Jivan is a Muslim girl from the slums, determined to move up in life, who is accused of executing a terrorist attack on a train because of a careless comment on Facebook. PT Sir is an opportunistic gym teacher who hitches his aspirations to a right-wing political party, and finds that his own ascent becomes linked to Jivan’s fall. Lovely–an irresistible outcast whose exuberant voice and dreams of glory fill the novel with warmth and hope and humor–has the alibi that can set Jivan free, but it will cost her everything she holds dear.
At the start of Majumdar’s standout debut novel, Jivan, a young Muslim woman, makes a Facebook post that takes a jab at the government’s handling of a train bombing in Bengal. Someone hastens to whisper of it, and Jivan lands in a prison cell, charged with the attack before night finishes falling. Everyone, suddenly, had known her, everyone had heard her speak ill of her country, everyone had seen her in the train station; everyone is deranged with anger, demanding justice be carried out.
Jivan’s life is like an hourglass turned over, and all the world is watching the grains tumble down, and waiting. Her cries of innocence are invisible, incorporeal, insubstantial as a murmur, and the disingenuous testimony of her former PE teacher—who forgoes morality in hopes to curry favor with a right-wing party luminary—keeps Jivan tethered to the bars of her prison, instead of the gaps she’s found between them at the prospect of Lovely—the inspiring trans actress she used to tutor—speaking in court in favor of Jivan, and a reporter who promises to tell her side of the story.
“The country needs someone to punish,” I tell him. “And I am that person.”
“A Burning” feels ambitious in a myriad of ways. Jivan is not the only main character in this novel. Majumdar’s choice is far more audacious: she makes us at home in the minds of PE Sir and Lovely, as well as a handful of other characters who dip in and out of the story like hummingbirds. Jivan’s trial is a catalyst, the thread that runs through their lives, marrying one to the next, and as the connections between their stories pile up and tighten, evasions and lies come tumbling out of the closet and unexcepted links between them revealed.
Crafting a novel told through different points of view requires skilled calibration—particularly when those characters are divided by religion, social background and gender identity—but the multiple voices here are handled with restrained mastery by Majumdar. The author’s uncannily intense evocation of place, mood and character—as well as her unflinching honesty—is the novel’s greatest triumph. Majumdar is as comfortable inhabiting Jivan’s mind as she is PE Sir’s and Lovely’s, agilely narrating her novel in first-person and a close third-person, weaving the characters’ struggles into dialogue without reducing them into mouthpieces for a popular debate. This patchwork of alternating perspectives lends the novel great power and presence, and by the end of the book you’ll wonder how anyone could have possibly told the story differently.
In many senses, “A Burning” is a cautionary tale for those who claim politics has no place in their lives, and that includes a great many people. Majumdar ties the private terrors of supposedly inconsequential people to the larger forces pulsing through India—and the world. She lays bare issues of gender, religion and class, and keeps you reading when you most want to turn away. The novel is embedded with the rallying cry of powerless people who have no way to bargain with the world. The grievous and undeniable sound of fear being smothered by those who lived so tenderly it was as though they were housed inside a flower, nothing but shiny shells walking around, grinding away at people with modest inspirations and hopes and pulling their lives to pieces. Jivan and Lovely’s connection in particular pricks like a thorn: Jivan looked at Lovely like a drowning woman watching the shore recede, but when arguing for any redeeming quality in Jivan was rendered a kind of rank treason, Lovely’s old instincts kick in, that ancient streak of self-preservation, the lesson which sifted down to her only by degrees, but which was in fact the truest thing at the heart of the business of living: “In this world, only one of us can be truly free. Jivan, or me. Every day, I am making my choice, and I am making it today also.”
This isn’t a book about easy answers, any more than it’s driven by plot. The characters shine amidst this barrage of horrors, as distinct and startling as a flame leaping up in a dark room. Coleridge once said that Shakespeare always made apprehension predominate over surprise, and this too is what Majumdar does best in her novel. I watched the questions. I saw also the answers, and there was a knot of tension high in my chest, something that became harder and more coiled with every page-turn.
Majumdar is less telling a story, and more scraping through it like a shovel through gravel, rooting out the truth at the dark heart of it all. This is the kind of story that will dully ache during the day and froth you to sleeplessness when you lay in the shuttered dark. A must-read.