By Shafey Anwarul Haque
In times when social and political crises are unfolding in India and dissenting voices, especially those of Muslims, are facing the heat of the political dispensation, and social media posts by university students and activists are carting them off to prison, Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, captures it all so beautifully and congruously.
A Burning, written mostly in present continuous tense and lucid language, is a compelling and germane story, filled with minute details. The work brings to the fore the complexities of the present state of affairs. The storyline, characters and the conflict between the characters make it an amazing read. It seems every character has been contextualised keeping in view the ongoing social and political impasses in the country.
Jivan, a Muslim woman, booked for her social media post in the wake of a train attack, is hanged to death. That tragic attack slays many lives, and like every social media user, Jivan too expresses her grief and resentment. Her criticism of the government and affiliated machineries brings thorn to her flesh. Her Facebook post that fails to get likes and comments, which every user yearns for, gets her imprisonment for orchestrating the attack: “waging of war against the government. Murder and criminal conspiracy. Knowingly facilitating acts preparatory to a terrorist act. Voluntarily harbouring terrorist.” Her tale resembles the accounts of many who have been booked recently under draconian laws, and of those charged or convicted in fake terror cases. Although few return to their homes after years and decades, others like Jivan do not.
A virulent, biased and amoral media, as we see it in the current scenario, plays a key role in framing her as a perpetrator. The author paints an accurate picture of the present Indian media eco-system, in which a majority of media outlets engage in distorting news and misinforming their audience. Purnendu, a journalist, listens to Jivan’s story and her struggle with life but manipulates all of it palpably and depicts her as an enemy of the nation and the government. People begin demanding death sentence for her, reflecting media’s contemporary influence on forming public opinion. The author also draws attention to the beacons of light in journalism, the ones who write and uphold truth. In Jivan’s case, they clearly point out: “Beware of trial by media. Where is concrete proof that this young woman had involvement in the attack? Everything the police tells us is circumstantial evidence. The woman is being sacrificed because of her Muslim identity.”
Majumdar remarkably takes on the issues of transgenders too, which very few authors talk about. Jivan teaches English to Lovely, a transgender, who dreams of becoming an actress. She has been thrown out of her home because of her sexuality and grapples with social stigma which is a perpetual reality in the Indian context. She earns her livelihood by conventional practices of the Hijra community and works hard to achieve her goals. But to flourish in her career she stops testifying to the innocence of her English teacher after she is exhorted by people in the film industry. Though somewhere along the line, she acknowledges Jivan’s innocence and victimisation of both – one because of her identity and the other for her sexuality. Lovely says, “I am truly feeling that Jivan and I are both no more than insects. We are no more than grasshoppers whose wings are being plucked. We are no more than lizards whose tails are being pulled. Is anybody believing that she was innocent? Is anybody believing that I can be having some talent?” But her career interest prevails over the truth.
Majumdar’s novel deftly depicts how a political party and its members yearn to flourish in their political career at the cost of the truth. Although Jana Kalyan Party appears to be working for education and social development, it voluntarily ignores a nationalist mob that attacks a Muslim family in a village for allegedly consuming beef. PT sir owes his loyalty to the party and to prove it, he becomes a perjurer whenever the party calls on him. He suspects Jivan (his best student in the school where he teaches) in the court too. On the party’s instruction, he manages to get a mercy plea rejected, and death sentence for her to satisfy the conscience of those screaming for her blood on social media. He becomes oblivious to the mob attack when the party high command tells him, “In politics, you will see, sometimes it feels that you are in-charge of everything and everyone…but what can we do if they raise their hand, if they decide to beat someone, if they feel angry?” He peacefully dismisses the incident which he witnessed in the village, from his mind, and finally he gets a prominent position in the ministry when the party comes to power, as the best award for serving the party.
A Burning represents the trail of hatred, violence and Islamophobia which has been growing in India for the last few years. The novel delves into the factors that are responsible for the current crisis and its social fallout. When PT sir visits a village for the party’s campaign and tells the local villagers about the party’s plan to establish schools, a villager asks, “Will there be Muslims teaching their religion at this school? Then we will not send our children.” PT sir replies, “I respect your religion. I respect your sentiment. Public schools are for all, but we will keep in mind your community.” The political opportunism of a supposedly progressive political party is exposed in the plot of the novel.
The novel touches upon many microscopic but relevant issues including the life of the poorer sections, and its contrast with the rich, police atrocities on vulnerable classes and many more. The novel deeply engages readers with numerous shades of the Indian society. It reflects what the American novelist Tim O’Brien says about fiction, “It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” Megha Majumdar’s A Burning is worthy of becoming a bestseller and the author deserves all the praise for bravely unearthing the bitter truth of our time.
Shafey Anwarul Haque is a Research Scholar at the Aligarh Muslim University.
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