William Faulkner claimed that he wrote “As I Lay Dying” in six weeks, and the speed makes sense—it comports with the quick intimacy of the book’s form, in which a chorus of first-person narrators plunge us into their soliloquies. This novel, hovering somewhere between the older epistolary structure and pure dramatic monologue—between correspondence and a playscript—becomes magically liberated from the more burdensome narrative machinery, that wheezing apparatus of persuasion and pastness. Instead, we get the immediacy of voice, characters pressing themselves on us without any apparent authorial filter in a continuous oral present, even when they are relating their own histories. This is the form that Megha Majumdar uses for her first novel, “A Burning” (Knopf); she may have taken six weeks or six years to write it, but her book has a similar urgency of appeal. Its characters are at the very front of the stage, and we can feel their breath.
Majumdar marshals a much smaller cast of speakers than Faulkner did, and her spare plot moves with arrowlike determination. It begins with a crime, continues with a false charge and imprisonment, and ends with a trial. The book has some of the elements of a thriller or a police procedural, but one shouldn’t mistake its extraordinary directness and openness to life with the formulaic accelerations of genre: Majumdar’s novel is compelling, yet its compulsions have to do with an immersive present rather than with a skidding sequence. Her characters start telling us about their lives, and those lives are suddenly palpable, vital, voiced. I can’t remember when I last read a novel that so quickly dismantled the ordinary skepticism that attends the reading of made-up stories. Early Naipaul comes to mind as a precursor, and perhaps Akhil Sharma’s stupendously vivid novel “Family Life.” Sharma has spoken of how he avoided using “sticky” words—words involving touch and taste and smell—so as to enable a natural velocity; Majumdar finds her own way of achieving the effect.
“A Burning” is about the fateful interactions of three principal characters, who take turns sharing their narratives. At its center is a young Muslim woman named Jivan, who lives in the slums of Kolkata, and who witnesses a terrorist incident that tips her life into turmoil. A halted train at a nearby station is firebombed, and the ensuing inferno kills more than a hundred people. At home, Jivan makes the mistake of posting a politically risky question on Facebook—“If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?”—which attracts official attention. The police come for her in the middle of the night. Everything fits: she was seen at the railway station, carrying some kind of package; clothes soaked in kerosene are found at her home; she has been chatting with a “terrorist recruiter” on Facebook; above all, she is, conveniently, poor and Muslim. She is charged with the crime, and spends the rest of the novel in prison, awaiting a trial that will not occur for a year.
There are two people whose testimony could save Jivan, and much of the novel turns on their capacity and their willingness to offer it. One is an aspiring actress named Lovely, who also lives in the slum. Lovely—the name she took at eighteen—is a so-called hijra, a designation that affords intersex and transgender people a recognized status, but a perilously ambiguous and marginal one. She lives in a group house with other hijras; the little community survives by offering occasional “blessings” (for a marriage, a birth), and by begging. With characteristic buoyancy, Lovely calls herself a “he-she” and a “half-half,” and her jaunty, theatrical, yearning voice dominates the book. It is introduced with quick, fearless simplicity:
Jivan has been teaching Lovely to read English; the package that she was carrying on the day of the incident contained some books that she was taking to her student. Throughout the novel, Majumdar uses the continuous present tense (“I am abandoning my stylish walk”) and various eccentricities of phrasing (“the fruits of his wristwatch”) to “sound” Lovely’s Bengali into English. This, along with the character’s hardened esprit of the streets, lofts her off the page:
The third protagonist, a physical-education teacher called PT Sir, knew Jivan when she was one of the “charity students” at S. D. Gosh Girls’ School. Impressed by Jivan’s athletic prowess, he took an interest in her, gave her extra food, hoped that she might consider him a mentor. But she left school early, and never acknowledged the relationship. Unlike the two other principals, PT Sir is represented in a close third-person present, a voice no less alive than the self-presentations of Jivan and Lovely, but one which appropriately distances us from this stiffly moralizing man of military bearing. When PT Sir sees a news report about the arrest, his mild estrangement curdles into righteous condemnation:
Majumdar finds all the resources she needs within this tightly bound trio, steadily widening the novel’s vision of Kolkatan, and Indian, life. Jivan—independent and intelligent, living at home but mentally elsewhere—had been on the way up: “From an eater of cabbage, I was becoming an eater of chicken.” She was working as a shop assistant in a clothing store called Pantaloons; she had bought a smartphone on an installment plan. In prison, she is now among the outcasts: “We feel we are living at the bottom of a well. We are frogs.” Her companions include Yashwi, who has robbed houses: “In one of them she left a grandfather tied up so tight he suffocated. But she is a nice girl, always smiling.” And Nirmaladi, who used to work as a cook, “until she accepted twenty thousand rupees for putting rat poison in a family’s lunch.” And Kalkidi, whose husband threw acid on her face, “but, somehow, she is the one in jail.” Jivan is visited by an apparently sympathetic journalist, and the encounter allows Majumdar to fill in a little backstory. We hear something about Jivan’s parents: her father is a former rickshaw driver stricken with back problems; her mother, weather permitting, buys food at an illegal night market and cooks meals to sell on the street at dawn. When she was attacked after visiting the market one night, Jivan decided to drop out of school and get a job. And their house—a single room of brick, tin, and tarp near a garbage dump, “a dump that was so big and occupied by so many crows screaming kaw kaw from dawn to night, it was famous,” Jivan recounts. “I would say, ‘I live in the house behind the dump,’ and everybody would know where I meant. You could say I lived in a landmark building.”
Majumdar has a gift for using small details and fleeting incidents to nudge her fiction into larger suggestion. Sometimes it’s a phrase—walls “plump with damp”—or a poignant shorthand, like the one with which Jivan evokes her mother’s awkward inaccessibility at home: “Then my mother cooked, hidden in the kitchen. An atmosphere of smoke and chili about her deterred conversation.” When Jivan is arrested, her mother tries to visit her at the police station, and Majumdar’s minimal description of her approaching the guards—“the stooped woman who came right up to them, her feet in bathroom slippers”—concisely renders a powerlessness the mother herself doesn’t grasp. Elsewhere, Majumdar gets a brief scene to shimmer. In prison, Jivan insists that she has the “right” to tell her side of the story to the press. “You have the right?” one of the inmates replies, mockingly: “Under a smile she buries all else she meant to say.” When the journalist tells Jivan that his editor will make her story “better,” she laughs in bemusement. Her story would be better, she says, if her father had not broken his back, if her mother had not been attacked, if she had finished school. “Not better like that,” the journalist says. “Then like what?” Jivan asks.
Generally, Majumdar abjures commentary and interior analysis in favor of incident, the decisive ramifications of action. In masterly fashion, she uses very few strokes to help us see how PT Sir begins to transform himself from a modest schoolteacher to a government official. One day, on his way home from the school, he is drawn to a rally held by the Jana Kalyan (“Well being for All”) Party, a stand-in for one of India’s regional parties. A Bollywood star is headlining the event; groups of men are waving saffron-colored flags. PT Sir is handed a Party flag and his forehead is smeared with red paste: he’s in. At the rally, he’s at first merely curious, even disdainful of the thronged, uneducated supporters, lured from the local villages “by a free box of rice and chicken.” But then one of these men gets up on the roof of a car and starts yelling “Praise to the Motherland!” PT Sir watches as the man pulls a dagger from the waistband of his trousers and waves it in the air, where it glints in the sun. Alarmed, admiring, he thinks how free this man seems, how unlike his colleagues at school. Later, on the train home, a muri walla, a puffed-rice seller, sees the red mark on PT Sir’s forehead and the Party flag in his hand, and deferentially gives him a free portion of food: “For you, no charge.” PT Sir “feels the other passengers staring at him. They must be thinking, who is this VIP?” His status has just changed; a fuse has been lit. Gradually, PT Sir will bind himself ever more tightly to the inner workings of the anti-Muslim Jana Kalyan Party.
Plot is essentially about desire and obstruction, and the question of whether that obstruction is removed or solidified. Majumdar’s story is, in this sense, classically simple. The two protagonists who may be able to save Jivan find themselves unwilling or unable to do so; at the same time, their own prospects brighten at the cost of Jivan’s freedom, and in relation to their connection to her. PT Sir soon has reason to see that she is roundly condemned, not least because his former association with her is part of what originally made him attractive to the Party leader, Bimala Pal. Lovely, so desperate to break into the movie business, is at last noticed by agents and directors because of her link to the infamous Jivan; yet, the more distance she puts between herself and her former teacher, the more employable she becomes.
It’s only at the end of this brief, brave novel that one becomes fully aware of how broad its judgments have been, how fierce and absolute its condemnations. Through the gaps that open up among and behind these three characters, a large Indian panoply emerges. The book’s surface realism—that great boon to writers—is abundant and busy and life-sown: muri wallas, pillow-fillers, guava sellers, a man who grinds tobacco in his palm, not to mention theatrical agents, schoolteachers, hijras, criminals, and criminal politicians. But the system that at once supports and undermines this diverse vitality is seen with an unrelentingly cold authorial eye, in all its small and large corruption, its frozen inequality, murderous racism, political opportunism, and unalleviated poverty. At the same time, because societies are complex, and because Megha Majumdar is a sophisticated student of that complexity, her novel gains flight as a tale of competing dynamism. Her three ambitious and intelligent characters are all moving up, out of the class they were born into; Jivan’s plight is that this ambition, forced by circumstance into a desperate resolve, involves a struggle that she seems fated to lose.