A Burning by Megha Majumdar – Review
By Barney Bardsley
This is a brisk and brutal novel about corruption and human culpability. Set in contemporary India, it starts with a false arrest on terrorism charges, and ends with an unjust execution. The journey taken in between is full of missteps and wrong turnings. How we wish, at every stage, that our protagonists will take the noble path. But they never do – and the result is dismaying and very dark.
The story centres around three main characters: Jivan, PT Sir and Lovely. Jivan, a young, rather naïve woman, has made an ill-advised remark on Facebook, linking her, wrongly, to a terrorist train bombing. She hopes to be exonerated by the testimony of her old high school PE teacher, but ‘PT Sir’ has ambitions of his own, that cause him, ultimately, to betray her. Meanwhile Lovely, a ‘hijra’, or trans woman, who has been taking English lessons with Jivan, and can testify to her kind and innocent nature, is also seduced by ambition into denying and abandoning her.
No one speaks up for Jivan, in her hour of greatest need, and she becomes a scapegoat in a battleground of prejudice and false testimony. With the certainty of ancient Greek tragedy, she is hanged. The real perpetrators are never caught.
This is Megha Majumdar’s first novel, and she has crafted a fast-paced and relentless page turner. She spares us no detail: neither the depravity and squalor of Jivan’s jail conditions; nor the cowardice and selfishness of the only two witnesses who can save her life. PT Sir sacrifices all moral scruples in pursuit of a new political career, and Lovely wallows in the promise of a burgeoning acting life – even if that means turning her back on her innocent friend.
Although Jivan is the central character of A Burning, it is Lovely, the alluring hijra, who becomes the most compelling presence in the story. She is outspoken and quirky, with her pigeon English and her brave defiance of convention, which makes her into a unique person, whom we begin to really care about and champion. It is, therefore, double dismaying, when this strong trans woman capitulates, under pressure from the film industry that has snapped her up, and disowns Jivan – even though she knows her to be innocent – all because it would be bad for her image, and for the reputation of the company which employs her.
The author’s laser eye focuses on two major sources of power and scandal in modern day India: the film industry – a multi million pound empire riddled with compromise and scandal; and the political system – where personal wealth and ambition count for more than any sense of justice or morality. In neither place is there any regard for the life of one poor, voiceless, and ruthlessly mistreated young woman, whose fate is sealed from the moment she is arrested and tried.
Megha Majumdar has written a debut of great power and promise. What her novel lacks in terms of descriptive nuance and subtlety of style, it more than makes up, in being a story told with confidence, conviction, and a certain shocking plausibility.
‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar is published by Scribner, £14.99 hardback