The poor are at the receiving end of a systemic malaise triggered by cocktail of all pervasive religious fanaticism, rampant corruption, sustained ignorance, and a frenzied media.
It is easy to be vicious and difficult to be virtuous in today’s world, especially when many of the social structures that connect and sustain us enable exploitation and disincentivize justice. Rarely is virtue encouraged when subjugation and subversion have gained currency in a politically vitiated environment.
A Burning is borne out of such contemporary realities, where freedom has a price that a majority is not willing to pay for. And those who eventually pay, do so by putting their life at stake. Jivan, unlike a Muslim woman name, captures the collective amnesia of a tumultuous society in which life oscillates between personal aspirations and political ambitions. Written with empathy and concern, the debut novel by Megha Majumdar, a native Bengali who moved to New York, creates an imagery of urban reality with its embedded fears and hopes.
Jivan’s agitated mind could not forego the horror of witnessing some hundred people charred to death inside a firebombed train at a station which reflected in her Facebook outburst ‘if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?’ Little did she realize that such innocuous statement would be her undoing, shattering starry-eyed hopefulness of making it big in the city with poor ailing parents? Forced to sign a confession statement of abetment in the terrorist act, her future lay doomed in the prison. For the world outside, her impoverished life had fodder for the frenzied media to cook stories of plotting against the state.
Recent political churnings do lend familiarity to the story, but the narrative draws two related characters whose compelling presence do not raise hope for the lead protagonist but provide inter-connectedness to the vulnerabilities that afflict them. While PT Sir, the physical education teacher knew Jivan as an avid sportsperson who could do no wrong, the transgender Lovely who took language tuition from Jivan knew she was carrying books and not bombs on that fateful day.
Majumdar allows her characters to assess the depth of their friendship against the emerging volatility in developing their own narratives as both nurture personal dreams and ambitions. After all, there are brutally honest moments in everybody’s life when subjectivity of desire and longing over-weighs ideal societal concerns. Can you blame anyone from wanting, so much, to be not even rich, but just middle class?
A Burning is a sympathetic reflection on the lives of ordinary people in the world’s largest democracy, where self-justification has legitimized status quo of existence. No wonder, therefore, many things continue to happen in ordinary lives for no reason at all. ‘People are no more than lizards whose tails are being pulled.’ It goes without saying that the poor are at the receiving end of gross systemic malaise triggered by a cocktail of all pervasive religious fanaticism, rampant corruption, sustained ignorance, and a frenzied media. The abuse of power by influence peddling opportunists’ pushes a vast majority to the margins.
Majumdar’s impressionistic young mind captures the undercurrents of sustained exploitation of the poor but offers little by way of salvaging such lives. The narrative highlights natural weaknesses of its characters, who lack courage to defend truth and end-up being part of the media frenzy that guns for the blood of an innocent. Is it a reflection on the emerging culture of our times or an indictment of the dominant political discourse that has polarized the society? The writer leaves the reader to draw distinction as the fast paced narrative falls short of offering any political corrective to the rampant dumbing down of the public mindscape. Victim of their own circumstances and vulnerabilities, none of the characters stand up to get counted. What is disturbing is the bluntness with which they make choices, representing freedom in pursuing opportunities for serving their interests.
The novel’s much hyped release notwithstanding, A Burning falls short of expectations to evince interest. It misses out on an element of suspense to be a thriller; and falls short of strong imagination to sustain curiosity. However, it scores in detailing the street life within which its leading characters justify their existence, and their predicaments. Their fated actions don’t evoke strong feelings though, and instead expose their meekness. And, meek characters do not necessarily make for an inspiring narrative.
A Burning offers a measured assessment of expansion of a political ideology that is both horrifying and devastating. Such ideologies leave little in the hands of people to make informed choices, but enforce decisions upon them to act in a way it is deemed deem fit. The interplay of circumstance and choice under such conditions is but a vicious trap of vulnerability from which the characters can hardly escape.
by Megha Mazumdar
Penguin/Hamish Hamilton, New Delhi
Extent: 293, Price: Rs.599.
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)
First published in Deccan Herald, issue dated Oct 4, 2020.