Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 304 pages; 2020.
This was my first book of 2021 and what a great start to a new year of reading it proved to be!
Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, is the kind of literary fiction I really admire. It’s got great characters, a suspenseful plot and focuses on some of the key issues of our time — freedom of speech, social justice, social mobility and corruption — without being heavy-handed about it.
And it has an interesting structure that interleaves different points of view into a single multi-layered story.
The dangers of social media
Set in modern-day India, it tells the story of a young woman living in a slum who is trying to make something of herself as a sales clerk in a clothing store.
But when she expresses a provocative opinion on Facebook it lands her in trouble with the law. From one careless, throwaway line — “I wrote a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write” — Jivan is accused of helping to blow up a train, a terrorist act that she witnessed but had no part in organising.
And yet, thanks to the court of public opinion and a forced confession, she is arrested, charged and detained. Her lawyer, inadequate and inexperienced, is really in no position to help her.
But there are two people she knows who may be able to come to her rescue: PT Sir, her former gym teacher who has become swept up in right-wing politics and now makes his living being paid as a dubious witness in court cases he knows absolutely nothing about; and Lovely, a hijra (intersex) actress who learnt English from Jivan and knows that the “explosives” Jivan was accused of carrying were actually books meant for her lessons.
Both characters, whose stories are told in alternate chapters (in gorgeously distinctive voices), are expected to come to Jivan’s defence, but to do so carries a serious risk, for it will call their own reputations into question. Meanwhile, they must dice with a media hungry for sensation, a public eager to condemn the terrorists and a succession of fame-seeking politicians looking to exploit the situation for their own benefit.
A Burning is a propulsive, compelling story, easily read in a sitting or two. It has all the feel of a suspense novel and yet it doesn’t sacrifice detail (or literary merit, for want of a better description) in the pursuit of a page-turning read.
There are big issues here, not least the ways in which social media gives the false illusion that you can say what you want without repercussions. But it also shines a light on social justice in impoverished places where life is cheap, and how ambition and greed can cause collateral damage (and violence) to communities with no means to fight back.
Majumdar presents the justice system, the media and politics in the worst possible light. The setting may be India, but the Dickensian tale told here could apply almost anywhere in the Western world right now. It’s brilliant food for thought.
This is my 1st book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year. It’s also my 1st book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021.