A girl walks through the slums of Kolkata holding an armful of books. She returns home smelling of smoke, and checks her most prized possession: a brand-new smartphone, purchased in instalments. On Facebook, there is only one conversation.
On the small, glowing screen, she types a dangerous thing…
‘If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?’
Set in contemporary India, A Burning is the story of three unforgettable characters, all dreaming of a better future, whose lives are changed for ever when they become caught up in the devastating aftermath of a terrorist attack.
Jivan – a poor, young, Muslim girl, who dreams of going to college – faces a possible death sentence after being accused of collaborating with the terrorists.
Lovely – an exuberant hijra who longs to be a Bollywood star – holds the alibi that can set Jivan free, but telling the truth will cost her everything she holds dear.
PT Sir – an opportunistic gym teacher who once taught Jivan – becomes involved with Hindu nationalist politics and his own ascent is soon inextricably linked to Jivan’s fall.
Taut, propulsive and electrifying, from its opening lines to its astonishing finale, A Burning confronts issues of class, fate, prejudice and corruption with a Dickensian sense of injustice, and asks us to consider what it means to nurture big ambitions in a country hurtling towards political extremism.
A Burning is a novel for our times and for all time.
One day, one terrorist attack and 3 lives changed forever. A Burning was an astonishing and thought provoking read that missed out all the usual stereotypes and didn’t play the, ‘everything has to turn out all right card’ but instead left you slightly uneasy in a good kind of way.
A Burning centered around Jivan, a young woman who witnessed a terrorist attack on a packed commuter train, at home later, she makes a comment on Facebook that quite literally turned her whole life upside down. Arrested and charged with consorting and plotting with the terrorists she is thrown into jail and a long hard fight to prove her innocence ensued.
But it wasn’t just about Jivan’s struggle, it also examined the impact on those connected with, her, in particular, Lovely and PT Sir. Lovely, a hiraj, or in our world, Transgender, a would be actor, desperate for fame and fortune, Jivan’s English student and friend. PT Sir, Jivan’s PT teacher, the only male in a girl’s school who chanced upon a political rally that would transform his view and again, his own life.
As their connection to Jivan became public knowledge so the opportunities slowly began to open up for them. Were they exploiting their connection for their own benefit or was it those that sought them out, for the notoriety, for the attention that they would no doubt attract to their film, their cause that they sought to exploit and manipulate?
For Lovely it was a way out of the slums, of the daily grind to make a living, the overriding ache to succeed in acting, to be revered and fated just like her idols.
For PT Sir, it was recognition, and respect, it was the power of his words and his actions that took over, his morals left behind.
But what about Jivan? JIvan stuck in prison as she awaited trial, her need to get her version of events out there took over, her naivety plain for all to see as she became the scapegoat, the object of public hatred and vitriol. The ending was shocking, but in a way not unexpected
I loved that the author chose to tell the story in the voices of the three main characters, a brilliant way to convey their thought and motives but also to provoke anger and a sense of injustice in this reader. The portrayal of a country divided, marked with wide divisions between poor and rich were fascinating. The poor desperate for a way out, vulnerable, ripe for a cause that promised a better life. The rich with the power and wealth to influence, to coerce, to bend others to their will, to further their own cause and need for power. The modern world of social media played its own devastating part, context and innocent remarks thrown out, twisted and skewed for the benefit of others.
It all produced a perfect storm, a storm that made A Burning simply brilliant and I am sure it will garner a few prizes
I would like to thank Scribner UK for a copy of A Burning to read and review.
About the author
MEGHA MAJUMDAR was born and raised in Kolkata, India. She moved to the United States to attend college at Harvard University, followed by graduate school in social anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She works as an editor at Catapult, and lives in New York City. A Burning is her first book.
Follow her on Twitter @MeghaMaj and Instagram @megha.maj