When Megha Majumdar began writing “A Burning” (Knopf), she was concerned that there wouldn’t be much American interest. It was her first novel, taking place in India, and it follows the story of a poor Muslim woman who is accused of terrorism after posting a Facebook message criticizing the government. Now, in the midst of this pandemic, the book feels more relevant than ever. Aptly titled, the story rages along like a wildfire, revealing three intertwined lives. The author, who was raised in West Bengal before attending Harvard University and Johns Hopkins and moving to New York, captures a chaotic society by depicting the hopes and fears of people living on the margins. It’s a universal tale.
The story opens with devastating news: Terrorists have attacked a train that has briefly stopped in Kolkata. Flaming torches were thrown through windows too small to allow the passengers to flee. Over 100 people burned to death as government police looked on doing nothing. Who committed this horrific mass murder? An “almost-witness,” Jivan, doesn’t know. She is Muslim, and the political leaders are promoting a Hindu nationalist government. She is young and naïve, accepting Facebook friend requests from strangers, on the brand-new smartphone she bought with money earned by working as a shop girl. She lives in the garbage filled slums next to the station and saw some of the gruesome attack on her walk home from work. She continues to follow events on her phone and the next day, on Facebook, Jivan sees a video of a grief-maddened woman whose husband and daughter have died. Livid and sad, Jivan does a “foolish thing … a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write.” She posts: “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?”
A few nights later Jivan is dragged her out of her bed, thrown into a van and taken to jail. Because of her post, she’s suddenly the sole suspect in the terror attack. With a narrative style that has the speed of a waterfall, it’s learned that Jivan has been beaten into signing a confession and then arraigned for firebombing the train; she’s effectively condemned without a trial. Even as she claims her innocence, journalists begin spinning the mundane details of her life into an account of plotting against the state.
Scattered between scenes of that nightmare are the stories of two other loosely related characters, equally well drawn and compelling. They may be able to help Jivan. PT Sir, is a gym teacher at Jivan’s old school, who praised Jivan’s athletic ability. He’s not a bad man, just desperate for prestige and driven by a tormenting need to matter. His ambitions make him a perfect tool for a local ruthless politician who needs an ally willing to lie when necessary. PT Sir joins into a tangle of political corruption – all for the greater good, of course.
Lovely is a transgender woman or hijra, a third gender recognized in India, that is both respected and despised. Even when hurt by insults that are “not new” but also “not old,” she maintains her dignity and humanity. Lovely dreams of becoming an actress and Jivan is her English tutor. Lovely knows Jivan didn’t bomb the train: Those weren’t explosives she was carrying; they were books for her. Although she’s eager to testify in her tutor’s defense, circumstances will challenge Lovely’s integrity.
Morals are put to the test as PT Sir and Lovely testify to Jivan’s character in court. Their own success depends on their performances: PT Sir needs to damage Jivan’s reputation to boost his own, and Lovely’s acting career might be destroyed if she supports Jivan. While these struggles may be essential plot points, what’s really convincing is how Jivan fights for herself. With no money and an inadequate state-appointed lawyer, Jivan thinks of every plan possible – writing letters, seeking journalists and bribing the chief guard with food (in prison Jivan works in the kitchen). “I have a voice, I remind myself,” Jivan says. “This is my voice. It booms. It startles.”
“A Burning,” however, makes the reality of the situation incredibly clear. Girls like Jivan don’t stand a chance in prison. Politics disregard incarcerated people, especially those who are poor and have no status to their name. They are insects, according to Lovely. “We are no more than grasshoppers whose wings are being plucked. We are no more than lizards whose tails are being pulled.”
The unfairness of the situation is made even more upsetting as Jivan’s dreams are revealed while PT Sir and Lovely are busy chasing their own. She yearns to be “an ordinary girl,” one who can go to college, fall in love and study with friends, carefree like the students in the movies. It’s probably a life she will never know. “I might have studied literature, and I might have spoken English so well that if you had met me on the street, Ma, you would not have known me!” Jivan says. “Ma, you would have thought I was a rich girl.”
The author’s outrage is obvious, matched by her sympathy for ordinary people so skilled in the practice of self-justification. The short, powerful chapters present a society ripped apart with abuses of power but still devoted to the appearance of correctness. It’s a criticism of a culture that’s continually in upheaval with no change in sight.
Though the pandemic is not one of the many current distresses the author writes into the tapestry of everyday life, this is a novel of our pandemic times, an examination of insecurity and bewilderment felt around the globe. It’s hard not to feel intense sorrow while reading this beautifully crafted book, but Megha Majumdar’s powerful debut is well worth reading.