By Anu Mahadev
Megha Majumdar’s punchy debut, ‘A Burning’, (Alfred Knopf, June 2020), expertly explores the underbelly of Kolkata’s slums, and captures the daily struggles of those who live day to day, hand to mouth. Three unforgettable characters, whose stories tangle with each other, are the focus of this standout novel.
Mirroring much of what happens in India today, fraught with religious tensions and terrorist plots, Majumdar takes us on an ambitious journey, with no promises or miracles. It is harsh reality, with no time lost in subtleties. We as readers are privy to the thoughts and actions of the characters, and while none of these may be new, at least not to Indians who grew up in contemporary India, the thread that binds Jivan, PT Sir and Lovely, forces us to make homes in their heads.
A story narrated through different perspectives in first person, could have become a lengthy dragged out plot, but there is no danger of that here. The author roots us firmly in place and character, with alarming honesty, with no pretensions of being a preacher to the reader’s conscience. Taut and compressed, it can be read in a single setting.
Jivan is a Muslim girl from the slums, determined to move up in life, who is accused of executing a terrorist attack on a train because of a careless comment on Facebook. PT Sir is an opportunistic gym teacher who hitches his aspirations to a right-wing political party, and finds that his own ascent becomes linked to Jivan’s fall. Lovely—an irresistible outcast whose exuberant voice and dreams of glory fill the novel with warmth and hope and humor—has the alibi that can set Jivan free, but it will cost her everything she holds dear.
The story is riveting, and exhibits urgency while infusing the lines with compassion. It reads like a thriller, with all its requisite components. Jivan, whose name ironically means life, finds herself fighting against time like the fate of falling sand in an hourglass. While the world reads her story and awaits her verdict, time seems to stand still, but Majumdar’s writing does not. It hurtles along, taking the readers on a rollercoaster ride, forcing them to watch the inevitable that is Jivan’s life – an obstacle course with the odds stacked against her in a country where the poor have no hope.
While I felt like turning away at times, being numb to what seems like just fiction, I know fully well that this still could happen, and often does in a society fixated on class, caste, religion and gender. You could be apolitical, but then you would be treading a very thin line – just when you feel that this does not affect your lives in any way, you are forced to take a second look at the book, and see how targeting a certain powerless segment of society, less privileged than you – only fuels the intolerance that grips the India of today.
The self-preserving instincts built into these characters comes only from experience – opposing emotions jostle in their hearts, but only one of them can ultimately survive. There is simply no space for both in a crowded India, clawing its way up to a meagre, sparse middle class. I challenge you to read this thought-provoking novel – and see if you emerge unchanged. Maybe it will shake you out of your stupor, maybe it won’t. But read it all the same, if only to appreciate the flawless writing.
Anu Mahadev is a left-brained computer engineer who morphed into a right-brained poet. She is a 2016 MFA graduate of Drew University, and her work has appeared in several journals and anthologies. She serves as Editor for Jaggery Lit, the Woman Inc. and The Wild Word. Her collection of poetry titled “A Mouthful of Sky” is upcoming from Get Fresh Books LLC. She can be found on Facebook at http://facebook.com/amahadevpoet