Title/Author: A Burning by Megha Majumdar
In a nutshell (Publisher):
Jivan is a Muslim girl from the slums, determined to move up in life, who is accused of executing a terrorist attack on a train because of a careless comment on Facebook. PT Sir is an opportunistic gym teacher who hitches his aspirations to a right-wing political party, and finds that his own ascent becomes linked to Jivan’s fall. Lovely–an irresistible outcast whose exuberant voice and dreams of glory fill the novel with warmth and hope and humor–has the alibi that can set Jivan free, but it will cost her everything she holds dear.
Taut, symphonic, propulsive, and riveting from its opening lines, A Burning has the force of an epic while being so masterfully compressed it can be read in a single sitting. Majumdar writes with dazzling assurance at a breakneck pace on complex themes that read here as the components of a thriller: class, fate, corruption, justice, and what it feels like to face profound obstacles and yet nurture big dreams in a country spinning toward extremism. An extraordinary debut.
My verdict: A little novel that packs a punch with laser-sharp storytelling and unforgettable characters. A dazzling debut!
Ever read a book so good you didn’t want to put it down? Of course! Just add this one to the list! Short yet thought-provoking, this novella, set in India is told in multiple perspectives by 3 main characters. ‘A Burning’ left me speechless at the end. I don’t think I’ve read a novella quite like this one before.
Jivan’s life changed for the worst when she posted a message on Facebook in response to a post about a train being attacked by terrorist, that burned and killed 100 people: “If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?”
Just like that, her dreams of working up her way to ‘just middle-class’, turned to ashes. This 22-year-old Muslim girl from the Kolabagan slum in India was charged for working with terrorists, incarcerated and was beaten into signing a confession. There were two people who could possibly save her and get her out of prison – Lovely, a hijra (a transgender woman), who was her English lesson student and PT Sir, her former physical education teacher.
‘A Burning’ was mainly told from the POV of Jivan, Lovely and PT Sir, with a few others which served as ‘Interludes’. Jivan and Lovely were told from first POV, while PT Sir was told using a third POV, creating a certain distance, leaving the reader to make their own judgement on his character, making it, in my opinion, the most powerful, thought-provoking character in the book.
Lovely’s dream was to become a movie star, one of the reasons she was taking English lessons from Jivan. Her life was about to change when she was offered to act alongside a famous Bollywood star, on one condition: that she didn’t get involved with politics, which meant if she were to testify for Jivan, all that she had been working so hard for, will be lost. Will Lovely, whose life and status as a hijra, although revered, had been insulted and treated as an outcast, sacrifice her dreams to save another life?
PT Sir, was also on his way to changing his life, from being a teacher also part-time technician in his school, to being treated like a VIP, one who held power, prestige, and money. All he had to do was perform tasks on behalf of Bimala Pal, a prominent politician of a new political party, and one of them included denying Jivan’s mercy petition, whom he thought was guilty anyway. He believed that the court’s decision ‘ought to be carried out swiftly and with minimal burden to the taxpayer.’ Will he sign off the petition?
I loved the voices the author gave her characters, so distinctive and memorable. There was no way the reader could mistake one character for another. As their characters evolved, so did their voices which echoed their thoughts and actions; Jivan from hopeful to anger and desperation, PT Sir diffident to proud, Lovely confident to obliging.
And the characters, wow. How was one able to capture a character so vividly in such a short novel! Lovely’s vivaciousness, humor and positive outlook in life was infectious, but can also be heartbreaking at times, seeing how she was treated. But her character was really endearing. She showed how passionate she was in acting and how strongly she wanted to live her dream as a Bollywood star, that it was hard not to feel sorry for her when she had to decide between making her dreams come true or saving Jivan.
PT Sir, saw himself as a man with morals, but struggled with that when confronted with his ambition to becoming a ‘respected’ politician, a right-hand man to Bimala Pal, instead of just a P.E teacher. He went as far as giving false testimonies and putting the poor and innocent in jail, and explained to his wife that ‘all these cases are instances in which the police are one hundred and ten percent sure that the accused is guilty’ and that ‘they don’t have that much evidence, is all’, ridding himself of any responsibility and guilt. And each time he told those false testimonies, it got easier and easier. He was so proud that he thought to himself he could lock up the street dog who was following him ‘in a snap of his fingers, ha-ha!’ How pride and status can change a person!
One event especially broke my heart. It was when PT Sir was giving a speech that revved up the crowd it turned into a mob who killed a Muslim man whom they accused of killing a holy mother cow, an animal revered by the Hindus. PT Sir just stood and watched, ‘not lifting a finger,…’ Perturbed at first, but not after Bimala Pal justified for him that it wasn’t his fault, that he wasn’t a murderer because he didn’t directly partake in the killing. Feeling relieved and convinced, he went home and recounted the event to his wife with less remorse. Politics hardens people in many different ways.
In this heartbreaking novel we were shown how racism (the Hindus vs the Muslims), politics, corruption (giving false promises to the public to win elections, biased news-reporting, exploiting the poor) class, fate and religion, can destroy one’s life or change one’s fate.
The writing was so good. Sharp and good. And the ending, THE ENDING. THE ENDING. I saw it coming but I never thought it’d actually happen. I applaud and respect the author for taking this route. What had to be done had to be done.
Now I wonder, if Jivan, a Muslim girl, will be treated any differently were she in the US, given the current political climate. Will there be people fighting for her rights, protesting on her behalf? Will she even be given the slightest chance to give her side of the story after the media twisted it, making her look guilty? Will she have to suffer the same fate because of her skin color and religion?
If you’re looking for a short yet compelling read with laser-sharp storytelling, wasting neither words nor time, read this gem. This was so, darn, good!Tweet
Have you read this book? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to? Please share with me your thoughts!
Last but not least, stay safe & well! Wear your masks, practice safe distancing and wash your hands!