Telling the India story, one dream at a time

The Asian Age.  | Sucheta Dasgupta

'A Burning' is an intimate and clear-eyed rendering of the lives and dreams of three people

Cover of 'A Burning' by Megha Majumdar.


A certain solipsism tends to pervade works by modern-day Indian English litterateurs, whether in the themes chosen by them or in the style of their exposition, which recently led one of them to dryly compare them to the musings of diarists who survived, trite or profound. Refreshingly, for story lovers, this novel takes a giant step away from all that.

A Burning is an intimate and clear-eyed rendering of the lives and dreams of three people — a readymade garments showroom salesgirl who wants to be independent and affluent like a ‘city girl’, a traditional transgender with an acting dream and a simple-minded physical education teacher who is stern and loving to his wards in the old style but is also motivated by a gung-ho patriotism that germinates in him an incremental desire for acquiring the charisma of leadership. The story is set in Kolkata, with a few, unobtrusive “fabled city” references. In a moment of do-gooder sentimentalism, the girl reacts to a video on Facebook, and she is promptly arrested and jailed for connivance in a train burning. It is almost coincidental that the girl is Muslim.

It is a simple enough storyline, hence so much for spoilers. The writing keeps you holding on to the edges of your seat. Right up to the very end of it.

As the life of the bhadrolok, the genteel, in West Bengal grows smaller and smaller, and staler and staler, A Burning takes a hard individualist look at the lives of the modern marginalised, shunning broad collective assumptions, thus humanising them. Characterisation is the writer’s forte. In telling the characters’ stories, the writer candidly describes their weaknesses, without judgment or evaluation, which lends a strange tenderness in the reader’s mind when they witness their individual denouements. A reader of Bengali literature is reminded of the Bengali tragic realist literary tradition (Samaresh Basu et al.) that the writing, probably organically, reproduces.

The writer writes large parts of the novel in pidgin English. For example, she writes the voice of the hijra in the present continuous tense. Just like the Internet meme, lolcats, has bad grammar; it accurately portrays the hijra’s stream of consciousness. What is remarkable is the writer’s confidence that it will all work out well.

Is the novel political? That is the question many readers will ask. Do you agree with its politics, if any? The answer intrigues.

Slim at 300 pages, linear, intense and imbued with a spare, almost short story-like beauty, A Burning stands out with the lambent perfection of a single lily rather than an awe-inspiringly elaborate, non-linear, surrealist/speculative/magical realist, multi-dimensional, dazzling rose of a story. And it is, in fact, flawless, save for its lack of closer attention to bleeding heart liberals, a group that forms an important part of the dynamic. They are equally culpable in what this study aims to criticise. And they shift shape. The media, for instance, in this story could have been that group, but you cannot be sure, as there isn’t a clue. However, you will hardly regret the hours spent between the pages of this burning exposé and exposition of a book.

A Burning

Megha Majumdar

Penguin Random House

Rs 599