‘A Burning’ is a must-read novel of the summer

Ron Charles

THE WASHINGTON POST – Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, is aptly named. This all-consuming story rages along, bright and scalding, illuminating three intertwined lives in contemporary India.

Majumdar, who was raised in West Bengal before attending Harvard University and moving to New York, demonstrates an uncanny ability to capture the vast scope of a tumultuous society by attending to the hopes and fears of people living on the margins.

The effect is transporting, often thrilling, finally harrowing. It’s no wonder this propulsive novel was chosen for the Today show book club and leaped immediately onto the bestseller list.

The story opens with horrific news racing across social media: Terrorists have firebombed a train. Facebook lights up with calls for justice, requests for donations and complaints about the ineffective police. Scrolling through these posts, a young sales clerk named Jivan jumps in with her own casual outrage. But when her message earns no “likes”, she comes up with something more provocative, “If the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean,” she wrote, “that the government is also a terrorist?”

With that one impulsive moment, Majumdar conveyed the perils of social media in much of the world. Succumbing to the scroll’s constant invitation to opine, Jivan has fallen for the illusion of freedom that Facebook created. It’s a perfectly common misstep, and only later does Jivan realised, “I wrote a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write.” Sure enough, a few nights later, police pound on her door and throw her into the back of a van. With a narrative style that felt like a cascade, Majumdar revealed that Jivan has been beaten into signing a confession and then arraigned for firebombing the train.

Even as she professes her innocence, journalists began spinning the pedestrian details of her impoverished life into a narrative of plotting against the state. Interspersed between scenes of that febrile nightmare are the stories of two other tangentially related characters, equally well drawn and compelling.

The other character is Lovely. Lovely’s English tutor is Jivan. Lovely spoke in a joyous, impetuous voice that’s irresistible – so full of hope and will power.

She knew with all her heart that the acting lessons she’s taking from some old hack will make her a movie star, though that dream feels so naive to us it almost hurts to read. Better yet, Majumdar renders Lovely’s narration in almost-fluent English, another sign of the young woman’s determination to improve her station. With a thin understanding of verb conjugation, Lovely spoke only in the progressive tense, giving everything she says a sense of continuous immediacy.

Lovely knew Jivan didn’t bomb the train: Those weren’t explosives she was carrying; they were books for her. Although she’s eager to testify in her tutor’s defence, circumstances will challenge Lovely’s virtue and deliver one of the most painful moments in A Burning. The fragility of moral courage is central to the third story running through this novel, which is focussed on the costs of righteousness. A man known as PT Sir is a PE teacher at Jivan’s old school. He’s a nervous, grasping character, not inherently evil, just desperate for the trappings of prestige. That hunger makes him a handy tool for a local politician. And so, for a bit of flattery and a few modest bribes, PT Sir slides comfortably into a morass of political corruption – all for the greater good, of course.

Majumdar’s outrage is matched only by her sympathy for these ordinary people so deft in the practice of self-justification. A Burning presents a society riven with influence peddling and abuses of power but still wholly devoted to the appearance of propriety.

In Majumdar’s sharp telling, the courts are a spectacle of paid liars, the press trumpets an endless din of scandal, and the poor are routinely exploited. And through it all, politicians demonise their opponents and promise that salvation is just one election away.