One of my selections from June’s Book of the Month options was the debut novel from Megha Majumdar, A Burning. Set in India, this work of literary fiction tackles difficult themes that are all too relevant today. Political and social commentary collide when an act of terrorism leads to an innocent woman’s arrest, and readers follow in that event’s repercussions. It’s a heavy read, but also important and surprisingly swift.
A Burning follows three main characters, all affected by an act of terrorism and the far-reaching ripples it creates.
First there is Jivan, a young Muslim woman from a poor family. She lives with her parents, working full-time after having left school early. She was near the train when it caught fire due to the terrorist attack. And though she wasn’t involved, some critical comments she posts on Facebook lead the police to her door. Jivan is arrested on suspicion of having caused the terrorist attack. Though she professes her innocence, it seems the country needs a scapegoat, a face to put to this terrorism, and she’s the defenseless victim they chose.
Another woman, named Lovely, can provide an alibi for Jivan. But Lovely is a hijra – a transgender woman – and she has little power over what the courts will decide. Facing transphobia on a daily basis doesn’t hold Lovely back from her dreams of being an actress. In a strange twist of fate, her role in Jivan’s case will lead to unexpected impacts on her acting dreams.
Finally, we have PT Sir, a man who was once Jivan’s gym teacher. Though he starts off somewhat apathetic, he soon hitches his dreams on a right-wing political party after spontaneously attending their rally. He quickly becomes involved in their movement, and his rise to power may depend on Jivan’s downfall.
Over the course of about one year, we see how Jivan’s arrest affects three very different lives, some for the better, others for the worse.
From the beginning, A Burning feels like an important and timely novel. It makes big statements that need to be heard, and though it takes place in India, its themes are just as applicable in the US. It shows just how connected our world is, and how universal dreams and injustices are – from the personal to the political.
In many ways, A Burning is a political book offering moving social commentary. We can see the sorrows and cruelties a transgender woman faces, with her own loved ones and with strangers on the street. We can see how a man is transformed by dirty politics, and the lengths he’s willing to go, no matter whom he tears down in the process. Related to that, we see how an innocent person takes the blame for a crime she didn’t commit, and how the world turns against her despite her please for justice.
I loved that Megha Majumdar wrote such diverse characters. A Burning offers representation of a Muslim woman, Jivan. Sadly, we see how her religion is used against her, and how it’s used against another innocent man later in the book. This novel also highlights a transgender woman, or hijra, Lovely. Her identity is prominent with each of her chapters, and the reader feels for her with each snide remark or barrier she faces.
And make no mistake: A Burning is a heavy book. It’s sad and infuriating as we watch good people suffer and bad people advance. Somehow, it’s a quick read and the pages fly by. Even so, don’t expect too much joy here. While some characters get happy endings, not everyone does.
A lot about A Burning is excellent. Despite all of the pros, though, I had a hard time connecting with this book. Megha Majumdar is a skilled writer with sparse prose and careful word choice. But perhaps it was too careful, because I never felt as fully connected to any of the characters as I’d have hoped. I wanted to care more about the characters than I did.
Much of the book also didn’t feel cohesive enough. Although Lovely and PT Sir are loosely impacted by Jivan – more so later in the book – it often felt like three different stories. They were all linked in bigger ways, but it could have benefited from more direct or apparent connections.
A Burning is an important book with powerful themes, and it’s very relevant to the world we live in today. Although much of this novel is impactful, it wasn’t as enjoyable or emotionally grabbing as I’d anticipated. However, it is a swift read that is thought-provoking. Megha Majumdar is a skilled writer, and I’m curious to read more from her in the future.