Megha Majumdar’s debut novel “A Burning” happened to appear during the height of the recent protests which began with the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. The novel couldn’t be more timely or topical, and it’s a splendid novel, to boot.
A Muslim young woman finds herself, accidentally, in the wrong place at the wrong time: at a train station, when several trains are set on fire and those inside those trains are locked in and burned to death. Although she sees several men running from the site who are the probable terrorists, she is accused of causing this terrorist act because of a post she’s made on Facebook (that amazingly corrupt social media platform) to a man she’s never met, who turns out to be involved with a terrorist group. This FB post is the first of many damning things which appear in this novel, since Facebook exists to connect people with others whom they’ve not met, and the author is cautioning all of us about the harm that social media can create and cause (as we know from current events, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s repeated refusals to remove harmful, damaging, flagrant untruths and incendiary language by white nationalist groups. If you haven’t seen Joe Scarborough’s recent two minute attack on Zuckerberg and Facebook CEO Cheryl Sandberg, I hope you’ll look it up).
Jivan, the Muslim young woman in question, comes from the slums, and is both female, Muslim, poor and thus utterly powerless. She is rapidly jailed, eventually able through various bribes to meet with a well known journalist from the main newspaper in the area, to whom she tells her story; he will distort it and try to build a case that her poverty et. al. have made her an anti-government/anti-authority person from her youth. Two of the best secondary characters in the novel, Jivan’s trans friend Lovely and her high school gym teacher, originally both testify on her behalf in court, but both will turn on her/against her and recant their testimony because they are asked to by people in power who have helped them both in their careers (acting, in Lovely’s case, and politics, in the other’s). The speed with which both turn against her for their own personal gain is breathtaking and truly horrifying. Jivan, who’d been a scholarship girl at a privileged high school and was a splendid athlete there, was singled out for praise by this teacher, who helps mentor her and literally feeds her when he realizes she frequently hasn’t had any food at home. But he’s annoyed that she never, in his opinion, thanks her, and when he gets caught up in a state political movement by accident, and the candidate for whom he now works wins the election, he will actually be in charge of getting her appeal denied and will be in charge of arranging her death by hanging. Lovely, easily flattered by the attentions of prominent filmmakers, will basically turn on her for self-interest as well. These two relatively minor characters in the novel are probably more flushed out than the main character herself, but they’re brilliantly rendered and critical to the narrative.
Jivan continues to believe that either the journalist or Lovely or the gym teacher or reason itself will help save her; I’m not certain that the reader will be prepared for the suddenness of her death, alone, with no friends or family around: she’s expendable to systems of corruption and a public ravenous for the solving of the terrorist act, no matter who the accused may be. This novel is a warning to all of us about how quickly we find scapegoats under the generic “national security” label, how easy it is to rev up hysteria for political expediency, and how those who are powerless remain powerless because they are born female, or poor, or both. Given the current political climate in America, “A Burning” seems essential reading and its cautionary warnings couldn’t come at a better time.