Megha Majumdar’s debut explodes with narrative force. It begs comparison to Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance in terms of its scale and thematic scope — but tackles its subject matter far more succinctly. Seth and Mistry wrote sweeping epics that submerged readers in the lives of its characters; luxuriated (successfully) for hundreds of pages in their portraits of India. A Burning is a staccato-paced, whiplash of a novel. Its three interwoven stories crisscross throughout its lean page count, contributing to a fast-paced examination of contemporary India; its systemic corruption, and its gaping class and religious divisions.
On the night of a devastating terrorist attack in Kolkata, a poor, young Muslim girl named Jivan posts on Facebook: “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?” The next day she is arrested as a terrorist collaborator. The alibi of a trans woman (or “hijra”) named Lovely could set Jivan free — but might also cost the aspiring Bollywood actress the fame and glory she desires, but has always seems so out of reach. Jivan’s former gym teacher has no compunction falsifying his own testimony to indict Jivan; he’s desperate to ascend the political ladder, and willingly commits countless morally-questionable acts to cement his status in the populist Jana Kalyan Party.
If these three stories were disentangled and laid out separately, the characters in A Burning might feel constructed purely for Majumdar to make a point about the injustices of being an outcast in India, rather than flesh and blood, and textured; a novel about politics rather than a novel about people. It is the architecture of Majumdar’s narrative that makes the novel work. By forsaking breadth, many of its scenes feel like vignettes; pencil sketches rather than inked portraits. Much of its pace is manufactured through expository, dialogue-heavy sections. But its form perfectly fits its content. It is intense, direct, and daring: a gleaming spotlight illuminating an unjust reality, building to a wrenching, inevitable conclusion that crushes like a bulldozer. Few novels have probed the sickness inherent in India’s inequality more evocatively than this.
Number Of Pages: 304
Available: 8th July 2020
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd