Somewhere in Bengal, a train is set on fire. A working-class young Muslim woman is hauled by the police as the prime suspect for making the wrong social media post. A transgender woman, with dreams of becoming a film actress, gets pulled into the case, and so is a schoolteacher, who suddenly finds himself rising up the ladder in a Hindu right-wing political party.

Through these characters, Megha Majumdar, in her debut novel A Burning, attempts to paint a picture of contemporary India, where wrestling with everyday apathy and violence is a way of life for minorities dwelling in the margins of society. Along the way, we get a glimpse of life in Kolkata’s slums, the living conditions of women in prisons, and political machinations of the Hindu right wing.

Released in June 2020, A Burning has gone on to fetch overwhelmingly positive reviews and has reportedly become a bestseller. The New Yorker compared Majumdar’s writing to that of Akhil Sharma and “early Naipaul”, while The Washington Post found the focus of her novel as “equally powerful” as that of Arundhati Roy’s 2017 book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Amitav Ghosh’s blurb reads, “The best debut novel I have come across in a long time.”

Noting that she feels “grateful” about such “generous reads”, Majumdar reminded that writing at the end of day is hard labour. “I’m always aware that my work is to come to the page, to put in the work, to cultivate that disciplined practice of writing.” Majumdar told in an email interview. “In that space, as I think any writer reading this will know, there’s only solitude and great effort.”

A Burning by Megha Majumdar. Courtesy Penguin Books.

‘My task was to write these characters with complexity’

The novel begins with titular burning, which leads to Jivan getting arrested for being a suspected terrorist. Jivan grows up Muslim and poor, but is feisty and ambitious. She makes do in life with a job at a shopping mall, but the police case tramples on her dreams.

Jivan is taught English by Lovely, whose transgender identity forced her early in life to become a social pariah. But like Jivan, Lovely seeks to live a life of dignity, while nurturing her celluloid dreams with passion and fury.

The third protagonist, simply named PT Sir, is a politically ambitious middle-class Bengali man, who teaches physical education at a school. When news of Jivan’s arrest is telecast, PT Sir recognises her as his ex-student. Through the course of the novel, these three characters cross paths and change each other’s lives forever.

“I wanted to write about three characters who chase big dreams and confront oppressive systems,” Majumdar said about her reasons to write the novel with these specific characters, all quite unlike herself. The 32-year-old Kolkata-born Majumdar moved to the United States of America in 2006 to study anthropology at Harvard University, following up with a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University. She is currently an editor at Catapult magazine and publishing house.

Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir are poles apart from Majumdar, an Ivy League-educated New Yorker. About putting herself in the shoes of her subaltern characters, Majumdar said, “I worked hard to build full, robust characters with voices that I shaped over years. My task was to write these characters with complexity, to write them in their contradictions, be attentive to their jokes and teasing and moments of disappointment and moments of achievement.”

“It is up to each reader to bring their own thoughts and life experiences to the page and see if these depictions hold any truth for them,” she added.

“Recently, given the hot summer temperatures here in New York, I was thinking about the ice cream and churan sellers outside our school, and the pleasure of an orange ice cream in the afternoon on the way home, while you wait for the bus at the bus stop, your friends taking their routes home, and if you’re lucky perhaps a friend or two taking the same bus as you.”

— Megha Majumdar, on her memories of Kolkata.

‘When people talk about binge watching shows, what are they referring to?’

The novel moves at a brisk pace, with the narrative rapidly switching between the stories of Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir, giving the impression that a scene in a movie or a television show ended at one spot, followed immediately by a scene elsewhere.

Television was indeed an inspiration for A Burning. “I worked hard on the pace, that felt like an important aspect to me,” she said. “Any fiction writers reading will understand that movement in terms of plot and in terms of emotional variance are interesting and often challenging aspects to work on. I loved working on the openings and endings of chapters, how scenes move, and I learned so much about those craft elements from reading other books as well as from paying attention to TV shows.”

The novel is also action-heavy. Things are always happening, and the protagonists are rarely still. Not much prose is spent on anyone sitting back and ruminating, making A Burning all the more a page-turner.

“When people talk about binge watching shows, what are they referring to?” Majumdar said. “They’re speaking about the great investment in characters, the ways in which a story pulls you forward. I wanted to see if I could learn from that for my book.”

Much of A Burning is written in the first person, where Majumdar writes as Jivan and Lovely, but she switches to the third person during PT Sir’s parts. “I wanted the reader to keep some sceptical distance from PT Sir’s actions, for the reader to have the room to observe his choices and say, ‘Hmm, what is he doing?’” she explained.

Large chunks of the novel unfold in enclosed spaces, which are strictly bound by class and gender, particularly with Jivan and Lovely’s arcs. What helped Majumdar describe them to the best of her capacities were a combination of “research, observation, and plenty of imagination.”

She brought up the example of Mr Debnath’s acting classes, which Lovely attends, along with other young aspiring actors.

“I was thinking about these characters who have all different jobs but come together pursuing this wild and treasured dream of acting in the movies,” Majumdar said. “Who might the teacher be who offers these inexpensive, informal classes in his living room? What might this room look like – what portraits are on the wall; what’s outside the window? What kind of acting exercises do these characters engage in? It was fun to try and imagine this space and who these characters are able to be within the space.”

“I have always been a reader, starting from studying atlases when I was a kid and reading aloud the names of faraway places, to reading travel writing, books of folktales, on to Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie. I used to love going to the Kolkata book fair, browsing stacks and picking a few I could take home. Now I read widely – literary fiction like work by Chia-Chia Lin and Nafissa Thompson-Spires, narrative nonfiction, memoirs, science writing, and so on.”

— Megha Majumdar, on life as a reader.

‘These characters resist and push back’

However, it could be argued that while the micro-descriptions of life in Kolkata and its outskirts have some resemblance to reality, the macro-descriptions of Bengal in Majumdar’s novel makes it alien to its inhabitants or anyone familiar with the state. As much as the novel speaks to our times, with the strong role played in it by a Hindu nationalist machinery, a lot in Majumdar’s Bengal do not really belong there.

For instance, terrorism charges are slapped on an innocent Muslim, who is hounded by the state machinery and the Hindu nationalist mob in Majumdar’s novel. But the train-burning incident referred to here has a real-life parallel in the 2002 Godhra incident in Gujara, rather than Bengal.

Additionally, in Majumdar’s Bengal, the chief opposition to the state government is a Hindu right-wing party, the key player of which is the populist Bimala Pal. Although her similarities with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee are unmistakable – “no more than five feet two, arrives in a plain white sari, her steel wristwatch flashing in the sun” is how Majumdar describes Pal for the first time – Banerjee is hardly the Hindu right winger that Pal is.

“I trust readers will recognise that this is a Bengal with fictional aspects!” Majumdar defended her novel, adding that her focus was elsewhere. “How do these characters in this place move forward when they face such daily, systemic constraints?” she said. “Part of it is recognising the ways in which they’re rendered powerless, and seeking to move past that.”

As in the case of Jivan in a chapter, for example, “sometimes their act of courage is daring to raise their voice in an office, making a case for why they need a reliable water supply, before a bureaucrat who has greater power than they do,” she said.

Although A Burning is largely concerned with how disadvantaged individuals fight back against life’s vicissitudes while living under the shadow of majoritarian forces, the novel’s resolution might seem nihilistic to some. The protagonists start off as either being oppressed by the system, or existing on its sidelines, and in the end, they are either still oppressed, or have endeared themselves to the system through playing by its rules.

Majumdar, however, sees her novel from a different angle: “My view was that these characters resist and push back,” she said. “They refuse to accept the burdens that this society wants to place on them; they pursue a better life, and that joyful and determined chase is a form of resistance.”