Megha Majumdar’s A Burning is a no-nonsense portrait of contemporary India that refuses to avert its eyes

It’s really tough to create something that has both the gut-punch impact of good literary fiction, and the sheer kinetic energy associated with genre masters. Megha Majumdar’s A Burning is that rare debut.

Aditya Mani Jha June 26, 2020 17:12:44 IST
Megha Majumdar’s A Burning is a no-nonsense portrait of contemporary India that refuses to avert its eyes

There’s a reason why a lot of literary novelists try their hand at genre fiction-adjacent stories late into their careers (look at Ian McEwan or Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent work) — quite simply, it’s really tough, to create something that has both the gut-punch impact of good literary fiction, and the sheer kinetic energy associated with genre masters. For a debut novel to be blessed with both qualities, therefore, is a seriously impressive achievement: Megha Majumdar’s A Burning is that rare debut.

A gruesome train-burning claims the lives of 100 passengers near Jivan’s home in Kolabagan, on the outskirts of Kolkata. After the young woman uploads a controversial video of the incident, she’s arrested and faces terrorism charges. Nobody is interested in her version of events and she fights against time to avoid becoming the perfect scapegoat. Meanwhile, the lives of Lovely, a hijra who Jivan gave English lessons to, and ‘PT Sir’, her old physical education teacher, get intertwined with her ongoing ordeal. Through their stories we learn more and more about the circumstances that led up to Kolabagan train station’s incendiary moment. A Burning is a no-nonsense portrait of contemporary India that refuses to avert its eyes, no matter what.

Edited excerpts from a recent conversation with Majumdar:

The chapters narrated by Lovely are the ones where A Burning makes its most visible shifts in register — the character’s thoughts (as well as her descriptions of the day’s events) are expressed in present continuous, for the most part. Talk me through this writing choice. Was it more of a character-driven decision (because Lovely is all about optimising the ongoing moment; even in her train commute she’s “making my body straight and tall for Mr Debnath’s acting class”) or was it more along the lines of mimicking the speech patterns of ‘Indian English’ (something that we’ve seen in books as different from each other as The Inscrutable Americans and The White Tiger), the way a beginner would speak it?

I was interested in engaging the particular status of English in India, where the language has a complicated colonial history. Adapting English to this particular Indian register felt like an act of agency to me, a claiming of a language that's marvelously one's own. At the same time, I hope it also signals how there is so much striving and aspiration connected to English. So I wanted to try writing in a kind of non-standard English which settles into the nooks and crannies of this person's life, an English which offers up some of that striving.

Megha Majumdars A Burning is a nononsense portrait of contemporary India that refuses to avert its eyes

Megha Majumdar’s A Burning is a rare debut. Megha's portrait © Elena Seibert

When Jivan bribes her entrepreneurial cellmate ‘American-di’ in order to smuggle a message out of prison, her sudden resourcefulness is met with a telling remark: “When did you become a rich person?” To me it seemed that the emphasis here is on ‘become’ —  as though Jivan has been physically transformed. In a different prison scene, Jivan feels that with the toiletries gifted by Purnendu the journalist, she’ll be able to “be his equal” by their next meeting. This does seem to be a recurring concern in the novel, doesn’t it — physicality in this context, in the ways rich and poor bodies are treated differently (talking about India here, although I suppose it’s just as true for America)?

That’s a great read, thank you for raising this point. Rich and poor bodies are treated differently everywhere, you're right, and in this book it felt to me to be connected also to the question of who is worthy of believing. Whose story do we listen to? Whose narrative do we trust? It's connected to how someone is able to present themselves. And from a craft perspective, paying attention to physicality is a way of drawing the reader closer to the character, isn't it? If you're able to draw a reader close to a character's body, then perhaps they're able to feel the character's joy and pain and surprise with a little more nuance. I'm thinking through this, and I'll keep thinking about it!

It’s very tempting to see PT Sir as an analogue for the RSS — it’s not merely that he starts working for a Muslim-baiting political party. It’s also that his story’s decidedly innocuous starting point happens to be the exact same place where every shakha (the RSS was, after all, supposed to be structured like a paramilitary organisation) story begins: a playground and a man imposing rudimentary physical discipline upon a group of youngsters. Were connections like these on your mind during the creation of this character?

For me, I was thinking through the lens of this character. He's at a railway station; a train is delayed; how might he stumble upon a rally? Well, perhaps he's out looking to buy some tomatoes, and he finds this traffic jam, and from there he realises that there's a rally going on, so he goes to have a peek at the movie star who's speaking, and so on. I'm a novelist, not a political commentator, and while reading the news and following good journalism fueled this book, my interest is in the terrain of imagination and the terrain of my character's story arc.  I hope that PT Sir comes across as a complex character who is not easily put into a box, somebody who helps us expand our imaginative capacities, which is so much the task of fiction.

PT Sir is tempted to join the Jana Kalyan Party after noticing the exuberance of the hangers-on around Bimala, a well-know leader; they’re brandishing weapons and generally puffing up their chests, so to speak. PT Sir thinks to himself: “How different from the other schoolteachers he knew. How free.” There’s a fair bit of emasculation involved here, isn’t there? I also ask because his wife, too, seems to have that “ego-puncturing” effect on him, as you mention elsewhere.

One could think about the links between a kind of toxic masculinity and the allure of such power for a person who feels himself quite powerless in this society. For those who have read the book, they might recognise that PT Sir felt rejected in some ways by Jivan (why didn't she ever express gratitude to him?) and the steps he took after that came in part from this place of personal grievance. I think readers will recognise that that place of feeling rejected, and seeking to act upon that feeling, is often the place where toxic masculinity begins.

I’m going to ask you about a deceptively low-key scene: the one where Jivan’s mother is unreasonably happy at her water supply being restored in a matter of days, and not weeks. She tells Jivan: “The system doesn’t always work for us. But you see that, every now and then, you can make good things happen for yourself.” That line is, by any standards, a crushing indictment of seven decades of democratic governance — I’m deliberately restricting the geographical scope of the question here, but just when did things go this bad in Bengal? Most longtime Calcuttans I know treat this as a sort of floating, ahistoric axiom — a ‘we-were-always-this-way’ nihilism…

The question you're asking has to do with how characters respond to a system which does not serve them. How do these characters move forward when they face such daily, systemic constraints? Part of it is recognising the ways in which they're rendered powerless, and seeking to move past that. Sometimes their act of courage is daring to raise their voice in an office, making a case for why they need a reliable water supply, before a bureaucrat who has greater power than they do.

I found the other characters’ attitudes towards Purnendu the reporter very interesting indeed. At one point early in the book, American-di expresses her skepticism about the profession, but Jivan remains convinced that her truth can only reach the right ears via journalism. It’s an interesting show of faith by a Muslim woman, towards a group of people that vilifies her community with bad-faith arguments and outright inventions every single day in India. Why is Jivan so convinced about this? Do social media and its veneer of democratic freedoms (short-lived, of course, in Jivan’s case) have something to do with it?

As we have seen in many cases and across countries, it is media attention that brings injustice to light. It is media attention that causes widespread outrage and mobilises people. So that's part of it. The other part is, there is great power in telling your story. I think Jivan is a character who understands that, having seen how false stories about her gained traction. She is also, despite everything, an optimistic character, a character who holds on to hope. So to me it felt right that she would be hopeful about this — a chance to tell her story would dispel the untruths that the public believed about her.

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