June 1, 2020
Novels aren’t hot takes; they’re inherently lukewarm. By the time a novelist gathers her thoughts to articulate something about the zeitgeist, the zeitgeist has often already slipped away. That’s why a novel about and of the present moment is rare and precious.
Megha Majumdar’s debut A Burning (June 2) is that exceptional book that successfully addresses the contemporary conditions of the world, and specifically of India, while still resonating beyond the news cycle. A Burning, set in a lightly fictionalized Kolkata, follows three main characters: Jivan, a young Muslim woman accused of inciting a terror attack; Lovely, a hijra and aspiring actor whom Jivan tutors in English and who guards Jivan’s alibi; and PT Sir, Jivan’s former physical education teacher who is slowly corrupted by a political party and whose mounting power eventually grants him say over Jivan’s future. Interspersed throughout are “interludes” dipping into other characters’ heads — Jivan’s lawyer; a political leader’s assistant; a “policeman fired for excessive violence during slum demolition” who “has a new gig.” Especially haunting is a section told in first-person plural from the perspective of a cow vigilante mob.
Majumdar’s varied cast allows her to explore censorship, persecution, corruption, and myriad other facets of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India. It’s uncannily timely now. We’ve seen months of protest in Majumdar’s country of birth over the Citizenship Amendment Act, and now, in her adopted country over police brutality; Majumdar may not have guessed that the week her novel would come out in America, the streets here would be burning, too.