What Society Allows Us to Be: Megha Majumdar’s A Burning

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What does it mean to be free? Free to pursue dreams, free to say anything, or even simply free to live every day without fear? Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, flares with these questions, illuminating a harsh world of politics, power, and the heavy weight of a corrupt society on those less privileged.

Set in Kolkata, A Burning follows three characters: Jivan, a young Muslim woman scapegoated as a terrorist; PT Sir, her former teacher and, as the novel progresses, a newly minted politician; and Lovely, an aspiring actress and transgender woman or hijra (a term which, in India, refers to eunuchs, intersex people, and transgender people). Peppered with asides that also allow us to peek into the lives of minor characters, the threads holding these characters together are flimsy and feeble at first but eventually significant.

The novel begins with Jivan washing smoke out of her hair and sharing a video of a firebomb attack on a train on Facebook. Having witnessed the attack herself as she was on her way to deliver schoolbooks to Lovely, Jivan runs home and finds Facebook frantic with hashtags, pleas for donations, and footage of the burning train. After watching video after video, Jivan types: “If the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean… that the government is also a terrorist?” It is, she admits to herself in the moment, “a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write.”

A few nights later, she is forced to the police station in the middle of the night. Terrified, she looks out of the police van as boys speed by, whooping as they leave a nightclub. They aren’t afraid, Jivan realizes, because their fathers know the right people. Her family does not; they have neither wealth nor connections. “How would I get out of this?” she wonders. She won’t, of course.

The police, the court, and the media decide she is responsible for the attack, and she is forced to sign a confession and ends up in jail. Thus begins Jivan’s new life—the one she lives as a consequence of using her voice to say a dangerous thing. She is always waiting: for her lawyer to come, for her mother to visit, for a journalist whom she hopes can tell the world she is innocent. She waits as nothing changes, working in the kitchen, wondering if Sonali Khan, a famous film producer, will join the prison as she faces punishment for shooting an endangered rhino. Sonali Khan is eventually sentenced to house arrest, and Jivan laments the difference between rich and poor, the different rules that apply even when it comes to prison. She places all of her faith in Lovely as her trial approaches, believing she will convince the court that Jivan’s packages on the day of the attack contained books, not bombs.

PT Sir, Jivan’s old physical education teacher, testifies at her trial, too. He worried she didn’t have enough to eat, he tells the court, and tried to encourage her, thinking that she might be an athlete one day. Jivan wants to thank him when he says these words, wants to right the childish arrogance that stopped her from doing so at the time. But there is little to thank him for, she realizes, when he says he hasn’t seen her for a few years, not since she stopped coming to school after receiving poor test results. “Maybe she got involved with criminal elements after leaving school. It happens,” he concludes, and Jivan’s heart sinks. PT Sir gets to tell the story here, and what he sees is a poor girl, a girl who vanished after school exams and didn’t thank him for his help. A girl who could, therefore, quite possibly end up getting involved with terrorists.

For PT Sir, these words are not new. He has been taken under the wing of Bimala Pal, a politician and chief minister of the state by the end of the novel. Bimala Pal leads him to courtrooms with increasing frequency as Jivan waits in jail for her trial, persuading him to testify against a plethora of people she says are guilty. She needs him to act as witness because a lack of evidence means these criminals would be let back out onto the streets. He believes her, says the words she wants, and takes the money she offers.

But he also wonders “if the guard is paid by the party, too. For that matter, how about the courtroom clerks, and the judges, and the lawyers? Not one of them has ever said: ‘This man is really something! Everywhere there is a robbery, a domestic problem, a fight between neighbors, this man happens to be walking by! Is he Batman or what?’” Shockingly close to a realization that motives relating to power and politics might dictate the functioning of the justice system, he only exclaims in wonder at everybody around him, unable or perhaps unwilling to reach that conclusion.

He decides, though, that the ends justify the means. Even if Bimala Pal’s political party is paying the guards, the courtroom clerks, the judges, and the lawyers, it doesn’t matter as long as the right outcome is achieved. When it isn’t—when PT Sir sees a riot break out and a family slaughtered—Bimala Pal tells him it isn’t his fault. He dislikes that, but he reaches for the relief it allows him, needing it. He shrugs on the protective psychological armor she offers, deciding he must salvage himself because that is all he can do.

This mindset allows PT Sir to believe he is always doing the right thing as he steps further and further into the quagmire of politics and power, unable to extricate himself. Thanks to his political connections, he gets the pipes at his school fixed much more quickly than anyone thought possible. He is able to pay for a tandoor oven casually and in cash, thrilled to be this kind of man with this kind of money. His wife is thrilled, too. She is a constant background presence who is, at first, skeptical about Bimala Pal, and then, later, happy to reap the benefits of her husband’s arrangement.

PT Sir is careful to note, though, that “nobody can say that PT Sir is not an ethical man.” After all, he turns down an all-expenses-paid trip to Singapore from a private university, deciding it is too large a gift. This line-drawing allows him to believe that he is indeed some sort of goodhearted Batman and makes him a nuanced, layered character rather than a one-dimensional villain, though a deeper reach into his mind might have offered an even more complex portrait of a man suffering from severe cognitive dissonance. A clearer image of his wife, too, might’ve afforded the novel a more layered depiction of the power of political persuasion and the way in which it might insidiously change a person. As it is, though, Majumdar leaves the reader to simultaneously despise and pity PT Sir, filling in only some of the gaps in his marriage and allowing the reader to guess at how long PT Sir will be able to go on lying to himself so convincingly.

Lovely, on the other hand, tells the court clearly that Jivan was carrying a package of books on the day of the burning, not explosives. The talented thespian lets her voice carry, lets the courtroom laugh at her incorrect English: “Jivan was teaching me English. I was not knowing English and in fact I am still not knowing English… I was learning it all so that I was being able to audition better.” She says she is an actress, and the court laughs at her again. The judge simply says: “we have the word of a hijra, an individual who begs on the streets for money…” These few words tell the court what to believe. Economic class and social standing plait together and decide both Lovely’s and Jivan’s worth easily—a difficult reality, but one Majumdar illuminates several times as a sadly plausible one.

Later, people call Lovely a terrorist sympathizer. Is this your fight to fight? they ask her. What they really mean, and what causes Lovely to eventually wash her hands of Jivan’s case, is: do you want to be an outsider or become the blockbuster heroine you have worked your whole life for? Lovely has wanted nothing more for as long as she can remember. She religiously attends acting lessons, spends what little money she has on a demo video, and believes everything she is doing is part of the journey, worth it for the day that she becomes a star like Shah Rukh Khan or Priyanka Chopra, whose pictures look over her as she sleeps. Like PT Sir, she chooses herself, because how else will she survive?

These are the questions that saturate every page—questions of choices and ethics, of outcomes and processes. Lovely tries to claw her way toward a life that affords her protection and purpose, taking English lessons from Jivan, hoping the language of progress will help her land the coveted movie roles that will catapult her to fame. Yet Lovely’s English doesn’t improve, and Majumdar writes the sections from her point of view in broken English until the novel’s end. Still, she finds herself on a film set, taking on the role of a lifetime. After so many acting classes in a little living room and being laughed at by so many, a video of Lovely goes viral, and she becomes a success. Majumdar’s commitment to incorrect syntax feels like a rebellion—the idea that sometimes those without the “correct” words or identity can overcome society’s expectations and preconceived notions. Ironically, social media propels Lovely with the same force it punishes Jivan.

Lovely distances herself from her truthful testimony, first by herself after considering her options, then with an interviewer who asks her about her past, and then, finally, with Sonali Khan on the day of a big audition. Discomfort floods her face when Sonali Khan voices her concern about Jivan and bad publicity. Her cheeks burning, Lovely looks at the floor and says, “She was my neighbor, but I am understanding now that maybe I was never really knowing who she was.” The pain undulating beneath these words is what makes Majumdar such a masterful storyteller—she manages to reveal the flaws in society as well as in people and binds them together, making it impossible to separate the personal from the political.

“We all used to be something else,” Majumdar writes, and by the last few pages of the book, it is astounding to remember who these characters were at the beginning of the novel. They become players or pawns in the larger game of politics and desire, slowly transforming into what society decides they are allowed to be. In this way, the novel is inherently insular despite the three different worlds we are privy to. Even as PT Sir ascends to a position of great importance, his office is a tiny, windowless room, a parallel to Jivan’s prison cell which offers no daylight. Lovely’s success, though phenomenal, comes with a murky ethical price tag. This darkness pervades from the first sentence, when Jivan’s mother tells her, simply and seriously, “You smell like smoke.” From these words, a darkness billows and, in the end, we are left with a smoking pyre and the bitter taste of injustice.

Ultimately, Majumdar’s debut is a piercing series of questions concerning the life we are born into and the situations beyond our control. A haunting portrait of a country and city steeped in nationalism, A Burning splits open society and presents it, three ways, for our consideration.

Karishma Jobanputra is a British Indian writer and recent graduate of Columbia's MFA program in fiction. Her work can be found in Columbia Journal, A Gathering of the Tribes and The Momaya Short Story Review, among other places. She is currently at work on a novel. More from this author →