Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, set in and around Kolkata, couldn’t be more topical. Moving with the inevitability of parable, it lacerates the Hindu right-wing by following violence until it reaches its logical endpoint.
In A Burning, Jivan, a young Muslim woman, is thrown into jail for her alleged role in a terror attack. Lovely, a hijra in search of Bollywood stardom, has some information that might save her – but that would mean getting tangled up with the police. Meanwhile, Jivan’s old teacher PT Sir leverages their connection to gain status with the ascendant nationalist party.
Since the election of Narendra Modi in 2014, little cultural output has taken on Indian politics, not least due to state-sanctioned censorship of media and targeting of critics. A Burning, written with an ease that belies the heaviness of its territory, stares down this challenge.
Taut and visual, the novel is steeped in the sensibility of cinema. Beginning with the popular contemporary plot mechanism of a terror attack, it soon reveals a vintage social conscience and sympathy with the underdog.
Jivan means life in several Indian languages. It is a religiously ambiguous name – an Indian name – and in many ways this book is about Jivan’s fight for her name, her birthright. When Majumdar writes, “By the time Jivan’s mother stepped off the motorcycle, in her arms nothing but an envelope, much crushed – her daughter’s birth certificate, school-leaving certificate, polio drop receipt, for documents were all she had – the sky was turning from black to blue,” she interrogates what have become the new Indian determinants of fate.
As large as the task of capturing this national moment is, Majumdar successfully anchors the reader with details. Descriptions like “the drip of a leak which conveys news of the rains,” or, “I hear the shatter of the crisp dough, or maybe I imagine it. She folds the porota around a smear of dal and lifts it to her mouth. I watch like a jackal,” have an anthropological quality to them.
Often the details let weightier issues slip through. PT Sir asks, “whose mind can be on Mongol invasions and trigonometry when the city is flooded?” The rhetoric of Mongol invasions, which the right weaponizes against Muslims, is startlingly casual.
This book is less to save us than to warn us.
Other moments touchingly deliver social commentary. For instance: “Do you know how to read?” the doctor demanded. “My daughter knows,” said my father. Even in his pain, he looked at me and smiled.” This short passage gets at how education means healthcare access, and ultimately even survival, for many Indians.
Among all, my favorite character is Lovely. In one poignant moment, when her lover, Azad is about to kill a spider, she asks, “Why to always ruin other creatures’ lives?” This, though admittedly corny out of context, may well be a refrain for the book.
But there are moments where the book strains. Throughout, the motivations of PT Sir, who falls into the cloying grip of the right, are flat and rehearsed. It’s clear the author is trying to show the banality of this evil, the boredom and langor from which it springs. Still, there needs to be more than a stock character who asks, “If we don’t defend our nation, our way of life, our holy cow, who will?” Here, the parable falls short, the lesson preceding the character.
Majumdar diverges from the older, predominantly male titans of Indian origin in that her writing offers no spare words. In this way, it draws on the show-don’t-tell spirit that the American MFA has championed. Interestingly, for a book about increasing authoritarianism, this style traces significant lineage to the endorsement of democratic individualism during the Cold War.
In American literary discourse, there is an idea that representation of diverse experiences will save us. A Burning provides representation, a narrative that hinges on the struggle for testimony. Yet, in what may be her most impactful message, Majumdar shows that this struggle does not necessarily yield results. This book is less to save us than to warn us.
Indeed, recent years have seen the reinvention of the category of Indian Muslim. The frenzied repetition of the term as “issue” inscribes ever deeper bounds around it, despite its counter-use as a label of pride and resistance. It’s to Majumdar’s credit that she mostly steers clear of such shorthands in favor of narrative. However, I can only hope that the attention the book has received does not reify the Indian Muslim, and the Indian Muslim woman, as a symbol. This symbolic tendency may be a risk of the parable as genre. I hope, though I do not know, that this risk is worth it.