Megha Majumdar’s polyphonic debut novel, A Burning, follows the loosely intertwined lives of Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir in Kolkata, during a time of rising Hindu Nationalist sentiment. Jivan, a Muslim girl, happens to be present at a train station during a terrorist attack that ends with a locomotive in flames. Soon after, she makes a Facebook comment critical of police inaction, and government’s consequent complicity in the deaths of innocent people. She writes: “If the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?” She is arrested and imprisoned for her “anti-national” comment, her religious identity serving as ostensibly irrefutable evidence of her disloyalty to the Indian state. Before her arrest, Jivan taught English to Lovely, a transgender woman with silver-screen dreams. Lovely has information that could exonerate Jivan, but her Bollywood dreams hinge on the role she will play in Jivan’strial. PT Sir, the Physical Education teacher at Jivan’s school who occasionally shares food with her out of pity, taps into political aspirations he didn’t even know he had, rising steadily through the Jana Kalyan Party ranks and accumulating power at great costs, including to Jivan.
Majumdar’s novel — and our conversation about it — centers on the oppressive nature of systemic marginalization, and how it affects individual existence and political participation. With laconic observations that pack mighty punches, Majumdar meticulously renders gendered discrimination, transphobia, the mouth-watering draw of power, and the futility of class struggle in the quicksand of Indian society.
As with any fascist regime, silence feeds the Hindutva behemoth. For some, silence is choice; for others it’s the only way forward. For everyone, silence is political. Strongman Narendra Modi’s BJP has gagged speech and stifled dissent by targeting writers and activists, bestowing on India the unsavory distinction of being among the most dangerous places in the world to be a reporter. Lives are extinguished in pursuit of this silence, as with the murder of journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh; entire communities are cloaked in mass-quiet, hundreds of days long, as with the communication blockade of Kashmir.
Published fiction about Hindu Nationalism is all but nonexistent, and as she charts this new territory Majumdar relies on journalistic reports to construct narratives in counterpoint to India’s mainstream discourse. The resulting novel attempts to neatly encapsulate the zeitgeist of the Modi years. In an era when backlash is a highly plausible reality, A Burning is a brave act of resistance.
— Madhuri Sastry for Guernica
Guernica: A Burning deals with nationalist fervor, corruption, discrimination, and incarceration. It’s come out during one of the biggest uprisings in modern US history. That’s really quite something! How do you feel about the timing, and the parallels between the political situations in your two homes?
Megha Majumdar: I’ve been thinking about this. And I’m finding it so strange. I started writing the book in a similar mood, but that was several years ago — I think it was maybe five years ago at this point. I was watching the rise of the right in India: the rise in hate crimes, the rise in xenophobic Hindu nationalism. And now the book is launching into this moment where there is a similar kind of fury towards white supremacy. There are so many conversations around the links between Hindu nationalism and white supremacy: both of these ideologies are based on ideas of a “pure race,” and on fears of being replaced by other groups, and so on. It’s been particularly strange seeing some of the very specific elements of the book ring true right now, like in the opening pages there’s a curfew, and a couple of days ago there was a curfew in New York, which I couldn’t have imagined at the time. And things like police brutality as well, which in in the book is in a very different form. It’s just a reminder that these are old problems.
Guernica: It’s one long nightmare. With respect to the many aspects of the novel that are coming to life now, sometimes writers feel — or are told — that their stories are almost too strange for real life, only to find out that truth is stranger than fiction. The last few years — and in particular the last few months — have shown this to be true, with the occupation of Kashmir, the stripping of citizenship of Muslims in India. Was there anything, like an incident, perhaps, that you left out of the story because you felt that it was too unrealistic to be believed?
Majumdar: That’s such a good question. For a while, I wondered if part of the inciting incident for the book — the Facebook comments — would be seen as too small. But, I was drawing on so many news reports where people got into trouble for sharing a cartoon on Facebook, or for forwarding a message criticizing a politician on Facebook, so it didn’t feel like too much of a stretch for me. But I wondered if it would be legible as a thing of fear. Especially because for some people social media feels like such a free space. I definitely feel that here too, being a person who lives in the US on a visa. A few years ago, [the US authorities] started including your social media handles on visa applications. So this idea that you can say whatever you want about the authorities, and about politicians, and about the government on social media… I thought that that really isn’t true for a lot of people in different circumstances. Social media is as fraught a place, and it leaves you as vulnerable as you are in real life.
Guernica: Jivan’s arrest being based on a Facebook comment was powerful to me, because I remember an incident where a girl in Bombay “liked” a Facebook comment that was critical of Bal Thackeray, who was the leader of the Right-Wing Shiv Sena, and she was arrested for it. This was even before Modi’s election the first time around. It happened when I still lived in Poona, and it was a very powerful moment in my own political evolution. What were some of the other incidents that inspired you?
Majumdar: I probably absorbed information from years of reading news articles, and then some of it filtered into the book. There’s a bit in the book about a slum demolition, and that actually came to me from reading a news article about a slum demolition. I remember reading it in Kolkata, when I was my early teens. I remember reading about people who gathered waste in bags, and that was their weapon against the police. And also, I absorbed some of the stuff about the political rally, and how there are movie stars at rallies. And you hear adults around you saying things like, “They just brought these people [rally-goers] in from the villages, and they’re going to give them a box of biriyani for showing up!” So, you hear adults around you saying things, you read the news, you watch local news, all this swirls around in your head. I think local news is such a great source of nourishment for a book like this, where you really see news that is not covered elsewhere. Rallies and stuff, that’s the kind of thing you see if you’re in Kolkata, and you watch the 6:00 p.m. Bengali news while having your tea. I think that kind of specificity definitely fuels the book.
Guernica: In the book, Jivan is suspected of setting a train on fire. I wanted to know why you chose this image, this particular act of violence.
Majumdar: I know that it has resonances with Gujarat. I’m definitely mindful of that. I have always had particular affinity for trains. I’ve always found them just really fascinating, especially Indian trains. I think there’s something so alluring about that kind of brief, temporary society that you form on the train. The burning train came from a feeling that trains were a core image of the book. I wanted to start with this attack on a train. A train later becomes important as another character, Lovely, finds it to be a kind of mini society from which she can learn, and on which she makes a living. There’s another crucial scene where PT Sir first realizes that that he’s seen as a VIP when this muri wallah on the train gives him free muri. So imaginatively for the book it came from that place, though I definitely know that for readers it probably has resonances with Gujarat.
Guernica: The characters in the novel are marginalized in different ways. My favorite, Lovely, needs to make a very serious choice She has to choose between solidarity with somebody who is also marginalized, someone she empathizes with, someone she even sees herself in. She has to choose between that and her career, her future. An often-employed tool of oppression is to split up marginalized groups, and pit them against one another. Was this important for you to portray, and if so, why?
Majumdar: I wanted to look at how somebody who is oppressed has to make these terrible choices. You know there are no good choices when you are in that position. The system forces you to act in your self-interest, even when something higher and more noble in you wants to resist it. I find it profoundly moving and poignant that somebody who has their heart in the right place, who wants to do the right thing, realizes that the sacrifice demanded of her would be too great. And ultimately, she has to choose her own survival, and her own path forward, because there was no safety net in this society. There’s nobody willing to lift her up, so she has to make a sacrifice. And I think that’s such a tragedy.
Guernica: I was left with a sense of despair, because upward mobility is such an illusion. So, when people are afforded that opportunity, of course they grab it with both hands. They take it at any cost, because the alternative is so much worse.
Majumdar: So few people get chances to really move up in such a society. So, it’s very difficult to say you have to be selfless, and give that up for the greater good. I don’t think many people are able to make that choice.
Guernica: Somewhat relatedly, Bollywood celebrities — especially the Khans — have been getting a lot of criticism for keeping mum about anti-Muslim atrocities, and even going out of their way to do things like take selfies with Modi. And I wonder if you feel like this is different from the tenuous solidarity that you were trying to portray, and if so, how?
Majumdar: I think there are parallels. I think there are parallels between them and the path that PT Sir chooses in the book. When you have that kind of proximity to power, in this society with huge power differentials, and which is based so much on connections and patronage, I think they probably find that the political risk is too great. And it comes from that same place of feeling like they have to act in their own interests to move forward and protect what they have. But also, it’s vastly different because they are movie stars. And so many people look up to them in this country. But ultimately, it’s that same question of what morals do you hold close, and what will you surrender? What do you feel is integral to who you are?
Guernica: Shahrukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra are Lovely’s idols; she’s an aspiring film actress. I wonder what Lovely would make of Shahrukh’s closeness with Modi, and Priyanka’s support for Hindu nationalism.
Majumdar: That’s a really interesting question. In Lovely’s world, thinking about that kind of abstract question is such a privilege. I think you need to be in a place of security, in a place where you’re not worried about your own present, or future, to be able to look with a critical gaze upon your idols. And in the book, what Lovely sees is what they present — which is this picture of glory and fame, playing roles that Lovely dreams of getting. Being seen as the main character in your own story, I think, even that is so far from attainable for her, you know. She’s somebody who is constantly pushed into these minor villain characters, or is somebody who’s meant to be shooed away in the scene. So, I think part of what’s alluring for her is that they get to be the main character.
Guernica: That’s a really interesting way to put it, being a main character in your own story. It feels like one of the messages of your book is that there’s something almost predestined about the marginalized in a country that is as unequal and as stratified as India. Especially if you’re poor. Do you feel like people who are marginalized by virtue of their religious identities — people who are Muslim — also have a sort of inescapable fate?
Majumdar: I think that faith in this book has so much to do with the systems that they’re caught within. The characters in this book believe that their destiny is something greater, right? That’s why they push back and try to gain more than what the system allows them. But they are scapegoated, and they are blamed because it’s easy to impose this logic of stereotype and hatred and marginalization upon their lives, even if their lives are greater than that. So, part of the book looks at this imposed logic that the state can put upon your life: well, you made this Facebook comment, and look at your background, and look at other things you’ve done before, and look at what your religious identity is, and look at where you fall in the class spectrum. So, this logic — which you never asked for, which you do not accept — is nevertheless imposed on you, and that is the great powerlessness in a society like this. Once such a narrative is imposed upon you, it is so easily replicated, and it spreads, and it becomes your story. No matter how much you say, “This is not my story.”
Guernica: What do you hope your readers will take away from your depiction of Hindu nationalism? Why was it important for you to tell the story Muslims living under this scourge?
Majumdar: An ideology like fervent nationalism, like the kind that we’re seeing, is one that tries to flatten and simplify how we understand other people. And I think we should always be very skeptical of that. I think we should be skeptical of any narrative that doesn’t allow complexity, and that doesn’t allow us to see other people in the fullness of their flaws, ambitions, and hope. So much of this is about constructing narratives and offering them to you. And the choice is yours—which narrative do you accept, which narrative do you question? I hope that people will see, that in the fullness of these characters — and I tried to make them full, it’s up to the reader to decide if they are! — how people who are subjugated in these systems, historically, try all these different things to escape that subjugation. And sometimes what they are able to try is flawed and limited. Sometimes they have to make choices that are bad. But I hope that people see that the people here are only doing what the society around them allows them to do. Ultimately, I really hope that readers picking up the book in the US might find it a helpful instrument with which to think about injustice as they have seen it in their own lives.
Guernica: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your very rich and vivid characters, and to focus on Lovely and Jivan. How did you conceive of these characters? Were there specific people’s experiences that you that you drew on?
Majumdar: I think they began with specific questions for me. So, for Jivan, I wanted to see how somebody who works really hard can still be challenged and defeated by the systems that she moves within. I think many of us have given up on it, but I wanted to you know really question the idea of a meritocracy, where you work hard and you get ahead. I wanted to see how that is so profoundly governed by what oppressive systems around you allow you to do. And then with Lovely, I really wanted to write this arc of somebody who goes from the very margins of society to its very center. I wanted to write about a person who is so shamed, but who refuses to accept that shame. You know she throws that shame back on people. She jokes with them, she teases them. And she never gives up on this dream, even though everybody around her tells her that it’s not her dream to chase. I think there’s something so joyous and defiant in it. I really wanted to write that.
Guernica: On the topic of shame, you detail the million indignities that Lovely faces with such meticulous detail. The barbs are painful, but also almost mundane. In India especially, shame is such a powerful tool of repression and control, especially for female-identifying persons.
Majumdar: I’m glad to hear that they felt mundane because I wanted to show how oppression is built into the texture of everyday life. It’s not this big dramatic event, it’s not this explosive thing. It’s just a thousand indignities every day, like somebody washing their hands after they’ve held hands with you. Or somebody turning away because they don’t want to see you on the train. A shopkeeper saying: please go away because customers won’t come if you’re standing right here. This oppression is so complex that I’m still thinking about these things, and still figuring out how to talk about them. But I definitely wanted to show that oppression filters down from systems and networks and institutions into how individuals act toward one another. They absorb that sense of who falls where and the social spectrum: who is to be respected, and who was to be disrespected, who is to be believed, and who is unworthy of your trust.
Guernica: That really resonated with me. I wanted to ask a little bit about Jivan, who is Muslim. How did you navigate the complexities of writing outside your own religion?
Majumdar: You know, I thought about this a lot. In my mind, I saw her as someone whose whole goal is to rise to the middle class. She wants to keep her job at the mall, she wants to enjoy her new phone, she wants to protect her parents from further suffering. I knew that narratively for her to become a believable scapegoat in the eyes of this particular state, her religious identity would be important. So I knew that she had to be Muslim for her character to persuasively make the argument that I wanted this book to make, about how certain people are oppressed and marginalized. But at the same time, I didn’t want to give her a religious identity that I couldn’t write with complexity. So, I imagined her as somebody akin to myself, you know. Someone who has a religious identity on paper, perhaps celebrates festivals, but doesn’t see her religious identity as central to who she is, necessarily. And it’s another of those narrative logics that is imposed on you by somebody else, where you don’t have the chance to respond and say: look at my religious identity with nuance; this is what I truly believe, this is what I don’t believe. You don’t have the chance to say that. You have a piece of paper that says you are this or that, and that is the narrative you’re given.
Guernica: This novel, the timing, your response to Hindu nationalism, it’s all a really brave endeavor, Megha. I’m concerned about how writers have faced so much criticism and backlash for taking these supposedly “anti-national” views, the definition of which is very broad, and mutable. Are you concerned about the reception of your novel, especially in India?
Majumdar: I’m definitely still thinking through that possibility. So far, it’s been nothing more concerning than some trolls online. The book has been getting good early responses in India, which I’m grateful for. But to be super honest with you, Madhuri, the book is getting a little bigger than I thought it would be. I thought I would work on this small book that a few people would read, if I got lucky. I didn’t expect it to get this level of attention. Now that it is, I guess I’m counting on the fact that people who would be hateful and hold simplistic and unquestioned views are not interested in reading my novel. I don’t know what I’ll do if there is a serious backlash, but, so far, there hasn’t been anything!