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Megha Majumdar’s debut novel was released in June 2020 and what a stellar first novel! Majumdar was born in Kolkata and now lives in New York after moving the U.S. for studying. Her novel, A Burning is also set in Kolkata and follows the lives of three very different characters, Lovely, P.T. Sir, and Jivan. In my opinion, this is one of the best books to come out of 2020. Majumdar’s ability to capture the voice of each character so perfectly is rare. There are well-established authors that I have read who can’t write as good.
The story of A Burning is about more than just the ethnic tensions in India, and more specifically West Bengal. Majumdar perfectly describes the conundrum of politics, news reporting, twisting facts, and using people as sacrificial lambs for the purpose of political popularity. She does this through the character of Jivan, a Muslim girl who lives in one of the slums with her mother and ill father. Jivan is accused of committing a terrorist act and killing hundreds on a train. The title A Burning is not just about the train accident, but also the witch hunt that follows the atrocious act which sees Jivan put on death row.
Jivan harmlessly posted something on social media. Politically charged, the post intersected with her being at the train station around the time of the attack with a ‘bag’ that officials deemed to be filled with explosives. The reality is, it was filled with English text books. The story of Jivan is heartbreaking as we see the many people in her life let her down. P.T. Sir, her old teacher, deems Jivan a lost cause after she abruptly stopped attending school. He doesn’t think of Jivan’s living situation or poverty and simply assumes she is just not interested in getting out of poverty. P.T. Sir also makes assumptions about Jivan based on her religion. When P.T. Sir gets the opportunity to help out a local political leader by pretending to be a witness in their political court cases, he also happily throws Jivan under the bus. Although his conscious niggles at him a little, he is quite contented with the money he gets from the political party for lying in their favour.
Similarly, Lovely, a Hijra, who is Jivan’s English student doesn’t come to her rescue either. Lovely is too preoccupied with her dream of becoming a famous Bollywood actress. So Jivan reaches out to a news reporter to tell her story. Although the reporter twists the story, probably with the hope of creating a scandal that half reads like Jivan’s public confession.
Although this story happens in India, it could honestly happen anywhere in the world. The idea of creating a ‘perfect’ villains to fit a certain type of narrative that ties up all the loose ends feels like something that should only be reserved for the fiction world. Yet the story that Majumdar tells is one that happens the world over, and in real life, sadly.
When journalists are supposed to be the bastions of truth and they let us down, how do we find the truth? How do the Jivan’s of the world tell their stories? How can contentious citizens learn the truth when governments stitch up truths – whether this is hotel quarantines, refugees locked in camps, or women speaking up against their rapists.
Majumdar has written many of the fears that I have for our future and our relationship with the truth. I cannot wait for more of her writing and look forward to reading more of her stories. This has been my favourite book from India. What are you loving literary-wise from the sub-continent of Asia? As always, share the reading love.