Source: Review copy
Publication: 21st January 2021 from ScribnerUK
My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy for review
A girl walks through the slums of Kolkata holding an armful of books. She returns home smelling of smoke, and checks her most prized possession: a brand-new smartphone, purchased in instalments. On Facebook, there is only one conversation.
On the small, glowing screen, she types a dangerous thing…
‘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?’
Set in contemporary India, A Burning is the story of three unforgettable characters, all dreaming of a better future, whose lives are changed for ever when they become caught up in the devastating aftermath of a terrorist attack.
As Jagtar Singh Johal, a Scot, faces the death penalty in jail in India, A Burning feels like an incredibly timely and uncomfortable novel. Jagtar Singh Johal was arrested in 2017 shortly after his wedding in Punjab and charged in connection with conspiracy to murder Hindu nationalist leaders linked to the ruling party of Narendra Modi, the prime minister. Tortured into confessing to a terrorist plot, he has now appealed to the British Government to demand his release.
So A Burning is more than just an exceptional , propulsive novel, it is also a reflection of contemporary Indian politics, and so much more besides.
A Burning follows the lives of three loosely connected characters in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Jivan is a young Muslim woman who is fighting her way up in the world. She comes from a very poor background and was brought up in the slums. The fortunate recipient of a scholarship, she proved herself an adept pupil and good at athletic, too. Her PT teacher would occasionally share his lunch with her, seeing how hungry she always arrived at school. Now she has left school without a backward glance and is working in a clothes shop in the new shiny glass and chrome Mall and has recently purchased that most desirable of things, a smartphone.
Jivan is a thoughtful young woman who helps others and on the day of the attack, she is taking some textbooks to Lovely, a hijari who wants to be an actor and who she is helping to learn English. Jivan was passing time while having a cigarette at the station, posting on Facebook where she had recently been adding to her friends and in the course of this, was idly reflecting on the role of the police in the train attack. Suddenly she finds herself the focus of a police arrest and is imprisoned for suspected involvement in the attack and for consorting with a known terrorist in the form of a young man she had been chatting to on Facebook, albeit about nothing in particular.
Lovely, our would-be actor is transgender. She dreams of being up there with the best of Bollywood actresses and in pursuit of her goal she has been going to acting classes and getting Jivan to teach her English. She knows that Jivan was carrying textbooks to her that day and not the incendiary devices that the police claim.
Our last principal character is the weakest of the three. PT Sir is a Hindu and a PT teacher in a local school, once attended by Jivan. Recognising a famous actress addressing a nearby crowd he finds himself in the position of being able to be helpful at what turns out to be a political rally. Flattered by the attention these right wing politicians bestow on him, he is soon sucked into their schemes and it is not long before he begins to recognise the advantages that a career in politics can bring, whatever the cost.
A Burning is the tragic story of corruption, the suppression of freedom of expression in a democracy, of religious intolerance and bigotry, of class strata, media manipulation and of the dangers of using social media in an intemperate world.
The writing here is taut and sparse. Not a word is wasted. Megha Majumdar makes it all too easy to see how each of these characters has a dream of bettering their lives and shows us with startling clarity just how easily seduced that makes them – so easily exploited by those who can into betraying everything they once cared about.
As Jivan languishes in prison, people are making political capital out of her and a maelstrom of anger is whipped up against her for her alleged monstrous crimes. We can only watch in horror as her fate is decided by those who have an agenda and her life is left to those who can influence her fate but will they do so when it comes at a cost to them?
Verdict: A range of important themes are tackled in this short but vital book. And though I know it speaks predominantly of contemporary Indian politics, nevertheless it has resonance here and lessons for all of us. A thought provoking and timely read.
Megha Majumdar was born and raised in Kolkata, India. She moved to the United States to attend college at Harvard University, followed by graduate school in social anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She works as an editor at Catapult, and lives in New York City. A Burning is her first book.