Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, is a highly political – and at times disturbing – story about the desire for a life worth living, about power and corruption. Majumdar is now a New Yorker-by-choice, but A Burning is set in the city of her birth, Kolkata, and is narrated by three characters: Jivan is a Muslim girl living in a slum who dreams of someday being middle class. PT Sir is her former gym teacher who slips into a political career as if by accident, leaving behind him any scruples as he is confronted by flourishing financial perks. Lovely, who learns some English from Jivan, is an honest and charismatic aspiring actress who struggles against many social barriers as a hijra – a trans woman.
A Burning begins with a terrorist attack on a train in Kolkata – more precisely in the slum of Kolabagan, where Jivan lives. People are looking for someone to blame, and the truth becomes incidental. Jivan has made it out of abject poverty to become a saleswoman in a fashion store. This has enabled her to afford her first smartphone, on which she corresponds with strangers on Facebook – including an alleged Muslim terrorist, of whom she knows nothing. She is the one to take the fall. She goes to jail. She tries to bring the truth to light via the press and confides her entire life story to a journalist, who turns it into a career-changer for himself. Jivan’s last hope is positive testimony from PT Sir and Lovely at her trial. Readers, however, learn more about their struggles and interests in the chapters written from Lovely’s and PT Sir’s perspectives, and thus may soon anxiously wonder whether Jivan’s hope will bear fruit.
Majumdar’s three narrating characters speak in distinctive voices, informed by their class and personal circumstances. Jivan and Lovely are easy to sympathize with, and PT Sir’s ambitions to break out of a boring daily routine, to gain more recognition and visibility, are surely desires that many people have harboured at one time or another (- albeit secretly and without such consequences). Majumdar manages to bring ethical dilemmas into focus and make it clear that hard work and honesty by no means end poverty. A Burning, thoughtfully constructed, clearly shows in richly detailed and sharp observations that the disadvantage of certain groups is systemic. Majumdar’s debut is gripping from the first page to the last.
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