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A Burning

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Member Reviews

A riveting account of life in a cacophonous and divided India. Although Majumdar's narrative encompasses three characters from differing backgrounds, it is her portrayal of PT -- a gym teacher who almost accidentally falls into becoming an operative for a nationalist Hindu party -- that is perhaps the most crucial and politically acute.
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Megha Majumdar’s wrenching novel, “A Burning,” begins with an act of terrorism and an accusation. A young woman, Jivan, has the temerity to write online “a foolish thing. I wrote a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write.” Jivan is soon arrested for aiding terrorists in attacking a local train and killing over a hundred people. While Jivan is run roughshod through the Indian courts, we follow three parallel stories—one about Jivan and her family’s experience being evicted from their land by the police, living in the slums and desperately trying to improve their situation, another about Lovely, a vivacious acting student, and another about a school teacher, as timid as Lovely is bold.

Jivan, a smart and clever girl, tries to help her exhausted mother and father by teaching English. One of her tutees is Lovely, a woman from her slum who longs to be an actress. Lovely is a hijra, part of the trans community who provide blessings for babies and weddings in exchange for a small amount of money. Lovely is gregarious, witty and confident. Working toward her dream of being an actress, she’s learning English to improve her prospects of landing more roles. Despite knowing that there’s every likelihood she won’t be taken seriously by the police, Lovely nevertheless testifies on behalf of Jivan. Her imperfect English and saucy attitude provide welcome bits of humor in this unflinching tale, but Lovely is no comic foil. “For all my life, everybody is believing that I am having a direct line to god, but I am knowing the truth. Whenever I am calling god, her line is busy.”

“A Burning” illustrates the striking similarities between the way Jivan is treated by the court systems and how people of color and economic hardship are abused by the American justice system. Majumdar exposes not just institutionalized injustices but also the corrupting influence of capitalism on the individual. PT Sir, the gym teacher at Jivan’s school, is wooed by a political party whose image quickly tarnishes in his mind. The deeper he sinks into the party, the more his integrity leaks away. Like Lovely, he has to balance the optics of defending a person who has already been found guilty in the court of public opinion with what he believes is right. Lovely’s hijra house guru explains to her, “‘In life,’ she is saying, ‘I have learned that we cannot be having everything. For example. To be putting fish on the plate, we are having to sacrifice dignity on the streets. We are having to beg. Why? Because we would be liking to eat. To be left alone by the police, we are having to—well, I don’t have to tell you.’”

As in Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” Majumdar provides a glimpse into the rarified life of a hijra, amplifying the voice of someone from this often misunderstood community. In a broader sense, she angles the spotlight on the corruption of power, and what people will do to gain even a little bit more.

“A Burning”
By Megha Majumdar
Knopf, 304 pages
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An intense read set in India and tells the story of multiple people in the wake of a terrorist attack and the jailing of a young woman.
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I have to admit, this one took me a LONG time to warm up to. A BURNING follows 3 people in modern India: Jivan, a girl from the slums who is wrongfully arrested for a terrorist attack; her old high school PE (PT in India) teacher, who is simply referred to as PT Sir; and Lovely, a Hijra (intersex/transgender people in India), to whom Jivan is teaching English.

It takes a while to set up the individuals’ stories, but after you push through, the novel gets really interesting and hard to put down. For me, it really started to pick up when Jivan was giving an interview about her childhood to a news reporter - it was a sobering look at poverty and unjust government practices - especially ironic given that she’s telling the story from prison, where she is once again subject to injustice.

As much as I loved the ending, there was so much imbalance to the individuals’ stories. Lovely was really the star of the three, and was fascinating to read about. Her sections were always written in progressive tense, with authentic speech patterns that brought her to life. British colonial rule over India has left a lasting legacy of Indian-English that is special and unique, and I loved seeing it used in the novel. Also adored the references to the unfair necessity to master English in order to move up in Indian society.

On the other hand, even though Jivan was the main character, her sections were the most boring to read about. Of course, her plight was a commentary on the political environment of contemporary India, but she ended up feeling like more of a vehicle to explore the topic than a real character. Same goes for PT Sir, a stereotypically impotent yet ambitious man riding the coattails of politicians in order to feel some sense of power.

Overall I would recommend this one! It’s a great look at people who live on the margins in India, and how easily corruption takes hold. Just be prepared for a beginning that drags a bit, which is frankly quite common for debut novels!
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This book was so propulsive that I read it in just a few hours. I love stories that are told from different perspectives, so getting to hear from these three protagonists made the book even more interesting. It tackles difficult subjects like classism, religion and politics, identity, loyalty, and family. In some ways, the book almost moved TOO quickly because I found myself wanting more, wanting to go deeper, but I can also see why it was written with such urgency -- the stakes in this story are high, and you feel that through the fast pace. I can't believe this was a debut; it will stick with me for a long time.
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This was such a difficult read -- but. not in a bad way. Megha Majumdar manages to shape characters whose actions you'd easily be able to judge -- but she presents their humanity so beautifully that empathy is the only reaction left. The issue of power -- specifically who has it and what happens when you have none -- is illustrated in such a raw, breathtaking way. This book will stay with me.
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A Burning is about a young Muslim woman, Jivan, who is wrongfully accused of facilitating a terrorist attack. The chapters alternate perspectives between Jivan, Lovely, who she was tutoring, and PT Sir, her former PE teacher who is rapidly climbing the political ladder.

Through their intersecting stories, this book explores many different forces: crushing poverty, religious and gender discrimination, vast social inequality, corrupt politics, and a broken justice system. All of these elements impact how these characters navigate the world and make decisions. Against this backdrop of systemic oppression, it's hard to fully demonize anyone.

In terms of reading experience, the story is excellently plotted and paced, so I felt real momentum (and dread) as it moved towards the climax. i really appreciate how this author doesn't waste any scenes; each one deepens our understanding of these characters and their motivations, while staying focused on telling the main story. 

I also really enjoyed how the author was able to convey each character's unique voice. They are painfully human, and like the rest of us, they move through the world imperfectly. I felt especially compelled by Lovely, who identifies as a hijra, a gender identity which includes transgender and intersex people. Her desire to be accepted and loved, and her hopefulness against seemingly insurmountable odds, really struck me. 

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a poignant story that doesn't shy away from social commentary or complex characterization.
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I was afraid this book would not stand up to the hype. I was certain that there was no way it could be as good critic and other reviewers claimed. I am here to tell you that it is that good and better. I cannot wait to discuss this book with my book groups and promote it at the library.
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I cannot believe this is a debut novel. I read a dozen reviews that said it was unputdownable and they weren't wrong. All of the characters are interesting and the story is very clearly perfect for our times. What would you do if the government was very clearly against you? What would you do if the government supported you, with the expectation that you exclude others?
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I have already recommended this to a few library patrons and will be suggesting it to some book clubs as well.  Those characters will stay with me.
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Short and depressing, but I fear a very honest look at politics and justice in India. One good thing about 2020 is that it is filled with outstanding debut novels. Picked by Jenna Bush Hager as her June book club pick. I read it as America protests the George Floyd killing, its an interesting contrast to the arrest of an innocent Muslim girl implicated in the burning of a train by a terrorist group. Following three people—the girl, her P.E teacher and a transvestite who the girl was helping to learn English, you know the girl is doomed, but you keep hoping. This story is short, and to say more about the plot would ruin the book. Bush Hager did an excellent job picking book for this month.
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#ABurning #NetGalley
 
My friend Ramesh alerted me to A Burning. He wrote

Our Bengali 'progressives' continue to sell India down the drain while laughing happily all the way to the bank and into the good books of the 'woke' worldwide.

I can relate to Majumdar's description of Kolkata. OTOH some issues:

1. The Muslim girl is named Jivan. Jivan is a boy's name; moreover, it is a Hindu name.

2. The Jana Kalyan Party is clearly modeled on the BJP. Yet the BJP has next to no influence in Bengal (never mind that Syama Prasad Mukherjee, who founded Jana Sangha, the BJP's predecessor, was Bengali and the BJP honors him as its founder).

3. The precipitating event is the burning of a train at a railway station. Might this event be inspired by Godhra?
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Draft of review for BookPage, June 2020 (as of 5/31, not online yet; print version)

Megha Majumdar’s debut novel A Burning (Knopf; $25.95, 978052658696) follows three characters in contemporary urban India: Jivan, a twenty-two-year-old Muslim woman who works at a clothing store, trying to raise her family out of poverty; Lovely, a transgender beggar woman whom Jivan tutored in English; and PT Sir, Jivan’s former gym teacher who’s sure he deserves more respect and better middle-class creature comforts. 

The novel opens the day after terrorists attack a commuter train. The attack has killed a hundred people and captured the nation’s attention and anger. Jivan, who saw the burning train cars and the people trapped inside (the train station is near Jivan’s home in the slums), dares to comment sarcastically about the attack on Facebook, equating the government with terrorists. Because of those posts, Jivan quickly comes to be considered a suspect. Lovely and PT Sir, meanwhile, are preoccupied with their own ambitions: Lovely takes acting classes and aspires to get a role in a movie, and PT Sir stumbles into a campaign rally for an opposition politician, and finds himself captivated. As PT Sir gets more involved with the campaign, he begins to do favors for the party, descending into corruption. 

The story unfolds as it rotates through the three characters’ points of view, and occasionally into the perspectives of other more peripheral characters. The chapters are very short, sometimes only a page or two, giving the novel a fast-moving, staccato feeling. 

A Burning touches on issues that complicate contemporary life in India: Hindu-Muslim conflict, political corruption, the promises and failures of a political system, the pressures of extreme poverty, the drive to improve one’s lot in life. It’s a lot to balance, but Majumdar’s writing stays grounded in these three characters’ voices, and in their daily lives and hopes, even as she brings the novel to its tragic conclusion. Majumdar knows this world well: born and raised in Kolkata, India, she came to the US for college at Harvard University. She also did graduate work in social anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. A challenging and distinctive debut novel.

--Sarah McCraw Crow
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This is a gut-punch of a book. Majumbar ambitiously ties the book together through three threads and three sets of ambitions: Jivan, a young Muslim woman accused of a terrorist act who longs to be a teacher and live a "normal" life; Lovely, a hijra (transgender woman)--and Jivan's neighbor--who aspires to be an A-list actor; and PT Sir, Jivan's former teacher who slowly rises in the ranks of a certain political party. 

While Jivan's trial is the commonality among all three characters, Majumdar explores a variety of issues through their eyes, including Islamophobia, political corruption, inequity (in India in particular as well as the world as a whole), and sexism. I won't give away the ending, but it is heartbreaking and frustrating and left me empty.
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What a debut! This book packed a seriously powerful punch in such a short amount of time. While this is not the genre that I am typically drawn to, I really enjoyed this read.

What made this book unique was the very different voices of the three POV's. If I ever had to set the book down mid chapter, I very easily knew which character I was reading when I came back to the book. Their tones and personalities were easily perceptible through the writing, making this book about a heavy subject very readable and engaging.

I do recommend that this book is read in one or two sittings - it is meant to be binged.

 An author that can really move me in just at 300 pages is a winner. I look forward to more from Megha Majumdar.
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TL;DR REVIEW:

A Burning is an emotionally ravaging and poignant story about a young girl accused of terrorism. And it absolutely earns the hype it’s gotten.

For you if: You like to read important, heartbreaking literary or contemporary fiction.

FULL REVIEW:

First of all, thank you to Knopf for allowing me to read an early copy of this book. It’s one of the summer’s most anticipated works of literary fiction, and it absolutely deserves the hype.

At the beginning of the story, there’s a terrorist attack — a train is bombed. Feeling voiceless, a girl named Jivan, who lives in a slum nearby, posts her frustration to Facebook and is then accused of committing the crime. We see what unfolds next through the eyes of three characters: Jivan herself; a trans woman named Lovely who’d been friends with Jivan and aspires to be an actress; and Jivan’s former gym teacher, who finds himself rising through the ranks of the opposing political party.

Two of our main characters are intensely lovable, and one is less so but still extremely human. In her truest self, Jivan is a force to be reckoned with. And Lovely — Lovely is one giant beating heart all on her own. I also thought it was interesting how we got Jivan’s and Lovely’s first person narrations, and a much more distant third person for PT Sir. There is much being said there, I think, about representation, and about individualism vs collectivism — some fight for a voice, and some are only to0 glad to trade theirs away, and all of them are fighting to survive.

This book is not easy to read (see trigger warnings below if you need them), but it is most certainly worth it. Majumdar moves fast and doesn’t look back at the broken pieces of your heart that she leaves behind, just like the country she’s writing about. By the end, I felt myself somewhere between sprinting toward and being dragged across the story’s conclusion. I read it in one day and will probably reread it again soon.

I recommend finishing it at home, in the evening, where you are free to be a puddle on the floor.




TRIGGER WARNINGS:
Violent hate crimes, including murder and rape; Islamophobia; Transphobia; Sexual assault (mentioned)
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A Burning has me in some positive readerly dilemma, which I guess is a good thing these days.

The book has three characters on an upward mobility journey. They are affected by cross currents of religious, gender and age discourses playing out in contemporary India. It takes a bit of time for the story to grow on you. Incidents at the beginning are more kaleidoscopic and I was missing a deeper connect with the characters. Roughly half way through the book, this changes. You get more into the motivations of each protagonist and Lovely emerges as my favourite- unabashedly him/herself. 

What I like about the book is it raises some very pertinent questions about silencing different groups. The past tense of hang is hung / hanged is probably one of my favourite chapter titles in a while. It’s a bold position from someone new when a lot of thought leaders from India have shied away. 

What bothers me though, is the narrative stays at a high level. Events happen fast and people move on. In that, Majumder does a good job of representing the fleeting nature of public memory. But as an Indian, it forces me to ask the question, could there have been a bit more nuance? Could a bit more depth in building out the character of the PT teacher, have given us more of that counter perspective and an even stronger book? It’s a good read and that’s why I wanted more from it. I ❤️the cover.
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Absolutely brilliant debut. I am reviewing this title for Shelf Awareness for Readers and my review will appear in their newsletter and website.
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Interweaving story lines of a Jivan, young girl who is accused of bombing a train after criticizing the government on facebook, an aspiring actress to whom Jivan was teaching English, and Jivan's former teacher who is a rising star in a right-wing political party. A Burning is a compelling and beautifully-written page-turner.
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Jivan is not a terrorist. However, this does not stop the Indian government arresting her for a vicious act of terrorism at a train station near her home. Their evidence against her? A Facebook comment and some private messages with a boy in a foreign country. 

PT Sir is a teacher at one of the best schools for girls in the city. He feels insignificant and powerless until he accidentally becomes involved with personnel high up in a growing political party. He quickly becomes mixed up in shady political dealings as his status and position in life greatly improve.

Lovely is a hijra (a transgender woman) in India. She is forced to make her living by begging on trains and offering blessings to new mothers and brides who treat her with disgust. She bears it all certain that one day she is going to be a film star. 

"A Burning" is the intersection of these three very different individuals doing what they can, no matter what it takes, to improve their lives. Ultimately, each of these characters will see through their own perspective how the justice system does, or rather does not, work in their Indian city.

This debut novel takes on a monumental task in explaining the class system, politics, and justice in India, but it doesn't quite fulfill that task. The novel isn't exactly gripping, and often leaves the reader wondering what is happening. The novel switches between Jivan, PT Sir, and Lovely's points of view, but it does so far too often to develop an affinity for or understanding of any particular character. None of the characters are particularly likable but none are particularly unlikable either. Overall, I understand that some may enjoy this debut novel for its exploration of Indian politics and culture, but for me it fell short.
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