MEGHA MAJUMDAR’S debut novel A Burning (Hamish Hamilton; 304 pages; Rs 599) has received the kind of attention that most debut authors wouldn’t even dare to dream of. Majumdar was born and raised in Kolkata and now works as an editor at Catapult, in New York City. She would have first come to the attention of select Indian readers when she was in conversation with Margaret Atwood for Jaipur Literature Festival 2020’s Brave New World series of online discussions. Atwood not only held her book up to a worldwide audience on April 22nd, she also recommended it to all her readers. From thereon, the rustle around A Burning has turned into a gale of approval. In the cover blurb, Amitav Ghosh deems it the ‘best debut novel I have come across in a long time… the arrival of a new voice of immense talent and promise’. She has received raves not only from the likes of Parul Sehgal of The New York Times but also James Wood of The New Yorker. The attention that Majumdar is receiving is comparable to the fanfare that hailed Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things in 1997. While the pandemic has kicked the literary world in its shins, this novel has brought the attention right back to the fundamentals—the debut author with a story to tell.
A Burning is a contemporary Indian novel that excels on certain fronts. It tells of a radicalising India with the lightest of touches. To Majumdar’s credit she never comes across as an author with an agenda. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy’s second novel that came out in 2017, for example, too often sounded like a placard and less like a page. Majumdar writes with a hand that is steadied by deep understanding. She is too skilled to fall into hyperbole. Her disquiet with what she sees unfolding in India never reaches the level of rhetoric. Here the story comes first, and the ideology, a distant second. It is a novel about a scapegoat, in the true Biblical sense, where a goat must be sacrificed to carry the sins of the community. By telling the story from the point of view of the scapegoat it reveals the many travesties of justice and ruthlessness of society. As Jivan, the protagonist, says, ‘This country needs someone to punish… And I am that.’
The novel tells the story of the young Muslim woman Jivan who is accused of helping to blow up a train, killing 112 people. The cops come to her door because of a Facebook post by her that reads, ‘If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?’ The other two lead characters in the story are PT Sir, who taught Jivan physical exercise, and Lovely, whom Jivan taught English. Their testimonies will play a role in deciding Jivan’s fate in court, after her arrest.
Megha Majumdar writes with a hand that is steadied by deep understanding. She is too skilled to fall into hyperbole. Her disquiet with what she sees unfolding in India never reaches the level of rhetoric
Share this on
PT Sir is recruited by a local politician Bimala Pal to provide evidence against a man who is supposed to have robbed a hardware store. PT Sir has never seen the man, but he has been told that this man steals for a living. ‘There has never been evidence, though his neighbours and friends all know the truth. It is true that he also belongs to the wrong religion, the minority religion that encourages the eating of beef, but that is a peripheral matter, according to Bimala Pal’s assistant. The main issue is, a robber has to be stopped. What decent man would object to participating in the execution of justice?’ Through astute observations such as this, Majumdar shows how the majority community and the system slowly pivots against the minority religion. The absence of evidence does not determine guilt or innocence, instead how friends and neighbours perceive the ‘wrong religion’ can define how one is treated by both state and community. It can determine whether one will live, or go to prison, or die.
A common thread ties together Jivan, Lovely and PT Sir. They are all a ‘reminder that dreams and dreamers do exist in this city’. They all want better from their lives. Jivan believes that education and a job will hack her a path out for poverty. For Lovely, it is a career in films. And for PT Sir, an entry into politics. Majumdar etches out the aspirations of her characters, in a way that makes them easily recognisable. As Jivan says, ‘With my clean school uniform, a bag full of photocopied books strapped to my shoulders, even a new pencil in my pocket, I did not feel like that goat anymore.’ PT Sir will ascend the ladder of money and, thus, respectability. He will be able to pay for kitchen appliances in a sheaf of cash, after all, ‘monthly instalments are for the common man’.
Jivan’s desire is to be middle-class. It is a phrase that between Jivan and Lovely is used five times in the novel. Lovely asks, ‘Can you blame me for wanting, so much, to be—not even rich, just middle class?’ When Jivan makes a friend Priya and attends her birthday party at her home, Jivan sees the pieces of the world that she seeks to grasp. When she leaves, Priya’s mother gives her a tiffin box full of food for her family. ‘Was Priya a millionaire? No, she was only middle class,’ realises Jivan. To be middle-class means to have choices, it means being able to provide for others, it means having more control over one’s life.
While in jail, Jivan tells her story to Purnendu, a reporter, who she believes will tell her side of the story in a newspaper and to the world. When Purnendu tells her that he will write her story, and his editor will make it better, she says, ‘‘My story would be better if…’ I count on my hands. ‘If we had not been evicted, do you see? If my father had not broken his back, if my mother had not been attacked for trying to run a small business. If I could have afforded to finish school.’ Majumdar capably shows how it is this accretion of misfortune that keeps the poor in poverty.
A BURNING HAS BEEN pitched as a ‘thriller’ by its publishers. James Wood writes, ‘The elements of a thriller are transmuted into prismatic portraiture.’ But a thriller it is not. There is no moment of white-knuckle suspense, there is no urgent turning of the page to find out what next. The elements of a thriller that it does have are an underdog fighting a heartless system and high stakes, since it is a matter of life and death. The reader does not know how the fate of the three protagonists will unspool, but that is the nature of biography and life and is not particular to a thriller. To be a thriller, there needs to be some ambiguity as to the identity and motivations of the victim and perpetrator. This novel does not have that. From early on, the reader knows that the author’s sympathies lie with Jivan. She is set up as the woman who has been wronged by the system and the novel will reveal the many injustices that she and her parents have been pummelled by. Lovely, the hijra who aspires to be a film actor, is similarly buffeted by society. PT Sir is the only character whose proclivities and inclinations remain mysterious to the reader. Will he do the right thing? Will he do the wrong thing? Which path will he take?
A burning has been pitched, by its publishers, as a ‘thriller’. But a thriller it is not. There is no white-knuckle suspense. There is no urgent turning of the page to find out what next
Share this on
The debut thriller of this year, for me, will have to be Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara. One cannot help but compare Djinn Patrol with A Burning as both are debut novels by Indian women authors, released this year, internationally, to much acclaim. Crucially, both cast an unflinching eye on India’s deeply unequal urban societies. Djinn Patrol reads like a thriller because the reader does not know where the missing children are disappearing to, who is taking them and if they’ll ever return. By using a child narrator as a detective, Anappara adds layers of texture and complexity to the narrative. The novel is pacey while also being emotionally wrenching. In comparison, A Burning lacks the speed and the heart.
If Djinn Patrol works better as a thriller than A Burning, it is also superior when it comes to voice. Told in the voice of a boy living in a basti whose friends start to vanish, his voice is always childlike, without being mawkish. In A Burning, Jivan and Lovely speak in the first person. While Jivan, a Class 10 graduate who works at a Pantaloons store in a mall, speaks in unbroken English, Lovely, a transgender, speaks in a disjointed English that only distances her from the reader. She is a compelling character, but her voice (which is essentially grammatically incorrect present continuous sentences) adds a layer of artifice to her. Sample this paragraph spoken by Lovely: ‘For all my life, everybody is believing that I am having a direct line to god, but I am knowing the truth. Whenever I am calling god, her line is busy. So today I am bowing my head deep. Please do not let me get kicked off this film!’ The cadence of the sentences does not bring Lovely closer to the reader. Majumdar’s ear, eye and pen are sharply attuned to class demarcations and divides. Given her sensitivity at noting these differences, Lovely’s voice feels abrasive.
As Jivan says, ‘Lovely believed she would have a better life someday, and so did I. The path began with a b c d. Cat, bat, rat. English is the language of the modern world. Can you move up in life without it? We kept going. And I was moving up. So what if I lived in only a half-brick house? From an eater of cabbage, I was becoming an eater of chicken. I had a smartphone with a big screen, bought on an instalment plan, with a screen which jumped and credit which I filled when I could. But now I was connected to a world bigger than this neighbourhood.’ The knowledge of English distinguishes Jivan from her parents. With English, she can get a job in a mall, complete with a name badge. Her mother and father can only find jobs in the streets, whether it is as a rickshaw driver or a streetfood seller.
A Burning is a novel that I will remember for Jivan, a young Muslim woman who dreams big and does big things, but is broken by a malevolent system. This is not a novel that I will remember for invention or play with language. In the late ’90s, Roy’s accolades arose not only for transporting the reader to ‘exotic’ Kerala, but also for how she stretched language and imagery to brilliant lengths. A Burning tells a story—and tells it well—but it never lofts above the here and now. That is, perhaps, its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.