5. A book written in South Asia: A Burning by Megha Majumdar
List Progress: 14/30
Everyone wants to make some mark on the world; to find some foothold to let them work towards prominence. But so often in this world, getting somewhere involves stepping on people along the way, a conundrum which is painfully and deliberately portrayed in Megha Majumdar’s 2020 debut novel A Burning.
A deadly terrorist attack takes place at a train station, and poor young Muslim woman named Jivan is in the wrong place at the wrong time. She had nothing to do with the attack, but when she makes a mildly subversive comment on Facebook, she becomes the police’s scapegoat for the attack. Among her potential defenders are her former gym teacher, PT Sir, and a hijra she has been tutoring in English, Lovely, but both of them have their own goals that would be compromised by ties with an accused terrorist. PT Sir is being pulled under the sway of a nationalist political party, Lovely is trying to make a name for herself as a film star, and neither of them want to let sentiment stand in the way of their chances for a better life. It is a deeply cynical way to view the world, but Majumdar shows every step of their decisions and lets the reader walk in their shoes. You want to say you would be better than that, but how many of us really are, when confronted with those circumstances?
The three main characters, Jivan, PT Sir and Lovely, alternate points of view, with occasional interludes with side characters to give an even wider perspective on contemporary Kolkata. Jivan and Lovely have a very personal narration style and different vocal inflections, but strangely, PT Sir’s chapters are told in the third-person instead of the first, which feels like an odd stylistic choice. But the prose moves smoothly and quickly, taking you swiftly through subject matter that could be overwhelming at a slower pace.
There are no easy answers in A Burning, and it can be a difficult book to read if your own faith in humanity has taken a beating lately. But these stories about corruption, poverty, incarceration and choices are important, no matter where you live.
Would I Recommend It: Yes.