A Burning

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I finished this book and I am left wondering at the helplessness and powerlessness of my existence. I am staring at it, splayed open on the page where the story abruptly ends and the acknowledgements suddenly start– I’m done now here are the people to thank for my publishing. How does it not realise how much it affected me? But can we also take a moment to admire that beautiful cover.

A Burning is an ambitious masterpiece that covers a lot of sociopolitical commentary from trans rights to Hindu nationalism to Islamophobia to propaganda to class politics to education to… Life. In her interviewwith The Guardian, the illustrious Megha Majumdar said “I do hope it’s a book that encourages a reader to think about injustice.”

You may see a lot of reviews complaining or pointing out how political it was. And I’m sorry, but what the fuck else was it supposed to be?

We follow the the three main characters and various interludes as we learn more about life in this part of India. The story is immersive, evocative, thought provoking and makes you face things you wish you could forget.

Other times felt more relatable than others because like India, my country is a bastard son of British imperialism and has a political system reminiscent of our former colonial masters. It’s jarring to see recent events that happened here also happen so far away. The fate of the poor against the interests of the wealthy and powerful are always the same.

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The story starts with a train attack in Kobalagan. Soon after, we meet Jivan, Lovely and PT Sir. My favourite character of the three was the lovely Lovely. A hijra who dreams of being an actress. Not just any actress, but a star. She’s been taking English lessons from Jivan and acting lessons from a Mr. Debnath. In one session, he asks her why she was so hellbent on acting when it’s such a difficult career. She says

“I have been performing all my life,” I was saying to him. I was performing on trains, on roads. I was performing happiness and cheer. I was performing divine connection. “Now,” I was telling him, “just let me practice for the camera.”

Jivan is a young Muslim girl who works as a store clerk. Her story perhaps the most harrowing of the lot, left me shaken to my core at the injustice she had to endure. Jivan is impulsive, foolhardy, sometimes stupid and at a fateful time, cowardly. She makes decisions that leave you infuriated. Perhaps at how astoundingly shortsighted they are or with a niggling thought that she could just as easily be you.

You in your sheltered life, with a safety net, an awareness of consequences or a sense of self-preservation, a protective cowardice that prevents you from posting anything on social media when you aren’t protected by freedom of speech. You who knows the media may not be on your side because you’re a double, triple, quadruple minority so you learnt to shut up when necessary. But what would you do if you were in a situation as desperate as Jivan’s? Wouldn’t you want your story, the truth, “your side of things” to be told to someone, anyone? My heart broke for her. I felt angry with her. She also comes with a packed punch of existential dread. For maximum effect, I guess.

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The final character is PT Sir, a physical education instructor at Jivan’s former school. He is an ambitious ruthless man who does unconscionable acts that leave a bad taste in your mouth.

The writing here is descriptive and lyrical. Jivan describes her surroundings with painful simplicity but startling detail.

It’s midday, after bath time, and my cellmate has hiked up her sari to her thighs and is giving herself a massage, running her fingers up and down calves. Her veins are crooked like flooding rivers.

Even the meaning of “prison” is different for rich people. Can you blame me for wanting, so much, to be–not even rich, just middle class?

In my village, the dust of coal settled in the nooks of our ears, and when we blew our noses it came out black. There were no cows, or crops. There were only blasted pits into which my mother descended with a shovel, rising with a basket of black rock on her head… It frightened me to see her as a worker. At night I held her palm in my palm. The lines in her hands–lifelines, they call them– were the only skin not blackened.

Each character has a distinct voice. And that’s how you do multi first or limited third person POV.

We also follow the politics of dreams. Is it OK to abandon “deadweight” to pursue your dream? Should you be uncaring in a bid to get even the slightest chance at a better life? It’s not your fault you got rotten luck as your birthright but if you can reach for the stars must you worry about others? Are you unmoored with freedom of choice? Or is freewill an illusion peddled to us by superpowers who already hold our destinies in their hands? Should I blame you if you abandoned your roots just because you never want to worry about sleeping hungry again?

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Life is complicated. None more so than Jivan’s who is paying the heaviest price for a moment of stupidity and gullibility. The way people use her to ascend to where they want to be is disgusting. And they do it without a care in the world about how it would affect her or her parents.

But perhaps the biggest theme this book demands you acknowledge is injustice. If you’re prone to anxiety like I, I’d suggest reading this book in doses. Some events are heavy, triggering and frightening. But it’s the reality faced by so many because they are “othered”. Someone decided all that they see is “theirs” and the “others” are interlopers who don’t deserve the most basic of human dignities and most important of rights: life. And if you are witness to such injustice, what do your silence, your inaction mean? Are you someone who can’t do anything or who chooses to do nothing?

PT Sir sees such actions and tells himself He knows what he watched, and in watching and not lifting a finger, condoned. He is no less than a murderer.

This book is heavy (I’m still recovering), entertaining, warm, joyful, maddening, saddening, rich, evocative, immersive and will leave you with quite the hankering for Indian cuisine.

=========================================================================If you would like to read this book but don’t know if you can handle it, I’ve added content warnings in the spoiler tag below. (It took me two weeks to read a 290p book for a reason.)

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