A New York Times Notable Book
For readers of Tommy Orange, Yaa Gyasi, and Jhumpa Lahiri, an electrifying debut novel about three unforgettable characters who seek to rise—to the middle class, to political power, to fame in the movies—and find their lives entangled in the wake of a catastrophe in contemporary India.
In this National Book Award Longlist honoree and “gripping thriller with compassionate social commentary” (USA Today), Jivan is a Muslim girl from the slums, determined to move up in life, who is accused of executing a terrorist attack on a train because of a careless comment on Facebook. PT Sir is an opportunistic gym teacher who hitches his aspirations to a right-wing political party, and finds that his own ascent becomes linked to Jivan's fall. Lovely—an irresistible outcast whose exuberant voice and dreams of glory fill the novel with warmth and hope and humor—has the alibi that can set Jivan free, but it will cost her everything she holds dear.
Taut, symphonic, propulsive, and riveting from its opening lines, A Burning has the force of an epic while being so masterfully compressed it can be read in a single sitting. Majumdar writes with dazzling assurance at a breakneck pace on complex themes that read here as the components of a thriller: class, fate, corruption, justice, and what it feels like to face profound obstacles and yet nurture big dreams in a country spinning toward extremism. An extraordinary debut.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“You smell like smoke,” my mother said to me.
So I rubbed an oval of soap in my hair and poured a whole bucket of water on myself before a neighbor complained that I was wasting the morning supply.
There was a curfew that day. On the main street, a police jeep would creep by every half hour. Daily-wage laborers, compelled to work, would come home with arms raised to show they had no weapons.
In bed, my wet hair spread on the pillow, I picked up my new phone—purchased with my own salary, screen guard still attached.
On Facebook, there was only one conversation.
These terrorists attacked the wrong neighborhood #KolabaganTrainAttack #Undefeated
Friends, if you have fifty rupees, skip your samosas today and donate to—
The more I scrolled, the more Facebook unrolled.
This news clip exclusively from 24 Hours shows how—
Candlelight vigil at—
The night before, I had been at the railway station, no more than a fifteen-minute walk from my house. I ought to have seen the men who stole up to the open windows and threw flaming torches into the halted train. But all I saw were carriages, burning, their doors locked from the outside and dangerously hot. The fire spread to huts bordering the station, smoke filling the chests of those who lived there. More than a hundred people died. The government promised compensation to the families of the dead—eighty thousand rupees!—which, well, the government promises many things.
In a video, to the dozen microphones thrust at his chin, the chief minister was saying, “Let the authorities investigate.” Somebody had spliced this comment with a video of policemen scratching their heads. It made me laugh.
I admired these strangers on Facebook who said anything they wanted to. They were not afraid of making jokes. Whether it was about the police or the ministers, they had their fun, and wasn’t that freedom? I hoped that after a few more salary slips, after I rose to be a senior sales clerk of Pantaloons, I would be free in that way too.
Then, in a video clip further down the page, a woman came forward, her hair flying, her nose running a wet trail down to her lips, her eyes red. She was standing on the sloping platform of our small railway station. Into the microphone she screamed: “There was a jeep full of policemen right there. Ask them why they stood around and watched while my husband burned. He tried to open the door and save my daughter. He tried and tried.”
I shared that video. I added a caption.
Policemen paid by the government watched and did nothing while this innocent woman lost everything, I wrote.
I laid the phone next to my head, and dozed. The heat brought sleep to my eyes. When I checked my phone next, there were only two likes. A half hour later, still two likes.
Then a woman, I don’t know who, commented on my post, How do you know this person is not faking it? Maybe she wants attention!
I sat up. Was I friends with this person? In her profile picture she was posing in a bathroom.
Did you even watch the video? I replied.
The words of the heartless woman drifted in my mind. I was irritated by her, but there was excitement too. This was not the frustration of no water in the municipal pump or power cut on the hottest night. Wasn’t this a kind of leisure dressed up as agitation?
For me, the day was a holiday, after all. My mother was cooking fish so small we would eat them bones and tail. My father was taking in the sun, his back pain eased.
Under my thumb, I watched post after post about the train attack earn fifty likes, a hundred likes, three hundred likes. Nobody liked my reply.
And then, in the small, glowing screen, I wrote a foolish thing. I wrote a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write.
Forgive me, Ma.
If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean, I wrote on Facebook, that the government is also a terrorist?
Outside the door, a man slowly pedaled his rickshaw, the only passenger his child, the horn going paw paw for her glee.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s conversation about A Burning, the electrifying debut novel from Megha Majumdar.
1. In A Burning, Jivan’s social media usage ultimately leads her to become a victim of the state. Consider her statement: “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?” (pp. 5–6). How does this messaging reverberate throughout the novel? How is social media used both as a tool of activism and as a tool of repression in our current society? Have you ever felt at risk expressing your opinions on social media?
2. Why do you think Lovely dreams of becoming a movie star? How does this ambition relate to the instances of disrespect she faces in public, as well as to the ceremonies at which she is welcomed?
3. Shortly after her arrest, Jivan states: “A woman like me is never believed” (p. 22). Discuss the import of this statement for the overall narrative. What assumptions are made about Jivan based on her religion? Her socioeconomic standing? How does she try to defy societal expectations throughout her life?
4. Consider your initial impression of PT Sir. How would you describe his day-to-day life before he attends the rally? How did the rally change his point of view on political engagement?
5. Consider the two interstitial chapters that are written from the vantage point of Jivan’s mother and father. Why do you think the author chose to include these two brief scenes? How do they contribute to the emotional impact of the narrative? Describe Jivan’s relationship with her parents.
6. Discuss Jivan’s choice to involve a journalist in sharing her story. What are her initial impressions of Purnendu? Describe her childhood and the incidents that Purnendu chose to highlight. What does the tone of the final article imply about truth and narrative?
7. Consider the conditions of Jivan’s imprisonment. How does she conduct herself in her day-to-day life? Describe her relationship with the other incarcerated women. How does Jivan’s decision to bribe Americandi weigh on her conscience?
8. Throughout A Burning, there are scenes and moments in which a culture of violence against women is brought to the forefront. How do women in the novel navigate this expectation of violence and misogyny? How do they resist it?
9. Education plays an integral role in A Burning. How is the education system described? Consider PT Sir’s role within it and Jivan’s experience in his school. How does the act of learning English become a form of empowerment for her? For Lovely
10. Discuss “Interlude: The Villagers Visit the Beef-Eater.” How did this scene affect you as a reader? Consider how anti-Muslim rhetoric and action is depicted in the novel. What does the state’s indifference to this violence imply about the relationship between justice and power?
11. At several points in the novel, Jivan discusses her aspirations to become middle class. Describe the conditions of her childhood and how they are depicted in the narrative. What are some of Jivan’s earliest moments of class consciousness? What does being “middle-class” mean to her at different points in her life?
12. On page 98, Lovely states: “In this life, everybody is knowing how to give me shame. So I am learning how to reflect shame back on them also.” When does Lovely feel most comfortable in her identity? At what points does she seem to feel the most shame in the novel?
13. At several points in the novel, the reader witnesses characters become morally flexible as they strive to achieve personal goals. Who, in your opinion, is the most morally reprehensible?
14. What was the most surprising aspect of the novel? How did your understanding of various characters change over the course of the novel?
15. A Burning is a novel that meditates on issues of power and agency. How does power change PT Sir? Lovely? At what moment is Jivan most empowered? Did you find that this book helped you think about injustice, power, and agency in your own life and community? How so?