- What: A Burning
- Who: Megha Majumdar
- Pages: 289 pages
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Published: 2020
- The lit: of 5 flames
All this time at home has given me ample opportunity to think in the past year — probably to my detriment. One thing I can’t help thinking about it is how much I’d love to move to another country — literally any country — to avoid the racism, xenophobia, and ultra-conservative viewpoints in the U.S. I know running away doesn’t fix problems; it just puts them further at bay. And deep down, I know no country is perfect, and every place has its own set of issues. It’s just been so upsetting to see how much our country has reversed in the last five years that it’s easy to think the grass is always greener.
That idea came to me while reading A Burning but probably not for the reason you’d expect. This contemporary fiction book, which takes place in India, certainly demonstrates that no place is perfect. But it made me wonder what someone in another country might think of America, especially after the year we’ve had. I can’t imagine it’s anything too positive. Furthermore, by viewing the parallels with a country we often deem inferior (hell, we deem every country inferior), I was reminded that the ideals the U.S. loves to cling to are shadowed in hypocrisy. I doubt that was author Megha Majumdar’s intention, but it certainly struck a chord, which all great books do.
Jivan is a young Muslim girl who, as a minority in India, has faced discrimination her whole life. Born in the slums to a mother who puts her life at risk to earn an income and a debilitated father who can’t afford health care, Jivan yearns to move into the middle class and to never see her parents suffer again. Those hopes and dreams shatter when she is accused of assisting a terrorist attack — all because of a careless Facebook comment she makes.
PT Sir, a gym teacher, lives a complacent life and always looks for the next opportunity to move up, which is why he clings to a potentially dangerous right-wing political party that sees his potential. As Jivan’s former teacher, he could vouch for her character and help prove her innocence. Doing so, though, could damage his climbing political rank and power.
And Lovely, a hijra, has been an outcast her whole life, but she’s never let other people’s judgments of her interfere with her positive spirit and her dreams of becoming a movie star. Lovely also knows Jivan. Not only can she bear witness to Jivan’s character, Lovely can also provide the alibi to set her free. With a trial as popular and fraught as Jivan’s, sticking up for her friend and doing what’s right comes with major risks for Lovely, who sits on the brink of success and true happiness.
It may sound like there’s a lot happening in this plot with three main perspectives, and there is. Majumdar keeps everything tied together nicely, though, with clear cause and effect and intertwines the three characters with distinct connections. There’s just one problem (seriously, my only issue with the novel): This strong, contextualized narrative isn’t maintained for the book’s entirety. Unfortunately, the conclusion of A Burning left me a bit bewildered about how things actually ended, and the characters’ stories concluded with a snap of the finger. These characters deserved a bit more finesse and context so their stories could be fully told and connected. It’s a relatively short book, and it could have used another 50 pages to not feel so rushed.
I know endings are important, but that feels so minor against the powerful writing that builds A Burning.
Alas, this is still a stunning debut, and that’s partly due to its themes and how they all relate. Majumdar writes intensely about class, religion, corruption, injustice, perseverance, and the underlying feeling of hope — even if that hope gets crushed by the injustices of the world. The three main characters hold so much hope for their lives all in different ways and in different circumstances. Even while sitting in prison awaiting trial, Jivan can feel it in her bones that, if she can tell her story — her whole and honest story — people will see that her only crime is her religion. Lovely, more than anyone else, exudes an infectious hope, and even through her struggles, she knows her time will come. Her spirit is ignited by Majumdar’s characterization, which is one of the strongest aspects of this novel’s writing. As a reader, you can visualize every character — physically, emotionally, mentally — and understand their motivations.
Majumdar excels at intertwining these characters’ lives in a country that’s become increasingly extremist. In this way, Majumdar has also created a rich setting that feels like a larger, overbearing fourth character that everyone must outwit. On the one hand, you have a young woman whose religion has never been accepted in this land and that puts her even more at risk with the growing extremism. On the other, you have Lovely who identifies with India’s third gender; in some aspects her identity is worshipped, but she’s also discriminated against, creating daily risks in her life. Right in the middle sits PT Sir who only wants to move up in the world, and he’s willing to associate with the growing extremism to do just that. The political party that serves as a vessel to another life for PT Sir doesn’t accept people like Jivan and Lovely.
It’s this fourth character, which served as an antagonist, that showed me the similarities between the book’s setting and the current situation in the U.S. When reading books that take place in other countries or places, we can’t be naive in thinking the issues are only their issues happening in a faraway place. This book felt so alive and fresh to me partly because it felt so relatable, so … at home.
This book, though it takes place in India, holds up a mirror, reflecting the messy realities in our own lives and in our own country. We’re taught to think America is the beacon on the hill, but we act no better than other countries — including ones we often criticize or judge for our perceived ideas of their freedom. A Burning puts that into perspective. Traveling and reading can enrich our lives. When we do either of those activities, we often look forward to learning about new places, people, and cultures. It’s amazing, though, what those places, people, and cultures can teach us about ourselves — even the ugliest sides.