A Portrait of India on Fire

Megha Majumdar’s bestselling novel “A Burning” begins with a train in flames. But what really gets torched is the Indian Dream.

Illustration by AJ Dungo for Foreign Policy

“Is it a crime to write some words on Facebook?”

So asks Jivan, the young protagonist of Megha Majumdar’s powerful debut novel, A Burning, after she is falsely accused of collaborating with a terrorist on social media. More than a hundred people have been killed in an attack at a train station near her slum in Kolkata, and tensions are running high. Given what befalls her, Jivan could have put her question another way: Is it a crime to be born into a poor family in India? To be a Muslim? To be a woman? To imagine a better life, powered by her meager salary as a retail clerk and animated by her new smartphone?

A Burning, Megha Majumdar, Knopf, 304 pp., .95, June 2020

A Burning, Megha Majumdar, Knopf, 304 pp., $25.95, June 2020

Of course, Jivan’s Facebook post, which starts the novel, was ill-advised—especially given the realities of today’s India, with its surge of nationalism and growing suppression of free speech. “If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?” she writes. Whatever the police and the government actually are, they know a good scapegoat when they see one. They arrest Jivan, charge her with sedition, and lock her up as the Indian public and a jingoistic media bay for the death penalty. (It’s surely no accident that Majumdar, who grew up in Kolkata, gave her character a name that means “life” in Bengali.)

And so begins Majumdar’s takedown of the notion of the Indian Dream—the promise of social mobility, if not riches, in one of the world’s most class- and caste-bound societies—peddled by the current government under Narendra Modi and parroted by most Indian TV news channels.

Take Jivan, an impoverished Muslim slum-dweller. Even before she was locked up, she had little chance of rising. (She once sees a man in a clean shirt and shined shoes and wishes she could be rich like him. But she realizes: “He wasn’t rich, of course. Later I learned that what he was, was called middle class.”) As Jivan recounts her life story to a corrupt reporter while sitting in jail, Majumdar’s prose comes alive, taking us inside the mind of a woman who thinks she has agency but whose life was doomed from the start. Every aspect of the Indian system betrays her: the police, social services, real estate agents, doctors, and more. Jivan naively details her innocence to the press in the hope that she will get a fair hearing.

Fat chance. The only good thing that has ever happened to Jivan is that an NGO sponsored her education at an all-girls private school. Education was supposed to grant her a passport to a better life—the ability to speak English. But life intervened: After passing her 10th grade examinations, Jivan dropped out to support her parents. Jivan’s mother forages for fish and vegetables at an illegal night market and runs a tenuous business selling bread and curries outside the family shack. Her father, suffering permanent injuries from an act of police brutality, mostly lies supine at home.

Majumdar’s novel takes us inside the mind of a woman who thinks she has agency but whose life was doomed from the start.

For someone with so little, Jivan has much to give. Before being jailed, she spent her spare time giving free English lessons to an aspiring actress named Lovely. Lovely is a hijra—part of a community of mostly eunuchs but also intersex and transgender people who are both revered and reviled in Indian society for their supposed ability to bless or curse babies and newlyweds. They are often paid for their services, but it is common to see them begging at markets and on the streets. Hijras dress in colorful saris and are known to belt out bawdy songs. Majumdar masterfully translates Lovely’s voice—and her Bollywood dreams—by writing her dialogue in the present continuous tense and maintaining the singsong rhythms of Bengali:

I am going to a room and standing nervously in front of not a theoretical camera but a real camera. It is balanced on top of a tripod, and there is a blinking red light on it. The man with sleepy eyes is standing behind it, and even though I am not liking him and he is not liking me, I am feeling like a real actress. I am looking at the lens and knowing—through this lens, someday I am reaching a thousand people, a million people.

PT Sir, Jivan’s onetime gym teacher, completes a triptych of primary characters. The daily grind of school life, and the taunts and giggles of schoolgirls who are clearly richer than he is, wears him down. But soon PT Sir—his sobriquet comes from his job teaching physical training—begins to muster some character and starts climbing the ranks of a regional right-wing political party. Majumdar transports us into his mind:

He lies with his head on his thin pillow and wonders why his wife cannot tolerate something exciting that is happening in his life. She is annoyed, he feels, because he didn’t have much of an appetite for the yogurt fish she cooked. She is annoyed because he filled his belly with store-bought biryani. But he is a man! He is a man with bigger capacities than eating the dinner she cooks.

Will Jivan get a fair trial in the Indian legal system? Spoiler alert: Of course not. The stories of the three main characters and the buildup to the moment when we learn Jivan’s fate make for a real page turner—even when the outcome seems obvious all along. PT Sir, given the chance for some redemption, spurns the opportunity to say anything good about his former student when he is called to the witness stand. While Lovely at least tries to defend Jivan, the judge dismisses “the word of a hijra.” Later, on the cusp of video stardom, even Lovely agrees to appease her studio and drop her politically damaging support for Jivan. In Majumdar’s India, everyone has a price.

Illustration by AJ Dungo for Foreign Policy

What makes Majumdar’s novel so compelling, timely, and propulsive—the new word “doomsurfing” comes to mind—is that Jivan’s predicament, at least initially, is quite plausible in modern-day India. (Disclosure: I first met Majumdar in Kolkata, our shared hometown, some 14 years ago, and we have stayed loosely in touch ever since.)

Press freedom is dying as Modi’s government punishes prominent journalists for their work. Publishers rein in criticism of the authorities for fear of losing advertising, on which most of the media relies. Mainstream news outlets have become largely pliant, accepting the fact that Modi has reigned for six years without holding a single press conference. Since 2009, India has dropped 37 places in Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom rankings. But it’s not just professional writers who have suffered. A growing number of citizens—like the fictional Jivan—have been arrested or jailed for posting comments critical of their elected leaders. The police, especially in states controlled by Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, feel emboldened to defend their government and act accordingly.

Sometimes that means looking the other way. In March, as protests grew in New Delhi over a controversial citizenship law that discriminated against Muslims, the city’s police stood by as mobs of Hindus demolished Muslim homes and businesses. For several years, and increasingly under Modi, the police have also turned a blind eye to vigilante groups that roam suburbs and villages looking to punish, sometimes by lynching, Muslims who are suspected of killing cows.Majumdar cleverly places the smartphone at the center of some of the novel’s key themes.

In today’s India, cruelty has become banal. Consider that in March, when New Delhi suddenly announced a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the government seemingly gave no thought to the roughly 140 million migrant and daily wage laborers who would be stuck in India’s cities. Desperate and unable to make ends meet, most set off on foot for their villages. (Many also carried the coronavirus with them, accelerating the spread of the pandemic.)

Majumdar’s characters narrate several such crimes against the country’s poor and voiceless, many based on real events. At one point, PT Sir, now a political figure, is giving a campaign speech in a village when a rumor erupts that a Muslim man is keeping beef in his fridge—a story that mirrors a real incident in a village near New Delhi in 2015. A Hindu mob breaks into his house, rapes his wife, and kills him.

Majumdar cleverly places the smartphone at the center of some of the novel’s key themes. After all, it is only with the proliferation of cheap smartphones that nearly half of the country’s population has come online. For most Indians, the smartphone is not only their first internet device but also their first computer and their first camera, a democratizing force that allows them to be digital citizens even if they are not English speakers. The smartphone is the embodiment of the new Indian Dream: It is a potential tool of empowerment, and even employment, for a rising and entrepreneurial generation.

This fact is what makes Majumdar’s takedown more devastating. Jivan’s first major purchase is a smartphone, which she uses, among other things, to read people’s comments on Facebook. As she does, she marvels to herself that their carefree speech seems the very definition of freedom. Facebook’s algorithm, and her desire for a few extra likes, is what pushes her to type in the words she admits “nobody like me should ever think, let alone write.” When rumors and so-called fake news spread in India, they proliferate on WhatsApp—a messaging app owned by Facebook and used by more than 400 million Indians. It is no exaggeration to say that Facebook is the largest and most powerful purveyor of misinformation in the world’s largest democracy.

A Burning is not just a critique of modern Indian society but a universal parable on inequality.

The very things that are supposed to propel and then gird Jivan’s success according to India’s boosters—cheap technology, democracy, the justice system, and the police—help spell her downfall. The mirage of hope makes her eventual disappointment even more acute.

Majumdar’s timing is either extremely lucky or remarkably prescient. Her book is soaring up the global bestseller lists thanks in part to its resonance with this summer of discontent and despair, a time when public trust in leadership and Big Tech is dwindling.

One reason why A Burning should appeal to readers unfamiliar with India is that the novel is not just a critique of modern Indian society but a universal parable on inequality. Systems promise much but turn out to be broken. Social mobility is exposed as a myth. Hope is an illusion. Rage is only natural. Jivan’s story of betrayal by the country of her birth could resonate to some extent for Black Americans, as protests over the killing of George Floyd have lighted up the world’s cities.

A Burning will attract critics, especially in India, who will say its portrayal of the country is too bleak. And they will have a point. For all its flaws, India has more resilient checks and balances—and at least some redeeming features—than the novel lets on. The country’s legal system, for example, would almost certainly have moved Jivan’s case to a higher court for greater scrutiny. And its civil society, which has displayed a heartening resistance to government overreach and social injustice in recent years, doesn’t get a mention. In that sense, Jivan’s story can seem a bit contrived. But the role of the novelist is to take artistic license, to not just describe how things are but warn how they could be. That’s what makes A Burning such essential reading. If Majumdar has tapped into the fury of the moment, it’s because her novel brilliantly explores some of the sources of the helplessness so many people currently feel. And we must listen to those people, because for many of them, the only way forward seems to be to burn it all down.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports