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'A Burning': Megha Majumdar Discusses the Book of the Summer

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Photo credit: Elena Seibert

Jivan is a young Muslim woman who posts a message on Facebook that criticizes the Indian government. She shares the post, seeking affirmation from her online friends, but things snowball and Jivan is thrown in jail. On this week’s episode of Book Public, we’ll talk to novelist Megha Majumdar about her debut novel, A Burning. Heralded by major media outlets as the book of the summer, the book illustrates the ways we can hold dreams close even when institutions and systems conspire to defeat us.

Subscribe to new episodes of Book Public on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Read a transcript of the conversation below:

Yvette Benavides: Let me ask you about A Burning. Here's this character named Jivan who's done something that lots of people do every single day on social media, and that becomes this first domino to fall in the story. So do you want to explain what she does and then just to provide some context, what does it mean that she would do such a thing in India at this moment in time that you've created in the novel?

Megha Majumdar: Jivan is a young woman who works at a clothing store and all she wants is to ascend to the middle class. She has this first job and purchases a smartphone. Like you said, she makes this comment on Facebook about an attack on a train that has just happened. And as a result of that comment, she gets caught up in this terrorism case where she is accused of having been involved. Part of what I wanted to explore through Jivan’s story is how some people can work incredibly hard. They can work honestly, and with dedication and still be caught within these institutions and systems which defeat them, which challenge who they wanted to become. I wanted to show how this person who is striving toward this particular goal gets defeated by certain institutions around her and part of why I wanted to have this element of a Facebook comment on the smartphone and the book is that it's such a common part of Indian life. I think India is the country with the largest number of Facebook users in the world and using social media and using messaging in that way is very, very common and lots of Indians are hopping on the internet for the first time. So that is very much a part of current Indian life. I wanted to bring that into the book.

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YB: That's such a difficult negotiation. We sort of take it for granted that we all always have our phones. They're so ubiquitous, but it's very interesting. I saw an interview with an author who said she was going to set her novel during a time when there were no cell phones because it was just this very difficult negotiation for her. You know, do they [the characters], have it on them? Could they get out of this moment of whatever snag or tangle they were in to have to look something up on their phone. The way that you've managed it in this novel, of course it's as natural as they are in our lives. We always have our phone on hand; we're always checking social media. So that part of it I thought was, quite brilliant. There's an interesting character here. In actuality, the novel is told through alternating points of view. So Jivan is one and we also have PT Sir—such an interesting character to me. I see him as this perfectly likable fellow, but he's also someone who is so easily swayed to do something questionable and make himself believe that it's okay to defend the whims of basically a corrupt person. And he just becomes blinded by the attention that he seems to be getting perhaps for the first time in his life from the leader of this group. He’s then called on to be a character witness to further call into question the integrity of poor Jivan. So where did the idea of this character come from? He's such a different sort of character.

MM: So PT Sir is a physical education teacher in India. We call them physical training teachers [in India]. So that's how his name is “PT Sir.” He teaches at this girls’ school. He has a very ordinary life. And one day he comes upon this political rally and becomes drawn to this crowd and the energy and fervor of that crowd. Slowly he starts becoming involved in this right-wing political party. I think what I wanted to explore through this character is the life of a person who, like you said, is not evil. He's not a villain. He's just an ordinary person who sees a chance to grasp at a little bit of political power in a society with huge power differentials. I wanted to see what will such a person do to secure his hold on that power. How far will he go? How much will he hold onto his morals and personal ethics and how much will he sacrifice? And again, it was very important to me to write somebody who is complex and not flat so that his rise through this political party doesn't make him a villain.

YB: That's one of the things that I find. He is a very likable person and it is simply because of how complex he is. No one is 100% good and no one is 100% evil in these sorts of morality plays we might see in other contexts, but he is somebody who is just taken up in that moment where he's getting some attention. That's quite human. I think it’s a very human quality. And then in this sort of trifecta of points of view…and there are other points of view that come into play as well…but the central ones, the third one rounding them out is the character of Lovely. So here we have, again, another kind of unlikely character now, and not to give too much away about the novel, but she’s trans. She would be reviled, even ostracized in many contexts, perhaps, but she emerges in this novel, as a force. Where did Lovely come from?

MM: Lovely. Her life is lived at the intersection of all of these different kinds of marginalization—in terms of gender, in terms of class. She makes a living performing at weddings and different ceremonies and sometimes also begging for money on local trains. Here’s this person who has all of these different forms of oppression acting upon her life who decides that her dream is the wildest dream that any of us could have, which is to be a movie star. She takes these budget acting classes in order to fulfill her dream of becoming this movie star. I wanted to see how somebody who is oppressed and is marginalized in all of these ways still never surrenders her determination, her humor, her particular intelligence. I wanted to write a kind of joyous and determined arc for this person, a person who is funny and brings a kind of laughter and joy and pleasure into the book. And one element of Lovely that I really felt strongly about was also that she is somebody who struggled to learn English. She is not a reader. She does not care very much for books and I as a person who is a writer—and also I work as an editor of books—I wanted to really write a character who is not served by books and acknowledge that books do nothing for her. I wanted to hold that truth alongside the truth of how much I personally love books.

YB: That is so interesting. There’s something about that character. So you made obviously the deliberate choice for those sections. Lovely’s sections are in first person point of view, and we can hear her. We can hear her English. We can hear what she has learned perhaps from a Jivan. It’s just such a natural and free sort of diction and she is just who she is.

MM: Yes. I made that choice for her language because you know, English in India…and I think anybody who is South Asian will recognize this English holds a particular baggage in India. It's the language of moving forward. It's the language of modernity and improving your life. Or that’s how it's presented to you anyway. So the struggle to learn English also represents the struggle to gain a better life for yourself. I wanted to show through Lovely’s language and how she speaks, how she struggles with that, how she struggles with this expectation to learn English. But at the same time, there is so much about her that is kind of bold and defiant and refuses to be boxed in.

YB: Yeah. And of all of the things that she wants to dedicate her life to it's performing and being on the stage and exposed and really revealing exactly who she is. She's such an interesting character. I enjoyed all of the references to these aspirational things, from the culture, like the mention of Shahrukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra.

MM: Bollywood.

YB: Well, that was quite welcome. I just love seeing that interplay of how it's such a fact of life. The TV shows that PT Sir’s wife, watches. I just found those references so realistically drawn in the novel.

MM: I’m so glad that you read it with so much care and picked up on that, because that form of aspiration is really such a big part of what I wanted to write about. That you watch these cooking shows online and you see people using ingredients that are not available anywhere around you, like, you know, whipped cream from a can, that kind of thing. So the whole drive of the book comes from the aspirations of these people to live a better life, to have a chance at a better life. I think the book really wants to explore what happens when that opportunity is denied.

YB: Yes, because life is difficult enough. Then to have these sort of trumped up charges that Jivan has to deal with? It just seems in very difficult moments like it's just this irremediable situation, the things that she's encountering just as any person in any quotidian space, right? Where she's fretting about her father having to go to the doctor, or she's maybe not seeing eye to eye with her mom and things like that. And then this other thing happens that's way beyond her ability to defend herself. The power structure and the power disparity that has just consumed her and taken over her life is really just such a dramatic thing that's happening to her. Then we see it's sort of adjacent to what we're seeing as these very, very human qualities with PT Sir and the things that he's doing. And then Lovely too. I mean, it's sort of like everybody here, for as magnified as the situations seem—and they are very dramatic when you look at them very closely—they’re really sort of things of the everyday that they're trying to manage. I hope then that it's not too much of a stretch to try to understand parts of this world and then an examination of this story as a way to understand our current situation, even in the United States.

MM: I agree. Yeah.

YB: Had you considered that while you were working on it?

MM: That's a great question. I think I was definitely driven by observing the rise of the right around the world, certainly in the U S certainly in India, in central Europe and Brazil, and all over the world. And I think I did want to write about how people hold big dreams and chase a better life when the institutions and systems don't serve them. And especially with the ascendance of the right and with the ascendance of a kind of extreme nationalism and hatred of the Other. I was living in the U.S. while I wrote this. So even though I was reflecting on India, I'm sure that what was happening in the U.S. also played into the book. I think I have been thinking about how during this pandemic, the ways in which people are not served by their leaders has become very clear. And that is a big part of the book—It is to ask, well, how do we live in such a society and how do we move forward when we know that our leaders are not working for us and they do not care for our welfare. So certainly, I hope that even though the book is very specifically about India, I hope that it has resonance for people reading it here in the U.S. and thinking about injustice in their own communities.

YB: You know, I just cannot imagine that people will not see those parallels. There's something about PT Sir in particular. He’s just such a vulnerable guy and he is, just ripe for the manipulations that he just falls for. And he feels seen--sort of. He feels like somebody is paying attention to him and, and he's important and he matters. And then just as easily, you realize in nearly every scene where he wants to believe this, he still is sort of fading back into the woodwork a little bit. It’s just something he keeps sort of feeding and plodding along. He can't help himself. Again, it’s a very human thing. There was a moment early on with him when I sort of had this idea that he seems like people certainly in the United States who have felt unseen or unheard, and then they might be contributing to another problem ultimately by feeling that they can give their allegiance to something that seems to be acknowledging their existence. It's very sad. It's a very sad thing to think about.

MM: Absolutely. I am so grateful for the level of attention and care and creativity. You brought to the book in your own reading.