A Burning by Megha Majumdar
Already garnering the kind of praise from high-profile authors and international reviewers that a debut author might only dare dream of, A Burning has the feel of one of the ‘must read’ titles of 2020. Written by an author born and raised in India, but now living and working in New York City, this book is a compellingly written portrait of contemporary life in Kolkata, but is also a story that taps into the issues facing many nations around the world: the building forces of conservative and nationalist interests; anti-Muslim sentiment and the impacts of religion in secular societies; the desires of the individual in a community; the impacts of poverty, inequality, corruption, racism, and terrorism; the traces we leave of ourselves on social media, and, chillingly, their potential to be our undoing.
These huge themes are played out in miniature, impacting a cast of small and ordinary lives. Three intertwined characters star here in alternating chapters, each episode as involving as the last. Propelling the chain of events is an ill-considered Facebook post made by Jivan in the wake of a terrorist attack. In the blink of an eye (or, more fittingly, in the time it takes to write a post), this young Muslim woman finds herself in deep trouble with the law, and at the mercy of a failing system of justice. PT Sir, the gym teacher at her former high school harbouring growing political ambitions, becomes implicated in her fate, as does Lovely, an aspiring Bollywood star to whom Jivan had been giving English lessons.
Most striking about this novel is the richness of detail that brings this captivating moral tale to life. If you read books for ‘feelings’ – both those the characters experience and your own as you read – then this book is for you. I couldn’t help but be caught in its grip. I think Megha Majumdar is a name we will come to know well; her talent for storytelling is undeniable.