A Burning

Megha Majumdar

Alfred A. Knopf



I learned English, the language of progress. I couldn’t get anywhere if I didn’t speak English, even I knew that. But I dreaded being asked to stand up and read from the textbook…The other girls, from middle-class homes where they read English newspapers and watched Hollywood films, disdained me. But in the slum, I was the only one with an English textbook, and who cared whether I was good or not? It was a place where most could not read a word—Bengali or English—and what I had was a great skill.

                         from A Burning


A World of Burning Desires

In the opening pages of this debut novel set in India, terrorists set a passenger train on fire where innocent passengers are trapped within the terrible conflagration. This act of violence sets the story in motion, but it may not refer to the “burning” in the title.

The story is told through three main characters: Jivan, a Muslim girl born in the slums and aspiring to the middle class, is arrested, accused of abetting the terrorists due to a reckless comment she posted on Facebook. PT Sir, Jivan’s former gym teacher, aspires to become a Very Important Person by gaining power and status through his affiliation with a right-wing nationalist political group. And the hijra Lovely, a “he-she” who can provide the alibi that would exonerate Jivan, dreams of Bollywood stardom. (Hijra in India are recognized as a third sex, neither male nor female, and both. The closest category we have in the West is transgender, but the cultural nuances are lost in translation.)

Jivan’s case becomes a national sensation and highly politicized. PT Sir can speak to her innocence, but it might cost him his new standing and respect in the Jana Kalyan Party. Lovely’s dream of being a Bollywood star is becoming possible but now jeopardized if she testifies in Jivan’s behalf.

As one is drawn further into this gripping story, the reader senses that the metaphor of “burning” at the center of the book may be other than the terrorist attack, a burning more universal and all-consuming. As Lovely explains in her distinctive voice: “Society is telling me that I cannot be dreaming this dream. Society is having no room for people like me…because we are poor, and we may not be speaking perfect English. But is that meaning we are not having dreams?”

Each of the characters is pursuing a better life for him- or herself—they spend their lives dreaming of better lives—and each must weigh the cost of pursuing those dreams.

There are many different themes contained in this small book: the inequity of how the law is applied, the ingrained prejudice against different classes and people of different religions, or different ethnicities and gender categories, the politicization of daily life, the increasing power of social media in our lives, and foremost, the struggle between reaching for our dreams while maintaining our integrity and values.

In reading A Burning, one sees the world—and our individual lives—on fire.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (September 15, 2020.) Reprinted with permission.