Megha Majumdar’s “A Burning”

Debut novelist Megha Majumdar has had a dream start to her literary career with A Burning. It is about a young Muslim girl called Jivan who is arrested for a “terrorist” attack on a train. She is accused of planting a bomb in a train. The novel moves fairly rapidly while Jivan’s world is explored. It consists of her elderly parents and the motley crew of people learning to be actors. Her parents moved to the city after being displaced from their land by greedy politicians and land mafia. Of all her acting companions, it is the hijra Lovely, who befriends Jivan and is convinced she is innocent. The others in the novel are her former physical instructor at school, PT Sir and the lady politician, whose star is in ascendance. At the beginning of the novel, the cast of characters are presented as ordinary, well-meaning citizens, going about their work. But as the events begin to unfold, everyone is affected not just personally but also in terms of their future. At times, like the political baptism of PT Sir seems to be a sheer coincidence which rapidly influence his daily life. It happens against a backdrop of lynchings and the rabid communalisation of society. It is terrifying. So much so that literary critic Ron Charles, writes in the Washington Post, “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.” Precisely. Many of the events referred to in the novel have parallels to real events. This is the new age where democracy seems to be floundering and rabid fundamentalism is on the rise. A Burning is extremely well written but there are details that jar, and they would not have stood out if such fantastic literary talent was not on display. For instance it is inexplicable why does a Muslim girl have a Hindu name? It has been received extremely well by critics, worldwide.

A Burning is a brilliant debut. A strong voice. Her second book, preferably a collection of essays, would be worth looking out for.

19 June 2020

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