A Burning by Megha Majumdar

A Burning (2020), Megha Majumdar's debut novel, follows three characters in the wake of a firebomb attack at a railroad station in a Kolkata slum.

The central character, Jivan, is a young Muslim woman who happens to be station at the time of the attack. As the novel opens, we find her washing the smoke from her hair and sharing a video of the firebombing on Facebook. 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.”

Jivan's post launches both the book's central conflict and one of it's many big questions, namely: who holds the power to be free? Free to say what they like, when they like, how and where they like? Free to pursue a better life, free to live without fear? Soon after her post, Jivan is accused of aiding the terrorists and becomes the nation's scapegoat, when really her only crimes are publicly sharing her opinion and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The other two main perspectives in Majumdar's powerful novel are Jivan’s former physical education teacher, PT Sir, and Lovely, an aspiring actress who is a hijra (a South Asian gender identity known for spiritual practice and feminine self-presentation). In a series of surprising twists and turns, their fates become inextricably interwoven with Jivan's. In addition to these three, the novel is punctuated with brief interludes,which allow us to glimpse the lives of other minor characters, who, woven together, constitute the kind of chorus often found in Greek Tragedies.

Ultimately, A Burning is a kind of tragedy, one that shines a light on the complex and hypocritical nature of a corrupt political system and the powerful constraints that can be imposed on those less privileged. You may find that this memorable portrayal of a country steeped in nationalism may raise concerns about the state of affairs in our own nation. This was certainly the case for me.




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Karen S