A literary thriller, set in India’s slums, with much to tell about the nation’s culture and politics.
Megha Majumdar’s debut novel is built around three main characters. Jivan lives in the slums of Kolabagan with her parents. She is a young Muslim woman and earns a meagre income from her job in retail. Lovely is a hijra, in India known as belonging to a third gender. In the West we’d probably call Lovely a trans woman. She is studying to become an actress and was tutored by Jivan to improve her English. They both lived in the same slum. Lastly, there is PT Sir. He is a gym teacher who once taught Jivan. Morally weak, he has a few encounters with the second in command of the Jana Kalyan Party, a political party on the cusp of seizing government. He is asked to perform innocuous seeming favours for the party, which turn out to be illegal, but as the party keeps sending him “gifts”, envelopes full of money, he finds it hard to refuse them.
When Jivan posts some indignant and inflammatory comments on Facebook after a terrorist attack on a train, she is charged as being an accomplice. In prison, she turns to a journalist, hoping that by getting her life story out, it will become obvious she is innocent. But this only makes things worse as the media twists her words against her. Pretty soon the whole nation is baying for her blood. Being poor and Muslim does not help her case. In fact, it prejudices many against her.
There are two people who can help Jivan. Lovely, whose testimony can prove Jivan is innocent. And PT Sir, who can vouch for her good character. But both Lovely and PT Sir realise that their careers are only hindered by defending Jivan, who has become a scapegoat for all that troubles India.
A Burning reads like a crime thriller, the story propelled along by the terrible fate hanging over Jivan and the realisation that she is innocent. Majumdar plots a neat and precise tale with sharp dialogue and vibrant characters. Lovely’s chapters, narrated in her own poor English, show a brilliant ear for everyday street language. The story focuses on the lot of India’s poor and downtrodden, with palpable descriptions of slums, prisons and bustling markets. It’s a novel that makes you feel empathy for the hopeless fate of so many of the country’s poor and economically trapped.
A thrilling read, expertly told, but also a fascinating, gritty window onto India’s desperately poor.
A Burning, by Megha Majumdar. Scribner. $29.99
North Melbourne Books