A BURNING is a promising debut by author Megha Majumdar. Set in India, the novel weaves together the stories of three characters. Jivan is a young Muslim woman from the slums who is wrongly arrested and jailed for the terrorist act of burning a passenger train. Lovely is a transgender woman known to Jivan and pursuing her dreams of becoming an actress. And PT Sir is a school physical education teacher sucked into a right-wing political party.
The narrative swings back and forth among the voices of these three characters as each pursues their goals—the interconnected stories I usually find so compelling. While many reviewers praised the novel’s pace, I found myself reading only in fits and starts. Why wasn’t I more absorbed?
A couple of reasons.
The story is simple and straightforward, and the character arcs are limited. Jivan, the main character, is imprisoned early in the novel, and she ends up in a passive situation while awaiting her trial. The time is filled in with details of her unjust and poverty-stricken backstory by way of a journalist who interviews her in prison.
I found Lovely to have an extremely annoying narrative voice that almost took to the end of the book for me to accept. She speaks and thinks in the present continuous tense (the verb ‘to be’ in some form plus a verb ending in -ing), and so you get writing like this: “My performances are always outshining. In fact, I am having the same thought myself. But I am always being humble.” And: “The general public is believing that we hijras are having a special telephone line to god.”
PT Sir is the most developed character with the most interesting interior life: He will do what it takes to get ahead while understanding he is not doing the right thing.
Both Lovely and PT Sir have information that might help exonerate Jivan, and the story question is whether they will come forth and if Jivan will be released. The question kept me going and when I finished the book, despite some of my hesitations, I was satisfied. It’s a well-constructed story about a culture and society I know very little about. I have a sense that Majumdar is just getting started as a novelist and could write compelling books to come. Unless this is a one-off that got published and marketed because the author is a person of color and the novel includes a transgender character, thus checking several prized publishing boxes.
Extra points for a striking cover.