Girl, abandoned: Megha Majumdar’s ‘A Burning’ reviewed by Tabish Khair

Carefully sculpted, emotionally resonant, and replete with telling detail, A Burningis the calling card of a significant new voice. But there’s a tiny problem

June 27, 2020 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

There is a deadly fire on a train in Megha Majumdar’s A Burning . Jivan, a Muslim girl allegedly recruited online by Islamist terrorists, is arrested on the charge of having planted the bomb.

As this gripping novel proceeds, we learn more about Jivan, as well as a hijra called Lovely, who is training to become an actress, and PT Sir, instructor in the school that Jivan used to attend. There are also ‘interludes,’ in which other related stories, such as the ‘beef lynching’ that PT Sir witnesses, are narrated. And there are crisply etched minor characters like Jivan’s mother; Sonali Khan the film producer; Bimala Pal, the populist political leader and, in due course, the new Chief Minister of the State. But the pillars of the narrative are Jivan, Lovely and PT Sir.

Rare pupil

Jivan, it turns out, is the only child of a poor couple, dislocated by a government-supported corporate land-grab, and newly moved to the metropolis. The mother earns some money by selling vegetables. The father, once a rickshaw-puller, is ailing, largely because he was badly beaten up by policemen during the eviction. Jivan has had a bit of luck; she was admitted to a middle-class girls’ school by a good Samaritan. She has just passed Class X with the lowest percentage in her batch, for all her classmates come from English-reading families while Jivan has painstakingly taught herself to read and write both Bangla and English. PT Sir remembers her as that rare pupil, a favourite of his, who took sports seriously.

Jivan is not unhappy. She knows that she can now get a job as a salesgirl, and that is what she proceeds to do. She has been teaching English to Lovely, who is doing all she can to improve herself in preparation for possible stardom. Jivan decides to give all her Class X books to Lovely — this is why she is crossing the station with a bundle when the train blast takes place.

But when Jivan is arrested, not only is she prejudged by all who do not know her, but even people who know her fail to come to her aid. PT Sir uses, at first reluctantly and then with greater dexterity, his association with Jivan to sculpt a career in politics — while patriotically condemning his ex-student. Lovely, who is initially sympathetic, abandons Jivan

for a break in the film world. The journalist Jivan entrusts with her account allows his editor to slant her confession in such a sensational way as to implicate her further. The judge’s sentence — like so many other things in this novel — is an echo from outside the narrative: Jivan is condemned to death by hanging to assuage “the conscience of the city, of the country.” One of the remarkable strengths of A Burning is Majumdar’s ability to illustrate how easily we abandon others for our own convenience.

Outside the ordinary

Carefully sculpted, with no word wasted, emotionally resonant, and replete with telling detail, A Burning is the calling card of a significant new voice. It is an excellent novel and an impressive debut.

If Majumdar was an ordinary talent, I would have stopped with the above remarks. But Majumdar is a talent that should not be lost in the lush deserts (or are they arid gardens?) of New York and London publishing, that glittering global machine. Hence I need to say more.

I will do so by noting a small matter: the Muslim girl is called Jivan. This is an unusual name for a Muslim girl, though, especially in Bengal, poorer Muslims can sometimes have Hindu names, or (most often) nicknames. I have not met any — out of the thousand plus Muslims I have met until now — but sociology assures me that this happens.

Mixed up

What is less likely to happen is that people will accept a Muslim girl’s claim that her brother is named ‘Purnendu Sarkar’, as they obviously do in the novel. But even this would not matter if there wasn’t a tradition in metropolitan colonial and post-colonial writing in English — even in major novels by non-white authors, such as Zadie Smith’s White Teeth — of mixing up Hindu and Muslim names. And even that could be ignored if the details of Muslim living, and festivals, were not so glaringly absent in a novel that, otherwise, pays careful attention to small details.

I grew up a Muslim who knew much about Hindu details of life but met excellent, well-meaning Hindus, including some of my school friends, who seemed to know nothing about Muslim details of life. And hence, I cannot help but notice this aridity in A Burning . And because the author of A Burning is a person of unusual talent and empathy, I want to bring it to her notice. Because the aridity is more significant than it seems, and because it won’t be pointed out to her by the publishing and critical sheikhs who rule over our Indian English destinies from the lush deserts of London and New York.

The writer is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.

A Burning; Megha Majumdar, Penguin Hamish Hamilton, ₹599

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