A Burning

A Burning
By Megha Majumdar
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2020

Faced with a difficult moral choice, would you do the right thing?  What if doing the right thing might cost you your job or the chance of a promotion?   Would you do the right thing for someone you didn’t know very well?  What if their life was at stake?

A Burning, the debut novel by Megha Majumdar, tells the story of three people in contemporary Kolkata whose lives are braided together by chance, by the choices they make and by events beyond their control.

All three are trying to get ahead in life.  Jivan, a Muslim girl from the slums wants to make it into the middle class.  PT Sir, a physical education teacher, has discovered politics and is working his way up the ranks of a local political party.  And Lovely, possessing a vibrant personality and “half half” gender, takes acting classes and dreams of becoming a movie star.

Jivan is arrested and charged with terrorism due to a careless comment she makes on Facebook.  The other two are called upon to testify as character witnesses in her defense.  They’re reluctant to get involved, reluctant to engage with a notoriously corrupt justice system.  Will they do the right thing?  Even if it costs them their shot at power and stardom?

It’s summertime and I’ve taken a short break from non-fiction to read this novel.  I really enjoyed the writing in A Burning.  It’s well-paced and suspnseful. Majumdar has done a great job giving each of her characters clear and distinct voices.  You also get a vivid sense of the oppressive poverty, corruption, and discrimination they live under. I imagine Majumdar has drawn on her own experiences growing up in Kolkata. And that’s one reason it’s not exactly light reading.

For me the real impact of A Burning is that it calls on us to ask ourselves how we would act in similar situations.  Would we act at all?  Could we resist the pressures and the temptations?  Would we?

Hopefully, we’re not tested with life or death choices like the characters in the novel but even in small ways at school, at work, and in our communities, we have choices to make.  A Burning remidns us that our choices have consequences.

Have you read A Burning?  What did you think of it?  Any recommendations for similar books?

Thanks for reading.

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