Attempting a work of fiction set in contemporary India comes with the lure of saying too many things hidden behind the walls of some characters. Such a temptation, however, is fraught with the risk of derailing the deeper ambition of storytelling.
Megha Majumdar’s debut novel A Burning succumbs to this urge far too often. In doing so, the novel frequently strays from its flashes of literary promise to spells of a polemical narrative.
With a major portion of the plot unfolding in Kolkata, Majumdar populates the novel with three characters and situations that cannot be seen as an everyday city narrative.
Three characters, whose lives are intertwined in unusual circumstances, hold the key. Jivan (an unusual name for a poor young Muslim girl) is accused of connivance in a terror attack on a train. A Facebook post sets the narrative tone for the novel. As she uses her newly bought smartphone to post and comment on the social media site, a tragic chain of events is set in motion.
Lovely, a transgender woman living in a slum who aspires to be a film star, navigates the challenges of gender identity, deprivation and dreams, and even the quirks of viral fame. The third is PT Sir, a diffident teacher at a girls’ school, whose latent fascination with recognition, and a type of worldview, finds expedient expression in his rise to power in an ascendant right-wing party.
These three lead characters seem to have a pecking order in the way Majumdar tells their stories in the larger narrative. While Jivan and Lovely get first-person stories, PT Sir’s part of the tale is presented in the third person. The difference in the narrative approach to the three protagonists is not just technical; it becomes a serious flaw in the course of the novel. It seems as though out of three pivotal lives in the plot, a reader is offered only two lives to slip into.
There are two important ways in which this weakens the handling of PT Sir’s character in the novel. First, it fails to give an intimate account of the motivations and impulses of social mobility within a section of the middle class, which fuels PT Sir’s political ambition. Second, apart from a handful of brief reflections — such as one during a school function — there is nothing to give insight into PT Sir’s belief system. This would have explained what makes the Jan Kalyan Party ideologically attractive to him. That, of course, is before the thought of a rise in power politics makes everything else irrelevant.
These limitations make the narrative captive to something else. The novel builds a part of its material on the headlines and commentary of a section of the Indian news media over the last few years, especially the English variant. As an extension, it replicates some of the smug assumptions seen in such commentary.
At the core of these assumptions is the belief that the right-of-centre political stream — represented by the Jan Kalyan Party in the novel — has entered the power alleys of India through backdoor manipulations, intrigue, corruption, and the demonisation of opponents. This inadequate gaze deprives readers, more so in literary fiction with political themes, of the sociocultural context in which the right-of-centre stream found a strong political space for itself. More interestingly, there was always this space waiting for occupants.
Similarly, while breaking into interludes with peripheral characters, like a sacked policeman or Bimala Pal’s assistant, A Burning does not go beyond a certain type of headline and commentary. This deprives it of a closer look at the complex realities in the hinterland and, of course, keeps the writer’s gaze very far from a very different set of headlines and commentary. This limitation is clear, for instance, when the narration detours to talk about cow protection groups, beef politics and the attendant violence.
In weaving a story around different forms of injustice scuttling aspirations, even dreams, Majumdar introduces an array of subtext. Gender roles, inequality, police brutality, unfair competition, the privilege of the middle class vis-à-vis the subsistence class, class unease in the shared public space, communal bigotry, sensationalism in the media, judicial corruption, the plight of prisoners — these are just a few of them. While she tries to not let the story get didactic, the narrative occasionally creaks under the weight of these numerous concerns. After a few pages, there’s an inescapable feeling that every section will be an instrument to speak about some form of social injustice or state oppression.
Despite this lurking in a reader’s mind, the short chapters help in keeping the narration taut, if not pacy. However, a part of the storytelling is misplaced, perhaps even contrived. The little details on Jivan’s life journey, for example, could have been conveyed in other ways. They don’t fit in neatly with Jivan’s recollections of her life to Purnendu Sarkar, the newspaper reporter. A conversation with a journalist, as part of the effort to prove your innocence, does not warrant descriptions like “We scrambled into the tiny chamber, and sat in two chairs, both with woven seats on the verge of tearing from the weight of hundreds of patients over the years. On the wall fluttered a calendar with pictures of pink-cheeked babies.”
There are some parts of the novel that benefit from Majumdar’s talent for activity detailing. For example, she handles language with careful elegance while describing the prison routine, particularly the making of "rutis" in the prison kitchen. But with 297 exclamation marks in 289 pages of text, the novel could surely have done with fewer, if not removing them altogether.
Equally jarring is the peculiar rhyming sounds used when Lovely speaks. While Lovely sees nothing audacious in a transgender person trying to be a big movie star, the stereotypes of mannerism attributed to her speech indicate something else.
Indian readers may perhaps want one irritant to disappear from the book: there are too many clumsy descriptions of common Indian food items in English. Perhaps that’s meant for foreign readers, though a glossary at the end would have helped in avoiding awkward pauses that impede the flow.
Moreover, a few minor details would have helped in the novel’s authenticity. There’s something inaccurate about Bimala Pal leading her party to victory when the results for the state Assembly election are declared just a day after polling. This isn’t the time frame of elections in India, far less of polls in a big state like West Bengal. It does not take less than three days for counting to begin.
In many ways, A Burning runs out of steam in elevating itself to the ambition of literature. Despite sporadic sparks of promise, it fails to look beyond the blind spots that abound in contemporary narratives on India. The portrayal of the complex nature of Indian reality in works of fiction awaits more attention to the particular. That needs an ambition beyond headlines.
The media must be free and fair, uninfluenced by corporate or state interests. That's why you, the public, need to pay to keep news free. Support independent media by subscribing to Newslaundry today.