Monday, November 16, 2020

A Burning by Megha Majumdar


A horrible event has occurred in Kolkata, India.  A train has had its doors locked shut than terrorists have tossed in firebombs.  Over a hundred people are killed.  The outrage is real and calls for retribution are everywhere.  This event has major effects on three individuals.

Jivan is a young Muslim girl who lives in the slums with her parents.  Given a scholarship to a good school, she stays long enough to get her certificate of completion then leaves to take a job in a store.  She is thrilled to have a real job with money that she can help support her family with.  PT Sir was her PE teacher and is a man still searching in middle age for a way to stand out.  Lovely is a hijra or transgender individual who makes a living blessing others for a fee or by begging.

Each character has dreams for the future.  Lovely dreams of being an actress in the Bollywood movies.  PT Sir dreams of fame and power.  Jivan dreams of pulling her family into the middle class.  Each individual's dreams are affected by the catastrophe.  Jivan makes a terrible mistake.  Scrolling through Facebook on the phone she has just bought with her own wages, she makes a comment on the tragedy about how the government is ineffectual in preventing such tragedies.  This comment leads to her being targeted by the police and charged herself as a terrorist as she was in the vicinity that day.

Lovely knows why Jivan was there.  She was on her way to Lovely's house where she tutored her in English, which Lovely knows she needs in order to have an acting career.  The package Jivan is carrying that the police find so suspicious on the CCTV footage contained textbooks for Lovely.  Lovely is willing to testify for Jivan but soon realizes that will hurt her chances at getting acting roles.  PT Sir joins a right-wing party that uses hatred of Muslims as a vehicle to gain more power.  Although Jivan had been his favorite pupil, he balances that fondness against his rise in power and prestige.  How will this play out?

This is a debut novel for Megha Majumdar who was raised in India and came to the United States to attend Harvard.  She now lives in New York and works as an editor.  The novel has gotten a lot of buzz and is a National Book Award longlist nominee as well as a Today Show book club pick.  Her ability to use the event to raise moral questions makes this a rewarding read.  Which is more pressing for individuals, ambition or the truth?  How can dreams and goals come true when you are not seen as an person?  Will sectarian violence find a mechanism to stop the prejudice that allows hatred to push its agenda?  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

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