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Exclusive: A suspected terrorist sets off Megha Majumdar's gripping debut novel

An interview with the New York-based Indian-origin author of 'A Burning'—a searing portrait of religion, radical politics and social injustice in contemporary India—touted to be this year's major literary debut

Megha Majumdar’s novel is set in a city much like Kolkata in West Bengal.
Megha Majumdar’s novel is set in a city much like Kolkata in West Bengal.

Publishing a novel in the middle of a pandemic, especially one that is touted to be the biggest literary debut of the year by a South Asian writer, isn’t ideal but Megha Majumdar doesn’t want to complain. “I never want to act like my book is the focus of everyone’s lives," she says in a video call from her home in New York, “there are much bigger things at stake at the moment." Yet, strangely enough, A Burning, which hits stores in India next week, feels uncannily prescient. Its plot hinges on a theme that has currently set the US ablaze—police brutality—although the story is set far away, in a city much like Kolkata in West Bengal.

Jivan, a young Muslim woman who rose from abject poverty to be “a senior sales clerk of Pantaloons" , is the focus of the narrative. After being ousted from their shanty home in the suburbs, her family comes to the city and settles in a slum in Kolabagan. With Jivan’s father physically crippled by police atrocity during the demolition of their earlier home, her mother takes on casual labour. Jivan drops out of school to find work and finally things seem to be looking up for the family. But soon their lives are upturned again by an alleged terrorist attack on a train that halted at a station near their home. Curfew is imposed in the area, the police patrol it and daily-wage earners move “with arms raised to show they had no weapons".

Stuck indoors, as Jivan scrolls through Facebook on her newly acquired smartphone, looking at the barrage of hatred poured out at Muslims, she posts “a foolish thing… a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write": “If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean...that the government is also a terrorist?" Within hours, the police are at her door. Jivan is arrested for her suspected role in the terror attack and incarcerated. The state-appointed lawyer isn’t much of a support. It doesn’t help that she was seen wandering around the station with a package on the evening of the attack and found to be chatting with a stranger, later linked to a terror outfit, on Facebook.

“I knew this is the book I needed to write but I didn’t expect it to create such interest in the US," says 32-year-old Majumdar. “I wanted to write about things I know, about the intelligence and determination of ordinary people to find ways to get around systems that do not serve them." Born and raised in Kolkata, she is steeped in the cadences of the city, where her parents still live, even though she moved to the US in 2006 to study social anthropology at Harvard University, following this up with graduate school at Johns Hopkins. After spending a year in Beijing working in the education sector, she returned to the US, where she is currently an editor with the independent publishing firm Catapult.

Megha Majumdar. Credit: Michal Labik
Megha Majumdar. Credit: Michal Labik

While there’s a rare set of editors who are fine writers themselves—Toni Morrison comes to mind—it is tricky to navigate the two professions simultaneously. “If you feel your work is in competition with others’ or there’s only a limited space in which few books can succeed, then writing while working in publishing can be hard to manage," Majumdar says. “But if you think there’s room for all kinds of books—my own as well as of my authors’—if you come to it from the perspective of joy, there’s much to be said for it."

Over the four years that she wrote her novel, she could barely devote 20 minutes on some days to her writing before she had to rush off to office. But the rewards of her day job were palpable. “Being an editor made me a really sharp and critical reader, which is really helpful when it comes to my own work," Majumdar says. “There were days when all I could do was read my pages but even that helped me animate the world of the novel in my mind." Her close attention to the reality of the novel’s setting seems to have paid off.

A Burning is an unapologetically local novel, grounded in a political and social milieu that is recognizably Indian. The three characters who narrate the story speak in distinctive voices, informed by their class and personal circumstances. Apart from Jivan, there is “PT Sir", who taught her at school, and Lovely, a transgender woman with dreams of becoming a professional actor. While Jivan aspires to pull her family out of poverty and enter the hallowed portals of middle-class existence, PT Sir harbours his own ambitions to leave that same middle-class life behind. Instead of the routine of shabby domesticity, he craves the excitement of public life, the sweet taste of power and influence that comes from being a political busybody. Wedged between them is Lovely, tied up in her own hunger for success and questions of morality.

“In Jivan, I wanted to write a character who works hard and earnestly but is defeated by the system around her," says Majumdar. “I wanted to bust the myth of hard work being always rewarded." PT Sir, on the other hand, was a study in contrast. “What happens when someone like him gets a little taste of power?" she wanted to ask. Although he takes a turn towards the right wing, PT Sir’s humanity, in Majumdar’s expert telling, is never compromised. Instead of a cardboard character with evil intentions, we witness, up close, an ordinary man, who is essentially kind-hearted (he was once a mentor to Jivan) but must indulge in half-truths and turn a blind eye to injustice to get where he wants. The same is true for Lovely, doubly marginalized by her gender and class but unstoppably bold about pursuing her goals.

While A Burning tells a story that is familiar to readers in India, it does so with craft and expertise. Narrated from three points of view, in short episodic bursts, the action proceeds with the propulsive force of a thriller. The different arcs of the story close satisfyingly but not in a manner that’s overly tidy. Like the other dazzling debut novel earlier this year, Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line, A Burning also experiments with tone and voice—and, even more daringly, with a tightly-knit plot.

A Burning (Penguin Random House India, 304 pages, Rs599)
A Burning (Penguin Random House India, 304 pages, Rs599)

“I set myself to write a book that’s plotted, a story that was intellectually serious while also being entertaining," Majumdar says. “It’s so much part of the culture now to binge-watch TV shows. I wondered what this public appetite says about the way in which such shows are structured." And so, she wanted to bring her writing the velocity with which a TV show unfolds.

“A book is such an act of invitation. I want my book to reward someone’s time," says Majumdar. “I want it to compete with other distractions for that hour of down time at the end of a long day at work." And judging by the final outcome, OTT platforms have some competition indeed.

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