By Megha Majumdar
Knopf. 289 pp. $25.95
Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, “A Burning,” is aptly named. This all-consuming story rages along, bright and scalding, illuminating three intertwined lives in contemporary India. Majumdar, who was raised in West Bengal before attending Harvard University and moving to New York, demonstrates an uncanny ability to capture the vast scope of a tumultuous society by attending to the hopes and fears of people living on the margins. The effect is transporting, often thrilling, finally harrowing. It’s no wonder this propulsive novel was chosen for the “Today” show book club and leaped immediately onto the bestseller list.
The story opens with horrific news racing across social media: Terrorists have firebombed a train, trapping more than 100 people inside the cars as they burned. Facebook lights up with calls for justice, requests for donations and complaints about the ineffective police. Scrolling through these posts, a young sales clerk named Jivan jumps in with her own casual outrage. But when her message earns no “likes,” she comes up with something more provocative: “If the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean,” she writes, “that the government is also a terrorist?”
With that one impulsive moment, Majumdar conveys the perils of social media in much of the world. Succumbing to the scroll’s constant invitation to opine, Jivan has fallen for the illusion of freedom that Facebook creates. It’s a perfectly common misstep, and only later does Jivan realize, “I wrote a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write.”
Sure enough, a few nights later, police pound on her door and throw her into the back of a van. With a narrative style that feels like a cascade, Majumdar reveals that Jivan has been beaten into signing a confession and then arraigned for firebombing the train. Even as she professes her innocence, journalists begin spinning the pedestrian details of her impoverished life into a narrative of plotting against the state.
Interspersed between scenes of that febrile nightmare are the stories of two other tangentially related characters, equally well drawn and compelling. Lovely is a hijra – part of an intersex community in South Asia that is both revered and reviled. Assumed to have a special connection to the divine, Lovely is sought after to bless weddings and births, but her sexuality also attracts mockery, even abuse. Largely dependent on begging, she defends herself with an audacious mix of humor and bravado, never sure when a moment of confrontation might turn violent.
Many readers will remember that Arundhati Roy explored the lives of hijra in her swirling 2017 novel, “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.” Majumdar’s focus is smaller but equally powerful. Lovely speaks in a joyous, impetuous voice that’s irresistible – so full of hope and will power. She knows with all her heart that the acting lessons she’s taking from some old hack will make her a movie star, though that dream feels so naive to us it almost hurts to read. Better yet, Majumdar renders Lovely’s narration in almost-fluent English, another sign of the young woman’s determination to improve her station. With a thin understanding of verb conjugation, Lovely speaks only in the progressive tense, giving everything she says a sense of continuous immediacy, e.g. “He is pinching my cheek, and I am laughing even though it is hurting.”
As it happens, Lovely’s English tutor is Jivan, the young woman accused of committing that terrorist act that has convulsed the nation. But 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 virtue and deliver one of the most painful moments in “A Burning.”
The fragility of moral courage is central to the third story running through this novel, which is focused on the costs of righteousness. A man known as PT Sir is a P.E. teacher at Jivan’s old school. He’s a nervous, grasping character, not inherently evil, just desperate for the trappings of prestige. That hunger makes him a handy tool for a local politician who needs an expedient servant willing to lie when necessary. And so, for a bit of flattery and a few modest bribes, PT Sir slides comfortably into a morass of political corruption – all for the greater good, of course.
In one indelible episode, a political boss dispatches PT Sir to a rural village to promote the party’s plans for a new school. His speech is just a collection of empty promises, but it attracts a crowd that quickly shifts out of his control. As he offers bland platitudes, thugs whip up the audience into a mob that turns on a Muslim family. The atrocity that follows – described in the crazed voice of the killers – leaves PT Sir shaken, but the next day his adviser reassures him that there’s nothing to worry about. Calmed, he leaves the office and realizes, “He himself will be all right. Maybe that is all that can be salvaged.” What a simple, clear summation of the principle of selfishness that rots a community from the inside.
Majumdar’s outrage is matched only by her sympathy for these ordinary people so deft in the practice of self-justification. Building on their perfectly natural weaknesses, the short, intense chapters of “A Burning” present a society riven with influence peddling and abuses of power but still wholly devoted to the appearance of propriety. It’s a damning critique of a culture that generates constant upheaval but no systemic change. In Majumdar’s sharp telling, the courts are a spectacle of paid liars, the press trumpets an endless din of scandal, and the poor are routinely exploited. And through it all, politicians demonize their opponents and promise that salvation is just one election away. Fortunately, all this takes place on the other side of the world and has nothing at all to do with us.