A Burning, by Megha Majumdar
Many years ago, I had a conversation with a colleague about life, dreams, and the choices we make. Early on in our career, or in life, we decide what and who we want to be. We see that vision or goal there, in the distance. We plan our path to it. It will take time, maybe years. It will take effort. Then, a fork in the road presents itself. We can stay on the path to the goal, or move away for this attractive option. It will only be for a while, we tell ourselves. This will help me make money, etc. After this interlude, I will return. And we take that fork, leading us away from the dream. Of course another fork, and then another, presents itself. Each time, we deviate a little further away. We never lose sight entirely of the dream. But one day, we take stock. The dream is over there, far away. Our life is here, brought by the various forks in the road we have taken. There is no easy way back to the dream. And with more time, the dream recedes. Becomes fainter. Is lost.
I was reminded of this conversation when I read A Burning by Megha Majumdar.
The characters make choices that lead them away from the purity of an earlier life, of their youth. From ideals they may have held dear in those days: of fairness, of loyalty, of justice, of truth. At the end of the story, there they are, at a destination to which their choices have led them. They are surrounded by the accoutrements of “success.” But somewhere along the way, they lost their soul. Instead of the dream, they now see ghosts. Ghosts of those they chose not to help, not to stand up for. Much like Banquo’s ghost, come to plague Macbeth.
The Burning was a fast read, and has so much packed into it. Based on an angry, impulsive Facebook post, Jivan, a young Muslim woman in Kolkata, is wrongly accused of setting a train on fire. The rapid sequence of events is told from the perspective of two main characters in addition to Jivan. PT Sir, a teacher who saw promise in her, and helped her when she was a student, and Lovely, a hijra or trans woman and aspiring actress, to whom Jivan has shown kindness, teaching her English. Jivan does everything she possibly could to set the record straight, but the betrayals mount.
In this quiet, uncompromising, unsentimental book, no one is spared.
Not the press, in a member of whom Jivan puts her trust. He retells her account, transforming the narrative of an innocent, disadvantaged child, then young woman, into a damning collection of statements.
Not a friend, Lovely, who chooses her own success over Jivan’s life, as that is the choice she is offered.
Not a mentor, PT Sir who succumbs to the wealth and status offered by the political party JKP.
In the style of a documentary, and with the spare, simple dialectical English of Kolkata streets, this book brings to life the tectonic plates of society which shift inexorably, pushed by the forces of prejudice, close-mindedness, superstition, bigotry, crushing the vulnerable.
It is an indictment of political parties that calculatedly manipulate citizens, turning this group against that, fabricating or instigating conflict where none existed before, exploiting the fear of the other/the unknown to forge ahead in the polls, to gain or retain power.
The story is told quietly, without fanfare. And yet, it evokes powerful emotions – anger, disappointment, sadness, helplessness – which linger long after the last page is turned.