Review: A Burning by Megha Majumdar

A Burning’s remarkable characters will stay with readers even if its political and philosophical underpinnings fade
A shop burnt during the riots in New Delhi in March 2020.(Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)
A shop burnt during the riots in New Delhi in March 2020.(Sanchit Khanna/HT PHOTO)
Updated on Sep 05, 2020 10:58 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | BySaudamini Jain
304pp, ₹599; Penguin
304pp, ₹599; Penguin

Detailed reviews of Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, have appeared everywhere from The New Yorker to Newslaundry. I can’t remember the last time a novel by an Indian writer got so much global attention. Or in India, one that has been so deeply scrutinised by reviewers along the political spectrum, its criticism neatly split up along the divisions of our times.

A Burning opens with a young woman safe at home in bed staring at her phone reading posts about a terrorist attack on her train station. The more Jivan “scrolled, the more Facebook unrolled.” She watches a video of a woman who watched her husband burn. The police just stood by while the horror unleashed, the woman screams. Jivan shares the video:

“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?” she posts.

Nothing good can come out of criticising the government or any of its institution, as we are learning, even on social media. Jivan, who is Muslim, is arrested, framed as a terrorist and falsely implicated for crimes against the nation and sedition.

The novel takes place in the course of her trials: first by the media, then by the court. Simultaneously, Majumdar takes us through the moral trials of Jivan’s two character witnesses: her former schoolteacher PT Sir and Lovely, a hijra actress to whom Jivan taught English — both of whom are tempted by the promise of power and fame.

A nationalist party is growing prominence and PT Sir slowly becomes a pawn in the propaganda machine. He is seduced by the way it makes him feel like “he did something patriotic, meaningful, bigger than the disciplining of cavalier schoolgirls.” Lovely, who dreams of becoming a star, is “having to do it myself. Even if I am only a smashed insect under your shoes, I am struggling to live. I am still living.”

The pivot is this: how much of choice is determined by chance and circumstance? When larger structural forces are at play, under the weight of systemic oppression, are our choices truly our own? In her lovely sing-song voice that has been widely criticised in reviews, Lovely says, “I am truly feeling that Jivan and I are both no more than insects. We are no more than grasshoppers whose wings are being plucked. We are no more than lizards whose tails are being pulled. Is anybody believing that she was innocent? Is anybody believing that I can be having some talent?”

In this way — short, sharp sentences, vivid descriptions and inventiveness of language — Majumdar infuses her text with steady exuberance to counteract the bleakness of context. A Burning’s remarkable trio of characters, each with a distinctive voice and narrative form, will stay with readers even if its political and philosophical underpinnings fade.

In the US where it was first published, A Burning was heaped with praises. The New Yorker praised its portrayal of India’s “small and large corruption, its frozen inequality, murderous racism, political opportunism, and unalleviated poverty.” Societies are complex, the review admitted calling Majumdar “a sophisticated student of that complexity.”

The New York Times called its premise “baldly, horrifyingly plausible.”

A few weeks later in India, reviewers heaped praises at first. And then criticisms slowly started trickling in — much of it based on very literal readings. “A Burning doesn’t give itself the room to hold a mirror up to society in the manner of those great 19th century novels,” read a review in a leading Indian publication in the 21st century.

It would be unfair to want A Burning to be a Big Fat Indian Novel. The compactness of the novel’s form itself is a hint to readers to suspend disbelief as they enter the fictional world of Jivan, Lovely and PT Sir. This isn’t investigative journalism, it’s art. Majumdar captures India at a cusp of change. Nationalism is rising, populism is at play. Discerning Indian readers may not find here anything they don’t already know but it will still make them think and feel. Majumdar holds up a mirror — a kind of Mirror of Erised, if you will — in which readers will be confronted through this narrative, their own politics.

“Take my students,” says PT Sir. “Will they ever sweep the school grounds? Will they ever paint a beautiful mural like this? Never! Because they” — and here he pauses to chew his sweet — “are trying their level best to flee the country. They work so hard on applications to American universities that they ignore the school exams, failing and crying and pleading — they had SAT I! They had SAT II! What are these nonsense exams? Why will the school allow such brain drain?”

The party man listens intently. When he is done with his sweet, he claps crumbs off his hands, then clasps his hands behind his back like a diligent schoolboy. “The problem, you see,” he joins in, “is we teach our children many things, but not national feeling! There is a scarcity of patriotic feeling, don’t you think so? In our generation, we knew our schooling was to…was to…”

“Serve others,” offers PT Sir. “Improve the nation.”

A right-wing reviewer complained that because PT Sir’s narrative is in third person narrative, “out of three pivotal lives in the plot, a reader is offered only two lives to slip into.” He thought the novel inadequate in explaining the rise of the Right, “the motivations and impulses of social mobility within a section of the middle class, which fuels PT Sir’s political ambition.”

On the other end of the political spectrum, a reviewer protested the “significant silences and erasures” in the narrative of Jivan. Among them that we never learn the names of Jivan’s parents or “the circumstances in which they chose an oddly-north-Indian/Hindu sounding name for their daughter.”

Both these reviewers — and others — felt like it was strung together on headlines, a checklist of the “new India” novel. I found myself charmed by the storytelling and too enveloped in the language to find anything problematic, even on a second closer reading. Lovely’s voice, in particular, followed me for days:

“Sunday morning! Time to go to acting class. Fast fast, I am walking down the lane with my hips going like this and like that, past the small bank where the manager was demanding my birth certificate for opening an account. “I was telling him, ‘Keep your account…I was telling him, ‘Birth certificate! Am I a princess?’”

Author Megha Majumdar (Michal Labik)
Author Megha Majumdar (Michal Labik)

Reviewers have called it, among other things, infantilising, too much of a performance. But what is language if not a performance? Fluency is such an abstract concept — especially for a language like English especially in multilingual India — do we all not make it our own with all the cultural, emotional, linguistic baggage we carry in our hearts? Our voices, especially inside our heads but really everywhere around, are a mishmash of several languages. I find my English wrapped in this mellifluousness of ‘Indianisms’ — isn’t this how we feel?

Majumdar brings us a glimpse into extraordinary moments in ordinary lives, vulnerable lives. What would be otherwise harrowing sections — like the ones set in prison — are written with the lightness of sitcoms.

In prison, the women gather around TV watching Why Won’t Mother-in-Law Love Me? Jivan jabbers on about her innocence, about lawyers’ fees, then she cried:

“Everyone stopped watching TV then, and turned to watch me. The woman with patches of light and dark skin, a kind of leader in the prison, I knew even then, got up from her position on the floor within licking distance of the TV, and came waddling to me. I had heard she was the one who arranged an upgrade from a black-and-white to a color TV. Americandi, American sister, as she was called for her pink skin, took my chin in her hands. She was gentle as a mother. I felt a moment of relief, assurance that made me wipe my tears. Then she slapped me. Her hand, tough as hide, struck my ear and left it whining.

“Blind or what?” she said. “Can’t you see we’re watching TV?”

All three characters’ lives are changed drastically by the end of the novel — all three find their voices, ways to tell their stories: Jivan through a journalist, Lovely through Whatsapp, and PT Sir through patriotism. This isn’t about who they are but who they become. Little interludes of others are interspersed between the three characters. In one about a beef lynching, a villager says of PT Sir, by now an entrenched member of the Party:

“They say he used to be a schoolteacher, but of what use is that? We all used to be something else.”

Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2022