Power corrupts is the message from author Megha Majumdar in her blistering debut novel of prejudice and injustice set in contemporary Kolkata.
The main thread of the story concerns Jivan, a young shop assistant who happens to be at a train station when terrorists attack. Back home in the Kolabagan slum, she watches videos of the firebombing posted on Facebook. Encouraged by the outspoken comments the clips attract, Jivan adds her own, unfiltered, thoughts which are critical of the government. Hours later, she is arrested for sedition.
Stuck in a women’s prison, Jivan’s fortunes take an irreversible downturn. Unbeknown to her, a foreign “friend” she made on Facebook is a terrorist recruiter and the police find kerosene rags (which her mother uses for cleaning) at her home. As Jivan is a Muslim, the evidence is seemingly conclusive and a date for her trial is set.
There are a couple of witnesses who can be called to Jivan’s defence. They are her former games teacher, known as PT Sir, and Lovely, a hijra (a non-binary gender identity; Lovely describes herself as “half-half”) to whom Jivan was teaching English. Unfortunately, they both have more pressing matters at hand.
As Jivan festers in jail, PT Sir is drawn into nationalist politics and quickly climbs the ranks of the Jana Kalyan Party, particularly as he can be persuaded to lie for his superiors. The crunch comes when he fails to stop a Hindu crowd attacking (and murdering) a Muslim family after a rally in the countryside. He allows his guilt to be assuaged by the party leader who tells him he cannot be held responsible for the villagers’ actions. PT Sir’s position is preserved and he continues to advance. Any regrets are swept away by a tidal wave of money and power and he quashes Jivan’s petition for mercy as an act of political expediency.
The irrepressible Lovely, an aspiring actress, benefits from Jivan’s trial when her passionate performance in court reaches a wider audience. She quickly becomes a social media sensation and is given a role in an upcoming film. However, it’s made clear to her by the director that championing Jivan’s cause would harm her prospects and regretfully she withdraws her support.
Despite the depressing subject matter, A Burning is a delight to read. Majumdar has a gift for dialogue and convincingly portrays her characters’ speech patterns in English although none of them speak it well—Lovely never got much further than “cat” in Jivan’s lessons. Added to this are Majumdar’s skewering observations of social niceties and pretensions. The episode where PT Sir buys a top-range tandoor oven with cash, not credit because “monthly installments are for the common man”, is particularly wry.
Majumdar uses multiple points of view to relate the story. Although the chapters devoted to Jivan and Lovely are in the first person, and PT Sir’s perspective is third person, they are woven together so neatly that the change is barely noticeable. Various minor characters add another angle, notably a journalist and a lawyer, both of whom also fail Jivan for their own self-serving reasons.
This 360 degree view serves Majumdar’s purpose in showing that corruption and toadyism is deeply ingrained at all levels of Indian society. PT Sir, and Lovely in particular, are treated appallingly until they become successful and then every door is thrown open to them. They behave badly and yet are rewarded, whereas Jivan, who is innocent and aspires only to be middle class, is punished.
This is real-life then, not fiction, Majumdar seems to say. Although she doesn’t offer any solutions to the injustice, she does point to its stem. She ends the book with a description of villagers leaving PT Sir’s rally:
They will bend in fields, earning two rupees for crops that will sell in the city for forty … They will watch, wide-eyed, the one movie that plays in the theater on their half-day off from carpentry or construction or cleaning bathrooms, while PT Sir, in the government office’s special elevator, moves upward.
When there is such disparity of wealth, and barriers to advancement, who can blame those at the bottom for using every means to get ahead or even just survive? PT Sir recognizes the poorer classes as “those common people who will always be on the outside”. If no one lets them in, will things ever change?