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Published on: 10/21/20 5:12 AM

Book review: A Burning by Megha Majumdar

This is more a brief take than review.

A Burning by Megha Majumdar, Penguin Hamish Hamilton Books.

A story soaked in sorrow, it tells of a young girl from the slums and more importantly, from `the` minority community, who, late one night,  gives in to a moment of indiscretion via a Facebook comment, in the wake of a halted train being set on fire at a station near her tenement. What follows will not surprise those of us who live in these uber-nationalistic times, even as it will fill us with dismay.

The three pegs of the tale are the girl herself, a hijra (that`s how the character is described in the book) called Lovely and a man known to us only as PT Sir; even as the girl is exploring all avenues of hope, optimism and justice to prove her innocence, Lovely and PT Sir (who are both connected to the girl) are learning that there are no free lunches, and that if they have to gain some amount of fame and fortune, they also need to lose  their sense of ethics and fair play, and commit definite acts of betrayal. As their stars start to ascend, the girl`s ill-fated star starts to plummet.

However, I read the book with mixed feelings. For all its undeniable substance, it  seems to be written for a predominantly Western audience, harking back to the days of presenting the roiling East to the advanced West.

First of all, the protagonist is called Jivan, a strange choice of name for a young Muslim girl. Then, the writing is very mannered. A doctor at a government hospital sees `the poor and the illiterate.`  There is mention of cutlasses.

Sentences like  `Oh my girl, my gold` (sona) and `I did not have a mood to feel friendship with him, ` jar. The disjointed patois that Lovely adopts to tell her (very serious) tale attempts to give her a particular personality quirk but grates. All food descriptions are overwritten,  again clearly deferring to the foreign reader.

So.  A compelling story but the treatment left me feeling underwhelmed. I really thought we`d long gone past having to showcase India, shining or un-shining, in a particular, singular manner.

A Burningbook reviewfictionMegha Majumdar

Sheila Kumar • October 21, 2020

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