Book #76

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Jivan is a Muslim girl from the slums, determined to move up in life, who is accused of executing a terrorist attack on a train because of a careless comment on Facebook. PT Sir is an opportunistic gym teacher who hitches his aspirations to a right-wing political party, and finds that his own ascent becomes linked to Jivan's fall. Lovely--an irresistible outcast whose exuberant voice and dreams of glory fill the novel with warmth and hope and humor--has the alibi that can set Jivan free, but it will cost her everything she holds dear.

A Burning follows the lives of three people in Bengal. Jivan, a young woman who impulsively posts an anti-government message on Facebook, and becomes arrested for terrorism. Lovely, a hijra with dreams of moving above her socially displaced status. And PT Sir, a PE teacher in a school for girls, who has political aspirations which he’ll do almost anything to achieve. 

Despite Jivan’s innocence, we explore her situation through the eyes of the public and the government. When an attack is made on a community, the rallying call is always to make someone pay for the destruction and loss. If the public demand this, often the government are those who must ensure a perpetrator is found and brought to justice.

In condemning Jivan, Majumdar makes a lot of commentary on public opinion, on mob mentality, and how this affects political decisions. Most believe everything the media is feeding them, none seem prepared to look into Jivan’s life for answers, almost everyone is baying for her blood. Despite the caste system being seriously at play here, doesn’t the above sound familiar to other countries I could name?

The other heartbreaking element here is the power Lovely and PT Sir had to ameliorate Jivan’s ordeal. Although their reasons for not doing so varied from each other, they both boil down to one point - ascension. We see the lives these people lead, in poverty, in slums, in social abasement, and we see them attempt to somehow to rise themselves above the parapet, at the same time dooming an innocent young woman forever.

I do think there was much more to see here, much more to be expanded upon and explored. I was surprised when the story ended, and felt as though more depth was needed - the whole thing felt very lean. I didn’t feel a great deal for the characters, and felt their lives could have meshed together a bit more than they did.

Nevertheless, it’s an important and engaging consideration of democracy, of relationships, of injustice, of corruption, and most importantly, of privilege.