Future Shock


The cover of A BURNING

On my first day in Mumbai, I took a photograph of a proverb pasted inside a taxi door. IT IS EASIER TO FALL THAN RISE, it cautioned.

These days, the press regularly describes India as “upwardly mobile” or “a country of dreamers.” It has become a cliché to say that a street sweeper can become a rickshaw driver and then own a taxi, or maybe even become a Bollywood star. It’s true: The poverty rate is falling, the middle class is growing, and the nation is younger than ever. Or at least this was all the case before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term, when rising nationalism and anti-Muslim violence made India’s future seem shaky. The global pandemic has only amplified that instability.

In her debut novel, A Burning, Megha Majumdar exposes the dark reality behind India’s rosy picture of growth. Three characters find their lives intertwined after a terrorist attack on a train in Kolkata kills more than a hundred people. Jivan, a young Muslim woman who lives in the slums, is wrongfully accused of aiding the attack. PT Sir, Jivan’s former gym teacher, must decide whether to testify in her favor. Lovely, a charismatic hijra, or member of India’s third-gender community, holds Jivan’s only alibi. Unfortunately, Jivan’s potential saviors have their own futures to worry about.

A Burning is an ambitious first novel, a critique smuggled into a thriller. Told in the first, second, and third person, the book alternates between the perspectives of the three main characters, interspersed with interludes that underscore the country’s economic divides and the cruel measures some take to get ahead.

Readers believe from the start that Jivan is innocent. She becomes a suspect after she criticizes the police on Facebook for failing to save people from the train. She is well-aware of the dangers of speaking up as a Muslim woman—“a woman like me is never believed,” she says. As was shown by the Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2019, which only thinly veiled its targeting of Muslims, people like Jivan continue to be India’s most vulnerable. And they have good reason to be critical of authority.

In flashbacks, we see Jivan’s impoverished childhood in a village where her mother worked in the local coalpits. While Jivan is still young, they are evicted from their land. “The sight of our houses, so easily broken, startled me,” she says. “What kind of start did I get in life?” After the family moves to Kolkata, she gets a smartphone and a job at a retail chain, and marvels at her new, wider world. But as the proverb suggests, her rise—and her newly public voice—precipitates a fall. In jail, Jivan tells her life story to a journalist, who asks her: “Do you trust me?” She does, but readers understand she shouldn’t, one of several moments of dramatic irony Majumdar employs to heighten readers’ anxiety.

While Jivan languishes in prison, her gym teacher spots his moment to shine. He attends a rally for the Jana Kalyan party, attracting the leader’s attention by offering help with the sound system. The party’s name means “well-being for all,” yet that “all” excludes Muslims and anyone else the Hindu nationalist party sees as disposable. PT Sir understands this but joins the party anyway. He tells himself he is doing “something patriotic, meaningful, bigger than the disciplining of cavalier schoolgirls.” More importantly, he presumes people look at him differently, wondering: “Who is this VIP?”

Lovely is a much-needed counterbalance: warm, funny, and a voice of reason. “My chest is a man’s chest, and my breasts are made of rags. So what?” she announces. “Find me another woman in this whole city as truly woman as me.” Through Lovely’s character, Majumdar investigates the hazards of third-gender status in India. Though hijras have existed in South Asia since antiquity, they have long been treated as undesirable or criminalized and only recently earned legal recognition. Like Lovely, many have made their living singing and dancing, blessing weddings and births while still being treated as pariahs. Lovely joins an acting class and pushes her way into the limelight, becoming the agent of her own story. “If I am wanting to be a film star, no casting man or acting coach will be making it happen for me,” she says. Readers have no doubt she will succeed—even if she has to pay a steep price.

The book is unsettling from the start, and its flashes of humor hardly dampen the building terror. Majumdar’s spare writing, infused with dark imagery, intensifies the reader’s dread. “You smell like smoke,” Jivan’s mother tells her on page one, hinting at the burning that lies ahead. When PT Sir lunches at the house of the cruel party leader, she makes “a pile of fish bones, curved like miniature swords” on her plate. Lovely’s acting teacher chastises her for wanting to help Jivan, and a blade sharpener on the road outside calls out: “Sharpen your knife!” Majumdar’s talent at conveying the sinister is especially evident in a later interlude, in which a frenzied mob goes after a Muslim family for supposedly eating beef (in real life, Muslims suspected of eating beef have recently been beaten and killed). The scene evokes horror not just because of its gruesome details but also on account of its casual, almost jaunty tone. “Too ugly!” the mob thinks of the wife they came to rape. “Aha, not too ugly after all.” And of the husband: “Kill him because he ate beef. . . . Anyway, we stomp on his skull.”

Of course, it turns out that the Muslim family hadn’t eaten beef, just as Jivan had never participated in the train attack. Much is concealed in this growing society, which this book shows more clearly than a news article ever could: the violence masquerading as justice, the imprisonment behind Lovely’s stardom and PT’s power, and the death and division behind nationalists’ proclamations of unity. If prosperity is a mask hiding the violence of contemporary India, then A Burning rips it off for us to see.

Elizabeth Flock is a journalist who writes about gender and justice, and the author of The Heart Is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai (Harper, 2018).