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A Burning

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Member Reviews

Three stories set in modern day India that are tangentially connected -- a young girl accused of terrorism primarily based on an offhanded comment on Facebook, a transgender (hijras) who wants to be an actor, and a teacher who gets involved in politics. Each story is marginally engaging, but the constant swapping between stories is sometimes jarring. Actually I didn't really see the point. The terrorism story had the most potential, but seemed to fall flat at the end. I found Lovely's (the hijira) story the most engaging and touching and would liked to have read more of their story. The teacher's storyline was so reliant on knowledge and understanding of Indian politics, I just couldn't get too involved. Plus there's an inordinate amount of time and space given to food -- nearly every scene has some food reference or description. That was pretty distracting.

I normally love reading books set in places other than the US, and enjoy reading and learning about other cultures. This one just didn't grab me.

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My public library purchases many novels on my recommendation, this was one of them. I enjoy being able to add to their collection for the enjoyment of our townspeople.

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Hard one to review. I didn't actually like the story, and didn't feel connected to the characters, but I think with the right discussion group this would be a fascinating book to discuss. There are many layers of politics to uncover; recommended for book clubs. Most likely my opinion of the story would increase after talking about it with others.

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The emotions that remain at the conclusion of this book are overwhelming. It is a short book, concise in its word usage and number of pages, but the author certainly packs so much within that span.
The book encompasses the monumental themes of life---corruption and justice, poverty and class division, and overcoming obstacles that don't seem like they can be overcome., What a fascinating read!

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Thanks To Knopf and NetGalley for an opportunity to review this title.

This book is about power, fame, and the horrors engaged in to acquire them. It is also about the innocent, those who pay the price of corruption, and the dangers unleashed when we start looking at people as "the others." While set in India, the themes of this tale resound worldwide.

The story revolves around a bombed train, those who profit from, and those who are sacrificed because of it. While none of the three main characters have a direct hand in the disaster, their lives are profoundly affected by its aftermath.

While the subject matter was often difficult, Majumdar writes so personably and with such a clear voice that putting the book down was never a question. It is a novel that I resoundingly recommend.

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I reviewed for The Boston Globe:

Furies and fates
A propulsive debut ponders life on the margins
By Clea Simon Globe Correspondent,Updated May 28, 2020, 12:00 p.m.

For the vulnerable young woman at the center of “A Burning,” one wrong move is enough to spark catastrophe.

In her ambitious debut novel, Megha Majumdar tackles the sectarian divide in her native India, where Hindu nationalists have increasingly targeted their Muslim compatriots. Her protagonist, Jivan, is a member of this marginalized underclass: Muslim and desperately poor, she stumbled into a scholarship that gave her a shot at a better life and has parlayed her education into a position as a salesgirl in a clothing shop, the kind of job that allows her to own a phone and get on Facebook. As it would be for many 22-year-olds, the lure of peer approval is strong, and, as the book opens, in search of social media “likes,” she makes a rash comment about the government response to a terrorist attack — the bombing of a train that results in the burning of the title. What follows unfolds with a horrible inevitability.


Many elements play into Jivan’s downfall. Her religion, in particular, has made her new economic security, and the accompanying class status, precarious. “The country needs someone to punish,” she tells her lawyer. “And I am that person.” What complicates this fundamentally simple tale, driven by its headlong rush toward tragedy, is how everyone around her is subverted or seduced into supporting this scapegoating — the second burning, if you will.

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These are up-to-the-minute issues, and, while engaging, the book occasionally reads more like straightforward social commentary than a fully realized fictional world. What rescues it from polemicism are the detailed and personal voices of its narrators, particularly the women at its heart.

Told primarily in three voices, all either students or teachers, the novel relies heavily on dialect and colloquial phrasings. This approach, seemingly naïve, camouflages some beautiful and subtle imagery, as when Lovely, the least educated of the three main narrators, first appears. “With my hips swinging like this and like that, I am walking past the guava seller,” she says. When she asks him the time, “he is not wishing to share with me the fruits of his wristwatch.”


Lovely, who was receiving free English lessons from Jivan, is a hijra, a third-gender or, as we would likely term her, transgender woman. Cast out by her family and thwarted in love, she desperately wants to be an actress and views film stardom as her way out of circumstances more desperate even than Jivan’s.

PT Sir, Jivan’s former physical therapy (i.e., gym) teacher, provides the novel’s third main voice in a third-person narration that reveals both his insecurities and pettiness. Although he clearly sees his scholarship student’s poverty, for example, he congratulates himself on how he “pardoned her soiled skirt. He forgave her old shoes,” as if they were slights against his authority.

While Jivan’s parents, among others, have brief airings and Jivan’s narrative remains central, Lovely’s is the most compelling, and it is in her first-person passages that Majumdar’s writing shines. “My chest is a man’s chest, and my breasts are made of rags,” the author has her say. “So what? Find me another woman in this whole city as truly woman as me.” After Jivan, she is also the most sympathetic character, having suffered horribly — including witnessing the mutilation of a friend, another hijra, during a botched gender-confirmation surgery. It helps that the acting skills she seeks to trade on are presented as believable and her dreams potentially within reach. While the choices she makes to attain them are despicable, they are ultimately comprehensible — even forgivable. “In this world, only one of us can be truly free. Jivan, or me,” she recalls being told. “Every day, I am making my choice.”


These choices, small decisions by Lovely and PT Sir that collectively loom large, propel the book, and the novel’s breakneck pace stumbles when these narrators are absent, notably during a segment when Jivan manages to speak to a journalist. Hoping for understanding, she gives him — and us — her backstory, describing the privations and violence of her childhood in the Kolabagan slum in what reads like flat exposition, despite its gruesome detail. Likewise, the naivete of PT Sir, which develops into bald self-interest, quickly becomes cartoonish as he trades up — from a star-struck novice wowed by a free lunch (“a fresh hot box of biryani, with two pieces of mutton, arrives for PT Sir”) to an air-conditioned apartment — with barely a qualm.

Such simplicity is counterproductive. When it focuses on the struggles of Lovely and her peers, fellow underdogs, fighting for their own small piece of success, “A Burning” is heartbreaking, a damning indictment of a society depicted as utterly corrupt and racist. Even with its flaws, the book is an engaging and fast read. Along the way it introduces two compelling personalities, leaving open the question of whether either one is truly free.


Clea Simon is the author of “An Incantation of Cats.” She can be reached at

A Burning

By Megha Majumdar

Knopf, 304 pp., $25.95

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Megha Majumdar’s debut novel A Burning took the literary world by storm; you’d be hard pressed to find an outlet that didn’t name it as one of the hottest books of the summer. It has many of the characteristics that make literary fiction popular: it is highly political, eschews grammatical norms, and is made to be consumed in a single sitting. But what truly makes A Burning stand out are the ways in which the story of a young girl in Kolkata, India, holds a mirror to the current political situation in the United States.

A Burning follows three characters in the aftermath of a terrorist attack at a railroad station in a Kolkata slum. Jivan is accused of aiding the terrorists, when really her only crimes are writing anti-government Facebook posts and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The other two perspectives come from Jivan’s former physical education teacher, PT Sir, and Lovely, an aspiring actress who is a hijra (a South Asian gender identity known for spiritual practice and feminine self-presentation). All three characters must contend with the aftermath of Jivan’s imprisonment and navigate the tricky landscape of national politics and the mob mentality created by social media coverage of the event.

Majumdar expertly distinguishes these three characters by giving each a distinct voice. The most pronounced is Lovely’s: she is full of optimism as she dreams of becoming a movie star, and all of her sections are written in the present progressive: “Today, I am standing up and joining my hands. I am bowing.” This is Lovely recounting her first experience of acting in front of an audience, in the doorway of her acting teacher’s house. At first, I found this speech pattern jarring, but I quickly fell into its rhythm. Lovely’s chapters add a breath of fresh air. She encounters plenty of misogyny and troubles in her own right but refuses to lose her cheery disposition.

Unfortunately, Lovely’s voice is the only bright patch in the entire novel. Jivan’s situation goes from bad to worse as it becomes clear that she has become the government’s scapegoat. PT Sir and Lovely must decide whether to speak up in her favor. Both try to do the right thing and vouch for Jivan at the trial, but once they become successful, they quickly throw Jivan under the bus.

The novel’s purpose is to highlight the ways underprivileged groups are incentivized to fight amongst themselves. PT Sir falsely testifies in criminal cases against his party’s political enemies in order to supplement his teacher’s salary. Lovely must turn her back on Jivan to ensure that directors will cast her in their movies. Jivan takes the blame for the government’s inability to catch the terrorists, and the public believes that she is guilty thanks to a few anti-government Facebook posts.

In a recent NPR interview, Majumdar declared that “the parallels between India and the U.S. are stunning.” In the US, the novel’s June release date coincided with the Black Lives Matter protests and the social media movement that accompanied it. A Burning is filled with governmental violence and failings, as well as the power that social media and media outlets can have on the political process. The resemblance is eerie.

In fact, after a while the novel begins to feel a bit one note. Every moment seems designed to serve the same end: to show how corrupt the system is. The story leaves scant room for disagreement with its message, and the ending doesn’t inspire hope. PT Sir and Lovely stop fighting to free Jivan in order to hold onto their own unbelievable power and success. Both characters get the happy ending of their wildest dreams, whereas Jivan is put to death as a terrorist. A Burning presents a problem, again and again, but offers little hope and no solutions.

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This is a really, really ambitious book. I was impressed that this would be someone's first published novel. It weaves together the lives of three main characters, all revolving around the main story about a girl who has been falsely accused of committing a terrorist attack in India. The book covers topics such as gender identity, Indian politics, incarceration, the justice system, celebrity, and class.

I found this book incredibly difficult to get into. It took me a long time to get past the first third of the book until I found some kind of rhythm. The story jumps around a lot, and quickly, between the characters. After a time you finally learn how to read it, if that makes sense. Once you get into the author's groove, it's very easy to read and I finished it quickly after that. It's interesting how I felt I had to adapt to the author's style of storytelling. And I kind of liked it for that.

Others have mentioned that the character development didn't work well enough for them, but I didn't experience that. I felt a lot of compassion for Lovely and Jivan and their backstories. Lovely was my favorite character. PT Sir I obviously despised, but I think we're supposed to, even if he's simply a pawn.

For me this book was just okay, but again, it's ambitious and a unique undertaking. That counts for a lot in my mind, even if I didn't fall in love with it. I'm not sure I've read a book or story like it, and I appreciate that.

Thanks to #NetGalley and Knopf for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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"A Burning" takes place in India and follows three main characters: Jivan, who is a young adult Muslim girl accused of helping terrorists with a deadly train bombing, PT Sir is her former P.E. (physical education) teacher and slowly working his way into politics, and Lovely, a Hijra actress whose dreams and hopes are leading her to stardom.

The descriptive writing is so good and really brings to life the cities, slums, and countrysides within the novel. As the plot moves forward beginning with Jivan's arrest, based on flimsy evidence and Facebook posts, her trial and plea of innocence, and ultimately, the verdict. Throughout the novel, we are shown how much each character's daily choices affect themselves, their conscience and moral faculties, their family and friends, and ultimately, Jivan.

I had a difficult time getting into the book but once all the characters were introduced, I couldn't put the book down. A recommended read for sure!

Thanks to NetGalley, Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, and Megha Majumdar for an e-reader copy in exchange for my honest review.

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"A Burning" is set in modern-day India where citizens are being arrested for writing social media posts criticizing the nationalist government. What makes this book a must-read are the characters. They are genuine, authentic, and vivid. Jivan is a Muslim girl from the slums, determined to move up in life, Pt Sir, thirsts for power after being recruited into the local right-wing political party. Lovey is the author's best creation. Deprived of conventional education, she is a student of street life, a hijra (a third gender recognized in India), who dreams of stardom.

Because of a careless comment on Facebook, Jiva is imprisoned for supposedly executing a terrorist attack on a train, Lovely (Jiva's friend) and PT Sir (Jiva's former physical education teacher) are the only ones who can defend her in court. Both seem to be good, compassionate people who are convinced Jiva is innocent. Yet, when PT Sir is forced to abandon Jiva's case in order to advance in politics, and Lovely is asked to drop her support for Jivan to get a leading role in a blockbuster movie, their ethics come into question. And this is exactly what got me so absorbed in the book, the clash between desires and principles.

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A Burning by Megha Majumdar reads like a thriller as we witness an innocent Indian girl accused of terrorism in the aftermath of suspicious subway fires. Jivan lives in the slums of India with her parents, goes to school, and teaches Lovely, a hijra (transgender woman) across tow, how to read English. Jivan happened to be riding the subway during the time of the fires and made a facebook post about it. After getting little response to her first post, she wrote another criticizing the police and the government. This comment caused a stir online, and in the middle of the night, Jivan is torn from her home and arrested, and thrown in jail as the only suspect for the criminal activity on the subway.

Jivan’s future is not bright and at every turn, she and her family suffer more. Her hope dwindles when she is put in solitary confinement underground, her father’s rickshaw is destroyed, her family home caves in and her father sustains terrible injuries. Jivan’s school gym teacher, PT Sir, at one time a mentor, believes she is innocent of the charges. Lovely, Jivan’s English student knows she is not capable of setting fires and murdering people. But PT Sir and Lovely are feeling luckier these days; their lives are on the upswing. PT Sir is being recognized in politics and he is feeling hopeful for his future. Lovely wants to become an actress and after posting videos she made online, her career is about to take off. In a last ditch effort, Jivan shares her story with a journalist hoping he will reveal her truth. All three have the power to alter the path of Jivan’s life, but will they speak up? The abuse of power, corruption and personal gain collide to determine Jivan’s future.

A Burning was an all absorbing, exceptional story, touching on politics, minorities, privilege and government resources along with morals and personal gain. Deep characters and a compelling storyline will stick in your mind long after the final pages. A must read this summer!

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Three people living interconnected lives in one Indian town harbor their own hopes and dreams for better lives--realizing too late that there is often a sacrifice involved to reach some goals and that one simple decision can change everything. The book follows Jivan, who works toward a more comfortable life after growing up in the slums; PT Sir, a school phys ed teacher who hopes to embark on a career in politics; and Lovely, a hijra who dreams of finding her fame as a celebrated actress. As their paths expose them to societal ills--a sensationalist trials, a terrorist attack, graft, anti-Muslim sentiment, classism, miscarriages of justice, viral social media posts--the reader is likely to recognize the prejudices, biases, crimes, and tragedies big and small that make up the news and cultural dialogue we encounter every day no matter what country we live in.

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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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