Grace Z. Li, Special to USA TODAY
Published 7:00 a.m. ET June 1, 2020
Jivan, a poor 22-year-old Muslim girl living in the slums, doesn’t want to die.
After she’s accused of bombing the Kolabagan train station near her half-brick house, she realizes that the choice isn’t up to her. Instead, it’s in the hands of PT Sir, her former gym teacher who grabs political power in India via a right wing party; and Lovely, a trans woman with big dreams of movie stardom. It seems like everyone but Jivan has a say in her fate.
With this high-stakes premise, Megha Majumdar carefully crafts her debut novel, “A Burning” (Knopf, 304 pp., ★★★½ out of four), as a gripping thriller with compassionate social commentary. Each chapter jumps through various perspectives as Majumdar devotes time and care to each person’s motivations. Above them all, the ability to rise – to power, fame and wealth –is everyone’s greatest ambition or moral folly.
Ascension is alluring. People like to think that they have moral codes, but that principle is put to the test as PT Sir and Lovely testify to Jivan’s character in court. Their own success depends on their performances: PT Sir needs to degrade Jivan’s reputation to boost his own, and Lovely’s acting career might be destroyed if she advocates for Jivan.
While these internal struggles may be pivotal plot points in “A Burning,” what’s really compelling is how Jivan fights for herself. Equipped with no money and an overwhelmed lawyer, Jivan thinks of every plan possible – writing letters, seeking journalists and bribing the chief guard with ghee-fried porota.
“I have a voice, I remind myself,” Jivan says. “This is my voice. It booms. It startles.”
But “A Burning” also makes the reality of the situation startlingly clear. Girls like Jivan don’t stand a chance in prison. Politics willingly ignore incarcerated people – especially those with no money or status to their name.
They are no more than insects, according to Lovely. “We are no more than grasshoppers whose wings are being plucked. We are no more than lizards whose tails are being pulled,” Lovely says.
The inequity of the situation is made even more devastating as Majumdar reveals Jivan’s dreams, while PT Sir and Lovely are busy chasing their own. She yearns to be “an ordinary girl,” one who can go to college, fall in love and study with friends under trees, carefree like the students in the movies. Majumdar writes these scenes with a piercing homesickness for a life Jivan may never know.
“I might have studied literature, and I might have spoken English so well that if you had met me on the street, Ma, you would not have known me!” Jivan says. “Ma, you would have thought I was a rich girl.”
The Most Powerful Sale & Affiliate Platform Available!
There's no credit card required! No fees ever.Create Your Free Account Now!
It’s hard not to feel intense heartache while reading “A Burning.” Majumdar’s powerful debut is carefully crafted for maximum impact, carving out the most urgent parts of its characters for the whole world to see. This novel rightfully commands attention.
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/books/2020/06/01/megha-majumdar-burning-book-review-lives-entwined-terrorist-attack/5279341002/
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe