Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 8, 2020

A Burning, by Megha Majumdar

I bought this book because Megha Majunder is a guest at the 2020 (all digital) Melbourne Writers Festival and I’m glad I did because it’s the kind of thought-provoking novel that I really like. A Burning tackles social inequality, discrimination against the Other, and the corruption of the Indian justice system and its politicians.  It also exposes the gullibility of a public fed a stream of rubbish through social media, which is, alas, a universal theme these days.

There are three central characters: Jivan, a young Muslim girl accused of collaborating with the terrorists who blew up a train; Lovely, a hijra whose testimony might  prove Jivan’s innocence; and PT Sir, an opportunistic gym teacher who once taught Jivan and could provide character evidence for her.  But both Lovely and PT Sir have ambitions which make it ‘unwise’ to be associated with a terrorist.  Lovely is trying to break into an acting career, and PT Sir becomes involved in Hindu Nationalist politics.

The charge against Jivan is absurd.  Having been in the vicinity of the atrocity, and haunted by the inaction of the police, she asks on Facebook ‘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?’  The ‘suspicious’ parcel that she was carrying was some text books for Lovely: Jivan was teaching her English because English is the language of power and success.  She is a clever girl, who left her scholarship place at a prestigious school to help out her parents.  Her chance at lifting the family out of poverty vanishes when they can’t afford medical care for her father’s back injury and her mother can’t continue to sell breakfasts for early morning workers when the street outside the slum is flooded. So Jivan goes to work at Pantaloons, a factory making jeans.

The story is told from the first person perspective of Jivan and Lovely, and, slightly distanced, as a voyeur interpreting PT Sir’s thoughts and behaviour.  Each narrative explains how they came to be in their situation, all of them excluded from India’s economic miracle.  But it is Lovely who steals the reader’s heart.  Since we know that Jivan is innocent we read believing that all will be well.  Even though she has a useless, lazy lawyer, it seems forgivably predictable that her long sojourn in gaol will come to trial and Lovely will be the one to save the day because she is honorable, funny and kind.

Lovely’s voice is captivating.  Unlike the hijra in Anosh Irani’s The Parcel, Lovely makes her living in the traditional way for intersex people in India. She dances, sings and delivers blessings at weddings and birthdays and other celebratory occasions to superstitious Indians who believe that people with ambiguous gender have a special power to confer luck.  What she earns is a pitiful amount because most of it is creamed off by Arjuna Ma, their hijra house guru.   Lovely is so poor that she has to save up for a very long time for her acting lessons with a second-rate has-been never-was teacher of acting called Mr Debnath, who rewards her faith in him by sending her off to dodgy agents who take more money from her.  And yet she remains irrepressibly brave, hopeful and philosophical about the way things are.

‘Many years ago I would have been asking why is this happening? But now I am knowing that there is no use asking these questions. In life, many things are happening for no reason at all.’

PT Sir, on the other hand, shows how evil is so often banal. There is no charm in PT Sir, and even his wife despises him.  The Jana Kalyan Party sweeps him up with promises of power and status, and he helps them to power by spruiking their pork-barrelling in remote areas.  The party leader thinks it would be a good idea to act decisively against terrorists…

Self-preservation, ambition, greed and fear are powerful motivations for betrayal.

Author: Megha Majumdar
Title: A Burning
Cover by Tyler Comrie
Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster UK), 2020
ISBN: 9781471190278, pbk., 293 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh

 


Responses

  1. I’ve never encountered the word ‘spruiking’ before…

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    • Gosh, when your PM is so good at doing it too!

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      • That’s so funny. Until very recently I hadn’t clocked this wasn’t a word used in the UK/Ireland despite having lived there for 20 years. My OH, who is Irish and now decamped in Australia with me, recently heard this word mentioned on the news and asked me what it meant. He had never heard it before. I am now very attuned to it and we’ve both realised that “spruiking” is mentioned ALL THE TIME. Every mention on the news and we both look at each other, and he says “there’s that word again”.

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  2. You did an excellent job of reviewing this book. I just finished reading it and having been struggling with what to say. I thought it was excellent, but I was devastated by the ending. Partly, I think, it hit me so hard because I was already shaken by the ending of another, very different, Indigenous book, Bone Black, by Carol Rose GoldenEagle. It too was well-written but troubling.

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  3. Thank you! How good it is to connect with someone else who’s read this book and knows how I struggled to write without ruining it for future readers. I usually knock a review within 24 hours of finishing it, but this one, I thought about it for two days before starting it, and then worked at it on and off all day with thinking time in between.
    I’ve just looked up Bone Black at Goodreads and I think I can see where you are coming from. I’ve tried looking at a copy for my Kindle but (typical!) it’s not yet available at the Australian site..
    And on the subject of sites, I’ve just realised that it’s been a long time since a review from you has popped into my inbox (which means I missed your review of Julienne Van Loon’s essays, amongst other things). I don’t know how come I’m unsubscribed, I have heard of WordPress messing people around like this, but TBH I didn’t really believe it. Or maybe the emails disappeared into my spamdrain, odd things certainly do happen there. Whatever, I am re-subscribing now, and will have an enjoyable browse through what I’ve missed!

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  4. I bought this book a month or so ago after seeing a very good review of it on Instagram (!!). I am looking forward to reading it even more now thanks to your review. I also have tickets to the MWF session.

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    • I don’t know how she’s going to talk about it without spoilers…

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      • Maybe I need to hurriedly read it before then. But I’m trying to stick to my #20BooksOfSummer challenge, although I reckon I’m probably only going to get to 15. I have a big pile of new books purchased in the past couple of months that I am itching to get to.

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        • So many demands on our time and the prioritising that we try to do…

          Liked by 1 person

  5. There you go, I didn’t know spruiking was specifically Australian either. Now I’ll have to see how far back I can find instances of it.
    India’s descent into pro Hindu nationalism is very sad.

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    • Yes, it is sad. So is all the money spent by them and Pakistan on nuclear weapons.

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  6. […] Join author Megha Majumdar for a discussion of power, nationalism, corruption and justice in a work that is both gripping literary thriller and compassionate social commentary. With Roanna Gonsalves.  See my review of A Burning. […]

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