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In 'A Burning,' Striving, Dreaming And Joking In The Face Of Oppression

Megha Majumdar's debut novel, A Burning, is set in modern-day Kolkata, India, and suddenly sounds breathlessly contemporary in the United States, too — a landscape of lockdowns, curfews, fires, and anguished posts on the internet.

It begins with a young woman named Jivan, scrolling through social media accounts of a gruesome terrorist attack near her neighborhood: flaming torches thrown into the windows of a halted train, its doors locked from the outside.

"Jivan is a person who has one very straightforward goal. She wants to rise to the middle class. She wants to keep her job at a mall. She wants to own her new smartphone," Majumdar says.

"But this is a person who, despite all her hard work, is defeated by the oppressive systems that she lives under. This is a person who is let down by the police, who is let down by the courts, who is let down by nationalist media. So through this character, I wanted to look at how a person might continue to strive even in the face of the might of the state."

Interview Highlights

On Lovely, one of the book's other narrators

... through this character, I wanted to look at how a person might continue to strive even in the face of the might of the state.

Lovely is a hijra, which is a specific social category at the intersection of gender and class in India. And in some ways, Lovely is revered because she is thought to belong to this community which has a closer connection to the divine. So she is invited to bless newborns and bless couples at their wedding, but at the same time she is marginalised in such complex ways. And I wanted to see how this person can still hold on to a wild dream. Lovely's dream is to be a movie star, and no matter how the society around her tries to shame her, she doesn't accept that shame.

On Lovely's relationship with Jivan

You know, English in India holds such baggage, and I wanted to bring that into the book. It is, of course, the language of the coloniser. But if you're growing up in India, you are constantly told that English is the language of moving up. It's the language of the future. And so Lovely holds this aspiration. And she wants to learn English and she becomes close friends with Jivan. But in the end, that friendship as tender and hopeful and good as it originally is, comes to be a kind of severe test. It comes to be Jivan's undoing in some ways and a real moral test for Lovely.

On similarities between the U.S. and India right now

I think what feels remarkable to me right now is that I started writing this book several years ago, paying attention to how the state's systems of oppression bear down upon marginalized groups. And here we are, you and I, chatting today when the mood in the U.S. is so remarkably similar. And the parallels between India and the U.S. are stunning. I mean, there are scholars and journalists who have written about the links between Hindu nationalism and white supremacy.

So I think there are these really close links between what's happening in India and what's happening in the U.S. And I hope that through this book, which, yes, is about oppression and yes, is about systems of discrimination, I hope that people also do pay attention to how the characters in this book dream and make jokes and strive even in conditions of great oppression, and I hope that feels meaningful to anybody picking up the book in the U.S.

This story was edited for radio by Ned Wharton and Hadeel Al-Shalchi, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.