘Here is my book. Please pick it up’.
And so, I think I’m trying to hold both of those things in mind. On the one hand, I’m so proud of this book, I worked so hard on it and I hope it resonates with people. But on the other hand, this is just a moment that is bigger than my book.
Given these time, do you find it difficult to edit other people’s manuscripts? Do you ever ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this’?
I think that is a question that I ask myself even outside these particular circumstances. There’s something so essentially hopeful about publishing a book. You are constantly looking to the future. We are looking at the next year and what books we’re publishing then. There’s so much hope in that and you know, I am very lucky because at my job I get to work on books which I believe in very strongly. They are all books that I think are doing really important ambitious work, which will have long lives beyond this moment or any particular moment.
Do you have a second book hiding somewhere?
I am working on a second novel very slowly. It’s a very very different book. I have to make sure that it has legs before I talk about it.