Review of A Burning by Megha Majumdar
There's enough injustice and crooked dealing in this captivating book to fully enrage a reader, yet the tone of Majumdar's debut title is, interestingly, relatively light.
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.
In contemporary India, Jivan, a young Muslim girl, becomes tangentially entangled with the wrong people and also posts criticism of the government on social media. She quickly finds herself accused of being part of a terrible crime and jailed for sedition. Jivan is a scapegoat, tragically set out as an example of what happens to those who voice even justified bad-mouthing of those in power.
Within Jivan's orbit are characters like PT Sir, her gym teacher, a vulnerable and opportunistic fellow who stumbles into being a powerful lynchpin of the right-wing political party. He is manipulated--by being paid the positive attention he desperately desires--into taking the helm of enacting the party's dangerous and destructive methods of gaining the support of the populace and ultimately gaining control of the government. He pridefully subsumes his reservations and his feelings of responsibility about the harm and death in his wake in favor of comfort and perceived power.
Another key character is Lovely, a transgender amateur actress with ambition. She is a societal outcast and yet an aggressive hustler who earns a living by demanding payment for bestowing blessings upon strangers. Jivan had been kindly teaching Lovely English, and Lovely might be able to serve as a valuable alibi--if she's willing to pit herself against the bloodlust of the community for punishment for Jivan, and essentially give up her acting dreams.
Majumdar has said that she wanted "to write about how people hold big dreams and chase a better life when the institutions and systems don't serve them." There are currents throughout A Burning regarding the heavy yoke of society's structure and class limitations; the manifestation of positive and negative expectations; and the thorny rewards of compromising one's morals and obligations and harming others in order to benefit the self.
There's enough injustice and crooked dealing here to fully enrage a reader, yet the tone of this book is relatively light. It's an interesting juxtaposition when considered along the often weighty examples throughout the book of injustice, punishment, scapegoats, class oppression, and female indignities. I think Majumdar, who is also a book editor, struck a fascinating balance between a frank, almost matter-of-fact documentation of events and how tragic and infuriating the events themselves are.
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