‘A Burning’, written by Megha Majumdar, blends fiction and reality in such an exquisite fashion that it’s hard to separate the two. It tells us the story of our lives, guilt, shame, and emotional scars that we leave on those who trust us in a language that we understand.
In the opening chapter of Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, a young muslim woman living in a slum, Jivan, writes a Facebook post questioning the apathy of those who let a horrific incident happen right in front of them. It’s a seemingly innocent and honest post and, at least initially, Jivan doesn’t think much about what she has done. But soon, the dominos begin to fall and before she knows it, her whole world comes crashing down. She’s arrested on the charges of abetting a terrorist and is sent to prison. If an incident like this reminds you of something, which happened somewhere in India, it is, in fact, meant to be so. The opening chapter and what happens to Jivan right after that doesn’t feel like fiction at all, if you have been following news in the past few years.
Then, there’s Lovely, a trans woman, who dreams of becoming an actress. She goes for acting classes hoping that it would lead to auditions and even lead roles in movies. Soon, we learn that Lovely has been learning English from Jivan and also has a lover whom she wants to marry but she knows that the latter’s family will never accept her. Life is tough for Lovely, but she wants to work hard to earn her rightful place in the society and make it big, because she believes that she has immense talent. But then, she is trapped in a society which doesn’t see her as someone who’s capable of doing bigger things in life.
The third major character in the novel is Jivan’s PT teacher in school, whom everyone refers to as PT Sir. All his life, PT Sir wanted to do something big but his current job never allowed him to get recognised. We are told that his ‘big moment’ in school comes only when there’s something wrong with the mic at the assembly. One day, he happens to attend a political rally of the opposition party in the state, and he gets noticed for his skill which he never really paid attention to. But something changes in his life. He finds a new sense of purpose to achieve what he wants.
Right from the beginning, Megha Majumdar’s narrative style puts the reader right in the midst of the whirlpool that’s brewing in the lives of these characters. Soon Megha establishes Jivan’s relationship with Lovely and PT Sir, she places the onus of judging the actions and decisions of these characters on the readers. And this changes the way we engage with the story itself. We know that Jivan’s life is in the hands of Lovely and PT Sir, but fate pulls them apart for different reasons.
So what is ‘A Burning’ about? Is it about how we don’t stand up for our friends when they are at their most vulnerable state? Is it about how we become too selfish and forget about what’s morally right? Or is it about how we erase and twist our past to achieve our future goals? One way of looking at everything which ‘A Burning’ wants to say is from the way it treats the three lead characters. All three of them want something in life, but not everyone is lucky. All of them pay a heavy price, but Jivan has the most to lose because no one wants to know her story without taking advantage of her. Her religion becomes a huge burden on her to prove her innocence. Among the three characters, PT Sir’s character arc is, perhaps, the most fascinating. How easy is it to get influenced by grand ideas….and once you cross the line, there’s no turning back. The book doesn’t really delve into the guilt and shame which some of the characters go through towards the end, when they reflect on their own choices, but it’s what stays with you like dense fog on a winter morning.
Reading ‘A Burning’ feels like watching dominoes falling slowly, and it all starts with one innocent question about why we do not confront injustice. The weight of that question is soul-crushing because, a lot of times, we don’t have an answer. Does that make us guilty too?
One of the reasons why ‘A Burning’ leaves such a strong impression is that almost every other incident feels like it’s straight out of a newspaper headline you’ve read and felt horrified that something like this is happening in our country. It examines the political upheavals and its impact on people’s lives quite well in a way that’s bound to make you think if it’s all worth it.
‘A Burning’ is a terrific piece of work, and long after reading the book, I can’t stop thinking about PT Sir. Maybe he deserves a book of his own. Bravo, Megha!