Megha Majumdar’s novel is a broad-brush portrayal of present-day realities

Rihan Najib | Updated on August 07, 2020

Dark beginnings: The novel is set in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack on a train   -  ISTOCK.COM

A debut that was received with much fanfare, A Burning depicts the horrors and joys of contemporary India, but does not engage with them deeply

* It opens with the incarceration of Jivan for allegedly seditious and anti-government posts on Facebook

* Each character views the other as a set of stereotypes

* There is a deliberate vagueness about the systems within which the characters function

Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, was released earlier this year to much fanfare. On the surface, the book — on The New York Times’ bestseller list — is a tale of survival; one that underscores the arbitrariness of who survives and who doesn’t in contemporary India. Set in Kolkata, in the immediate aftershock of a terrorist attack on a train, A Burning weaves through the lives of three characters — Jivan, a young Muslim girl accused of masterminding the bombing; Lovely, a transwoman who is an aspiring actor; and PT sir, an unnamed middle-aged physical education teacher who finds himself entangled in party politics and its harsh demands.

Opening with the incarceration of Jivan for allegedly seditious and anti-government posts on Facebook, the novel switches between the voices of the three principal characters and occasionally features the points of view of ancillary personas that serve to build the novel’s physical and moral universe. With breathlessly paced prose, the novel hurtles towards a tragic and alarming culmination.

A Burning / Megha Majumdar / Fiction / Penguin Hamish Hamilton / ₹599


The world A Burning represents is contemporary and brutal, with only the thin sheen of fiction removing it from reality. Readers will find within it allusions to familiar and recent events, such as the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq, the hanging of Afzal Guru to sate the “collective conscience of society”, and the arrests of individuals for posting dissenting views on social media. All the characters are locked in a relentless hustle — both prosaic and heroic. As Lovely notes, “You can be burning one train, but you cannot be stopping our will to go to work, to class, to family if we have them.”

With publishers and critics comparing Majumdar — born and raised in Kolkata and now based in New York — to the likes of GhanianGhanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi and American novelist Tommy Orange, A Burning was reckoned to be the next Great Indian Novel. And if flattering reviews in international and Indian publications are anything to go by, it might well be, which is no mean feat for an Indian debut author.

But while it’s hard enough to write about what one doesn’t know, it’s sometimes harder to write about what one does know — such as the fraught times we live in, its horrors and joys, the terrible things that happen to other people far removed from us. So when fiction allows the writer to access the lives of others, what makes the work authentic is thoroughness — of observation and description. It demands that a writer confront questions such as: What treatment do you give to the trauma of a people whose lives you cannot inhabit? How do you represent that pain as a witness?

Though the novel is adept at essaying contemporary Indian realities — taking on an Arundhati Roy-esque array of social justice issues such as development-induced displacement, Islamophobia, media trials, transphobia, income inequality, cow vigilantism — it does so with the broadest possible brush. Each character views the other as a set of stereotypes — Lovely refers to poor migrants in the city as “donkey villagers”, rich people are seen by the poor as fat and soft (“a woman who surely eats mutton every day”), politicians view their voters as an undifferentiated mass of manipulable peasants (who “bend in fields, earning two rupees for crops that will sell in the city for forty”).

At certain points in the novel, the phrasing of things and practices takes on a tonally jarring ‘white people-friendly’ character, almost hinting at to whom the novel is really addressed. For instance, while there are references to Bengali dishes such as shingaras, moori and kochuri, there is also the odd phrasing of “yoghurt fish” and “milk sweet” — presumably doi-maach and shondesh, but why the Bengali equivalents weren’t used is unclear. This tendency is repeated in the depiction of a gender-affirming surgery for the hijra characters in the book. The excision of male genitalia is a ceremony of immense significance in the community, known as the nirvanam ritual in parts of India. In the novel, it is — bafflingly — referred to as “the cutting-cutting operation”.

Moreover, there is a deliberate vagueness about the systems within which the characters function, as if they were single-note stock characters of either victimhood or villainy. This is frustrating for the reader; while the novel derives much of its substance from real-life events, its fictionalised representation — while heightening its dramatic and tragic elements — does so without adequate analysis of how the event came to be or its repercussions. This is not to demand that fiction mimic reportage, but to return to the question: How can the trauma of historically marginalised communities be represented so that they are not reduced to a mere affective response in the reader?

Nevertheless, Majumdar’s talents as a writer of the times is undeniable and she is certain to reach higher echelons of literary fame. Here’s to hoping that her next novel engages with questions of both knowing and not knowing in greater, richer detail.

Rihan Najib is a Delhi-based writer

Published on August 07, 2020

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