Megha Majumdar’s first novel follows three characters in contemporary urban India: Jivan, a 22-year-old Muslim woman who works at a clothing store, trying to raise her family out of poverty; Lovely, a transgender beggar woman whom Jivan tutored in English; and PT Sir, Jivan’s former gym teacher who’s sure he deserves more respect and improved middle-class creature comforts.
A Burning opens the day after terrorists attack a commuter train. The attack has killed a hundred people and captured the nation’s attention and anger. Jivan, who saw the burning train cars and the people trapped inside (the train station is near Jivan’s home in the slums), dares to comment sarcastically on Facebook about the attack, equating the government with terrorists. Because of these posts, Jivan quickly becomes a suspect. Lovely and PT Sir, meanwhile, are preoccupied with their own ambitions. Lovely takes acting classes and aspires to get a role in a movie, and PT Sir stumbles into a campaign rally for an opposition politician and finds himself captivated. As PT Sir gets more involved with the campaign, he begins to do favors for the party and descends into corruption.
The story rotates through the three characters’ points of view and occasionally the perspectives of other peripheral characters. The chapters are very short, sometimes only a page or two, giving the novel a fast-moving, staccato feel.
A Burning touches on issues that complicate life in India today: Hindu-Muslim conflict, political corruption, the promises and failures of a political system, the pressures of extreme poverty, the drive to improve one’s lot in life. Majumdar knows this world well. Born and raised in Kolkata, India, she came to the U.S. to attend Harvard University. She also did graduate work in social anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.
This challenging and distinctive novel is a lot to balance, but Majumdar’s writing stays grounded in these three characters’ voices and in their daily lives and hopes.