Megha Majumdar
A Burning

In India today, WhatsApp group chats can be sinister. In recent years, they’ve become breeding grounds for hate speech and even sparked violent pogroms. Though a WhatsApp group chat appears in Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, it’s in decidedly positive circumstances. When the pogrom takes place, it’s in an entirely different context.

The novel tells the story of a young Muslim slum dweller, Jivan, who is accused of a terrorist attack at Kolabagan train station and put on trial. In alternating chapters, two more narrators are given voices, each linked to Jivan’s potential salvation.

Lovely is an aspiring actress and hijra with an alibi for Jivan. She is immediately charming in her confidence: “My chest is a man’s chest, and my breasts are made of rags. So what? Find me another woman in this whole city as truly woman as me.” Even though Majumdar has Lovely narrating in the present continuous (“I am analyzing”, “I am protesting”), this is somehow never grating or condescending – or perhaps it is, but Lovely’s charm and enthusiasm more than make up for it.

PT Sir, once Jivan’s teacher, is the third protagonist. We follow his political career from nationalist party enthusiast to rising star within it. Although Majumdar creates a little more distance here by using a third-person narration, the reader senses PT Sir’s trepidation as he wades into murkier and murkier waters. In him we observe the moral compass of someone who is loyal to their nation but perhaps hasn’t afforded much critical thought to their loyalty. PT Sir shows cowardice when the boundaries of his moral code are tested, but his menace is offset by an air of cluelessness. Still, there’s a dark edge to his ascent.

These complex and compelling characters are woven around a tightly plotted story that never sacrifices depth for pace. Even scenes with the potential to be cheesy, such as Lovely’s audition, feel authentic and moving. A Burning is a remarkably crafted novel that seems to strike a balance between Western and South Asian literary qualities – Majumdar grew up in India but attended Harvard and Johns Hopkins. Her narrative voice is distinct and confident, and much of this book’s strengths arise from her ability to turn unflinching attention to humanity’s darkest features, and its most loving.

Elena Gomez

Scribner, 304pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 25, 2020 as "Megha Majumdar, A Burning ".

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Reviewer: Elena Gomez

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