BOOK REVIEW: “A Burning” is a Searing, Must-Read Debut Novel

GOOD Morning Wilton‘s book reviewer, Gayathri Kaimal, is a sophomore at Wilton High School and an avid reader who hopes to share her love of reading through her reviews. You can learn more about Gayathri on GMW‘s “Our Team” page. 

Megha Majumdar’s riveting debut novel A Burning follows Jivan, a young sales clerk, after an impulsive Facebook post lands her in jail. A terrorist attack lights a train on fire, and Jivan, swept up by the outrage on social media, shares a video of a grieving woman. When that fails to earn her enough likes, she tries again with a more incendiary post. In hindsight, Jivan recognizes that she has written “a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write.” By then it is too late: the police have dragged her out of the slum she lives in and thrown her in jail, blaming her for the terrorist attack. Majumdar also explores the lives of two other characters: PT Sir, a teacher at the local girls’ school, and Lovely, a hijra (a member of the transgender and intersex community) with dreams of becoming a movie star. Though A Burning is set in a metropolitan city in India, it will resonate with readers across the globe.

Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir start out connected (Jivan is teaching Lovely English, and PT Sir was once Jivan’s teacher), but their paths diverge as the novel progresses. However, Majumdar manages to weave together their separate fates, with one character’s success depending on another’s destitution. The chapters shift between the perspectives, with each character given a unique voice through subtle differences: Lovely is written in the present continuous tense (“One morning my sisters and I are spraying rose water in our armpits, braiding our hair, putting bangles on our arms, and together we are going to bless a newborn”) and PT Sir is written completely in the third person. Lovely is brimming with confidence, undeterred by the many taunts thrown her way, or the fact that some don’t view her as fully human. PT Sir, on the other hand, is insecure and unsatisfied with his current position in life, which overshadows his identity to the point where we never learn his name. A Faustian barter – the exchange of his conscience for power and recognition – drives his ascent as the puppet of a local politician. After witnessing (and possibly inciting) a crazed mob, PT Sir visits the leader of the political party to offer his resignation. However, after he confesses his complicity, she absolves him of any guilt. “We can only guide them, inspire them. At the end of the day, are they our puppets? No. So what can we do if they raise their hand, if they decide to beat someone, if they feel angry?” His dislike of this justification doesn’t stop him from accepting her absolution and continuing his ascent.

The novel also lends a voice to a few peripheral characters: the mob, Jivan’s lawyer, an assistant, all of whom have a compelling story to tell, each providing a glimpse into a system riddled with exploitation. The stark contrast between Jivan’s experience with incarceration and the experience of Sonali Khan, a famous film producer, reveals the duplicity of a justice system which, as Bryan Stevenson put it, “treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.”

The several perspective changes coupled with fervent chapters create a truly gripping novel. A Burning is fast-paced and action-heavy, reading almost like a thriller, and the reader is immediately swept into the lives of Jivan, PT Sir, and Lovely. Majumdar expertly builds tension and suspense, ensuring that the novel is filled with emotionally charged scenes. However, A Burning doesn’t feel rushed–the characters reflect on their circumstances and lack of control over their own lives. Lovely explains that “When I am thinking about it, I am truly feeling that Jivan and I are both no more than insects. We are no more than grasshoppers whose wings are being plucked. We are no more than lizards whose tails are being pulled. Is anybody believing that she was innocent? Is anybody believing that I can be having some talent?” Majumdar balances the quick rhythm of the novel with careful reflection, making A Burningdifficult to put down.

A Burning is a scathing critique of an unjust system, where any social advancement or descent is completely random. Any attempt to take a principled stand or fight for what is obviously right is squashed. Even those characters who do give in to the temptation of power and sacrifice their morals evoke pity–it seems like the only way to escape from the hardship that surrounds them. Through the haunting story of a woman wrongly imprisoned, and the upward momentum of those around her, Majumdar explores the self-serving nature necessary to find success and the often insurmountable barriers that prevent the poor from getting justice. A Burning is a must-read.