In 'A Burning,' Striving, Dreaming And Joking In The Face Of Oppression

Jun 6, 2020

Megha Majumdar's debut novel, A Burning, is set in modern-day Kolkata, India, and suddenly sounds breathlessly contemporary in the United States, too — a landscape of lockdowns, curfews, fires, and anguished posts on the internet.

It begins with a young woman named Jivan, scrolling through social media accounts of a gruesome terrorist attack near her neighborhood: flaming torches thrown into the windows of a halted train, its doors locked from the outside.

"Jivan is a person who has one very straightforward goal. She wants to rise to the middle class. She wants to keep her job at a mall. She wants to own her new smartphone," Majumdar says.

"But this is a person who, despite all her hard work, is defeated by the oppressive systems that she lives under. This is a person who is let down by the police, who is let down by the courts, who is let down by nationalist media. So through this character, I wanted to look at how a person might continue to strive even in the face of the might of the state."


Interview Highlights

On Lovely, one of the book's other narrators

... through this character, I wanted to look at how a person might continue to strive even in the face of the might of the state. - Megha Majumdar

Lovely is a hijra, which is a specific social category at the intersection of gender and class in India. And in some ways, Lovely is revered because she is thought to belong to this community which has a closer connection to the divine. So she is invited to bless newborns and bless couples at their wedding, but at the same time she is marginalised in such complex ways. And I wanted to see how this person can still hold on to a wild dream. Lovely's dream is to be a movie star, and no matter how the society around her tries to shame her, she doesn't accept that shame.

On Lovely's relationship with Jivan

You know, English in India holds such baggage, and I wanted to bring that into the book. It is, of course, the language of the coloniser. But if you're growing up in India, you are constantly told that English is the language of moving up. It's the language of the future. And so Lovely holds this aspiration. And she wants to learn English and she becomes close friends with Jivan. But in the end, that friendship as tender and hopeful and good as it originally is, comes to be a kind of severe test. It comes to be Jivan's undoing in some ways and a real moral test for Lovely.

On similarities between the U.S. and India right now

I think what feels remarkable to me right now is that I started writing this book several years ago, paying attention to how the state's systems of oppression bear down upon marginalized groups. And here we are, you and I, chatting today when the mood in the U.S. is so remarkably similar. And the parallels between India and the U.S. are stunning. I mean, there are scholars and journalists who have written about the links between Hindu nationalism and white supremacy.

So I think there are these really close links between what's happening in India and what's happening in the U.S. And I hope that through this book, which, yes, is about oppression and yes, is about systems of discrimination, I hope that people also do pay attention to how the characters in this book dream and make jokes and strive even in conditions of great oppression, and I hope that feels meaningful to anybody picking up the book in the U.S.

This story was edited for radio by Ned Wharton and Hadeel Al-Shalchi, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, "A Burning," is set in modern-day Kolkata, India. It suddenly sounds breathlessly contemporary in the United States, too. It's a landscape of lockdowns, curfews, fires and anguished posts on the Internet. Let's hear the author bring us into her story.

MEGHA MAJUMDAR: (Reading) You smell like smoke, my mother said to me. So I rubbed an oval of soap in my hair and poured a whole bucket of water on myself before a neighbor complained that I was wasting the morning supply. There was a curfew that day. On the main street, a police jeep would creep by every half hour. Daily wage laborers compelled to work would come home with arms raised to show they had no weapons.

In bed, my wet hair spread on the pillow, I picked up my new phone, purchased with my own salary, screen guard still attached. On Facebook, there was only one conversation. These terrorists attacked the wrong neighborhood - #KalabaganTrainAttack (ph), #Undefeated. Friends, if you have 50 rupees, skip your samosas and donate. The more I scrolled, the more Facebook unrolled.

The night before, I had been at the railway station - no more than a 15-minute walk from my house - I ought to have seen the men who stole up to the open windows and threw flaming torches into the halted train, but all I saw were carriages burning, their doors locked from the outside and dangerously hot. The fires spread to huts bordering the station, smoke filling the chests of those who lived there. More than a hundred people died.

SIMON: Megha Majumdar, an editor at Catapult, the digital magazine in New York, joins us now from Brooklyn. Thanks so much for being with us.

MAJUMDAR: Thank you so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Those opening words from a young woman named Jivan.

MAJUMDAR: Jivan is a person who has one very straightforward goal. She wants to rise to the middle class. She wants to keep her job at a mall. She wants to own her new smartphone. But this is a person who, despite all her hard work, is defeated by the oppressive systems that she lives under. This is a person who is let down by the police, who is let down by the courts, who is let down by nationalist media. So through this character, I wanted to look at how a person might continue to strive even in the face of the might of the state.

SIMON: She posts something on the Internet, which, even if it's true, turns out to be incautious. Is that a good way to put it?

MAJUMDAR: Yes.

SIMON: And another narrator, Lovely, an aspiring actress. She is insightful and funny and kindhearted, but a lot of people only see one thing about her, don't they?

MAJUMDAR: That's true. Lovely is a hijra, which is a specific social category at the intersection of gender and class in India. And in some ways, Lovely is revered because she is thought to belong to this community which has a closer connection to the divine. So she is invited to bless newborns and bless couples at their wedding. But at the same time, she is marginalized in such complex ways. And I wanted to see how this person can still hold on to a wild dream. Lovely's dream is to be a movie star. And no matter how the society around her tries to shame her, she doesn't accept that shame.

SIMON: Lovely and Jivan meet when Jivan begins to tutor her in English because she's told, that would be good for your movie career. They begin a real relationship, don't they?

MAJUMDAR: They do. You know, English in India holds such baggage, and I wanted to bring that into the book. It is, of course, the language of the colonizer. But if you're growing up in India, you are constantly told that English is the language of moving up. It's the language of the future. And so Lovely holds this aspiration. And she wants to learn English. And she becomes close friends with Jivan. But in the end, that friendship, as tender and hopeful and good as it originally is, comes to be a kind of severe test. It comes to be Jivan's undoing, in some ways, and a real moral test for Lovely.

SIMON: Yeah. You know, I have to ask because this beautiful novel is filled with - correct me if I'm wrong - what amounts to a cry of alarm for what's happening in India today. I wondered when I turned over the last page, will your book even be published in the India of today?

MAJUMDAR: It's definitely a risk-taking book, but I think what feels remarkable to me right now is that I started writing this book several years ago, paying attention to how the state's systems of oppression bear down upon marginalized groups. And here we are, you and I chatting today when the mood in the U.S. is so remarkably similar. And the parallels between India and the U.S. are stunning. I mean, there are scholars and journalists who have written about the links between Hindu nationalism and white supremacy.

So I think there are these really close links between what's happening in India and what's happening in the U.S. And I hope that through this book, which, yes, is about oppression and, yes, is about systems of discrimination - I hope that people also do pay attention to how the characters in this book dream and make jokes and strive even in conditions of great oppression. And I hope that feels meaningful to anybody picking up the book in the U.S.

SIMON: Megha Majumdar. Her highly praised debut novel is "A Burning." Thank you so much for being with us.

MAJUMDAR: Thank you so much for having me, Scott. It's a real honor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.