REVIEW: A Burning by Megha Majumdar

In brief: A terrorist attack on a train has wide-ranging consequences for three individuals. Who will rise and who will fall?

The good: Very well written with some confronting moral dilemmas.

The not-so-good: Exposes that life really isn’t fair – so much depends on other things.

Why I chose it: Sounded like something I would enjoy. Thank you to Simon & Schuster for the copy.

Year: 2020

Pages: 293

Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)

Setting: Kolkata, India

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

A Burning is an incredibly well thought out, polished debut novel that tackles prejudice, crime, politics and ambition without being preachy. It’s simply a fascinating novel, even as the reader realises that things are not going to end with one perfect, happy ever after.

Set in Kolkata, the story opens with Jivan’s mother complaining she smells like smoke. On that day, there has been a terrorist attack on a train with many killed. Jivan arrives in the aftermath on her way back to her home in the slums. She reads Facebook messages on her most prized possession, a smartphone and comments. Soon after, she is arrested with conspiring with the masterminds of the attack and denounced as a terrorist. But Jivan wasn’t there. She was delivering English books to Lovely, a hijra who aims to become a Bollywood star. PT Sir recognises Jivan as his former student, a girl who could have done well in sport, and becomes increasingly interested in the politics of the opposition party. As Jivan gets used to prison life, PT Sir’s star is on the rise in politics as long as he does what the party asks. Lovely’s career isn’t going anywhere until she is asked to choose between the truth and her dreams.

A Burning has a somewhat eerie feel in the background as all of the favours asked to PT Sir and ‘suggestions’ to Lovely are entirely plausible. A little white lie here, help in convicting a thief there…it’s all too easy and simple to become one of the important people of society or get some easy money. PT Sir’s ascension is horribly fascinating at the point where he realises that he is in too deep and the consequences of his actions. Does he have the guts to break the cycle of life becoming comfortable? The same goes for Lovely, but her decision is much more emotional because it would close all the doors to her dream of acting. As for Jivan, she has no rights, no friends and no way out. She is simply a pawn of politics to gain the support of the voters.

The way the novel is structured allows the reader to really get into the heads of each of the main characters as alternate chapters are told from their perspectives. Their emotions are laid bare which makes their intentions clear…and sometimes uncomfortable as the reader realises personal gain to some outweighs the risk to others. The voices of each character are distinctive (especially Lovely, who speaks in the present and just seems to brim with exuberance). It’s definitely well structured and has the chill of a thriller combined with the skill of literary fiction. Megha Majumdar is definitely an author to watch.

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