A Burning

By Megha Majumdar

Alfred A. Knop | 2020.

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

It’s unusual for me to attempt to write a review of a book that I read well over six months ago, especially with a memory as bad as mine. As with a movie seen or a book read that long ago, I’m left with a gentle haze, a singular impression, and, in the case of Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, that impression is one of being frustrated, even angry, with the book’s ending.

Having retrieved my notes on the book, I can thankfully proceed. You see, the central character in this book is a young Muslim woman named Jivan, who lives in Kolkota, India, who has witnessed a terrorist act—a halted train at a nearby station has been fire bombed and the ensuing inferno has killed more than a hundred people. Of course authorities are wild to find someone on whom to pin the blame. Jivan makes the mistake of posting a provocative question on Facebook, “If 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?” She was, of course, just being a smart ass, but her comment attracts attention and the police come in the middle of the night to arrest her, and she is accused of the crime.

The evidence is entirely circumstantial: she was seen at the train station, carrying some kind of package; clothes soaked in kerosene were found at her home; she had been chatting with dubious people on Facebook; and she is, conveniently, poor and Muslim.

There are two people whose testimony might save her. One is an aspiring actress, a hijra (trans-sexual), named Lovely, to whom Jivan had been teaching English, the other is PT Sir, a physical education teacher at the school which Jivan attended, before she dropped out to get a job to help support her family. If even one of them would testify to her character, a jury might be swayed. Unfortunately, both of these two fall victim to their own ambition. Lovely wants to break into the movie business, and PR Sir wants to  rise in a political culture. Thus, they doom Jivan to a fate which she doesn’t deserve…

Megha Majumdar was born and raised in Kolkata. She attended Harvard then did postgraduate work in social anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She is currently an associate editor at Catapult magazine. This is her first novel. Praise has been showered upon it, commending her excellent craftmanship and characterizations. She says, “Most of all I wanted a book that would move swiftly. I love plot. I love velocity; I love pages where each sentence earns it place.”

Two such sentences caught my attention: “His voice booms from the megaphones. Ducks in a weedy pond flee to the far side.”

Then what is my problem with this novel? It has to do with the injustice done to Jivan. If it is to be a commentary on India’s flawed justice system, its purpose is well served. Otherwise, to have a young girl killed for a crime she didn’t commit sort of breaks my heart.

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