A BURNING encapsulates contemporary India in the intertwining lives of three characters

A Burning

By Megha Majumdar

Vintage

Paperback: June 29, 2021

$16.00, 304 pages

Megha Majumdar’s debut was one of the best novels of 2020. It made the shortlist for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for Best First Book, the longlist for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for the American Library Association’s Andrew Carnegie Medal. Now that it’s out in paperback, it will gain an even wider readership.

A Burning compresses the social, economic, and political chaos of contemporary India into the stories of three people: Jivan, a poor Muslim student from Kolkata; PT Sir, a high school gym teacher; and Lovely, an aspiring actress.

After she witnesses a terrorist bombing at a train station, Jivan posts an ill-advised comment on Facebook that leads to her arrest on charges that she was involved. PT Sir, her former teacher, is at the same time being seduced by the campaign promises of a populist politician. Lovely is a charming and talented Hijra (transgender woman) who faces the daily obstacles of poverty and prejudice. Jivan was her reading tutor.

Jivan’s arrest places her at the center of a media maelstrom as the government’s scapegoat while the police search for the bombers. Lovely is the standout in her acting class and is obsessed with dreams of Bollywood stardom. And before long, PT Sir has ingratiated himself with the right-wing female candidate, who offers him the chance to be part of something important – and more crucially, to feel important at long last.

As Jivan is caught up in a legal nightmare, desperately hoping for witnesses to convince the court of her innocence, PT Sir finds that his ascent depends on making Jivan an example of the dangers that threaten the people of India; as a Muslim, she is the perfect scapegoat for the Hindu nationalist party. Lovely can provide an alibi for Jivan – if she’s willing to jeopardize the opportunity she’s long dreamed of.

A Burning is a fast-paced, unrelenting look at class, corruption, and injustice. Megha Majumdar has made an auspicious debut. I’m looking forward to reading her next book.

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