INTRODUCTION BY MARIS KREIZMAN
As a voracious reader of new releases it is thrilling for me to discover a voice that is unlike anything else I’ve ever read before. Megha Majumdar, then, is a revelation, and her debut novel is a perfect example of why contemporary fiction is so exciting—there may be no “new” ideas but there are extraordinary new ways to express them from perspectives that are less than familiar.
A Burning transpires with such urgency that I turned the pages as quickly as I could, so eager was I to cram the whole thing into my brain. Then I went back and read it again, more slowly this time. Majumdar’s debut is not only exquisitely paced—it’s a rich character study of three different citizens of modern-day India and the ambitions and fears that drive them. Jivan is a Muslim girl who dreams of leaving the slums of Bengal and making her way into India’s middle class. When she makes one angry Facebook comment via her newly acquired smartphone, the trajectory of her life changes completely and she narrates many spare, anguished chapters from prison. Her former high school gym teacher, PT Sir, has aspirations to rise in a political party that is openly corrupt and unjust. In this excerpt, we are introduced to PT Sir at the moment he begins to attach himself to that political party. The effervescent Lovely, meanwhile, is a Hijra (an Indian transgender woman) who yearns to be a famous actress even as she grapples with her uneven standing in her country—her status lies somewhere between worship and ridicule.
Set in India but impossible to read without considering the political, cultural, religious, and economic oppression that takes place throughout the world, A Burning illustrates what happens when systemic subjugation frustrates one’s ability to be the protagonist in one’s own story.
How lucky we are to be here for the fiery start of Megha Majumdar’s writing career.
Author of Slaughterhouse 90210
A Rally for the Right-Wing Cult of Personality
An Excerpt from A Burning
by Megha Majumdar
At the end of a school day, when the bottoms of his trousers are soiled, PT Sir holds his bag in his armpit and exits the building. Outside, the narrow lane is crowded with schoolgirls who part for him. Now and then a student calls, “Good afternoon, sir!”
PT Sir nods. But these girls, to whom he taught physical training just hours before, have hiked up their skirts and coiled their hair into topknots. Their fingers are sticky with pickled fruit. They are talking about boys. He can no longer know them, if he ever did.
When the lane opens up onto the main road, PT Sir is startled by a caravan of trucks roaring past. Three and four and five rush by in a scream of wind. Young men sit in the open truck-beds, their faces skinny and mustached, their hands waving the saffron flags of ardent nationalism. One young man tucks his fingers in his mouth and whistles.
At the train station, PT Sir stands at his everyday spot, anticipating roughly where a general compartment door will arrive. He is leaning to look down the tracks when an announcement comes over the speakers. The train will be thirty minutes late.
“Thirty minutes meaning one hour minimum!” complains a fellow passenger. This man sighs, turns around, and walks away. PT Sir takes out his cell phone, a large rectangle manufactured by a Chinese company, and calls his wife.
“Listen,” he says, “the train is going to be late.”
“What?” she shouts.
“Late!” he shouts back. “Train is late! Can you hear?”
After the terrorist attack, just a few days ago, the word “train” frightens her. “What happened now?” she says. “Are things fine?”
“Yes, yes! All fine. They are saying ‘technical difficulty.’”
PT Sir holds the phone at his ear and surveys the scene in front. Passengers arrive, running, then learn about the delay and filter away. To those who spread out the day’s newspaper on the floor and relax on it, a girl sells salted and sliced cucumber. In his ear, PT Sir’s wife says, “Fine then. Can you bring half-kilo of tomatoes? There is that market just outside your station.”
A spouse always has ideas about how you should spend your time. Couldn’t he have enjoyed thirty minutes to himself, to drink a cup of tea and sit on the platform?
PT Sir goes to look for tomatoes. Outside the station, on the road where taxis and buses usually honk and curse, nearly scraping one another’s side mirrors, all traffic has halted. Motorcyclists use their feet to push forward. PT Sir learns, from a man who grinds tobacco in his palm, that there is a Jana Kalyan Party rally, a rally of the Wellbeing for All Party, in the field nearby. It is the biggest opposition party in the state. Film star Katie Banerjee is speaking at the rally.
Katie Banerjee! Now, PT Sir thinks, is it better to spend twenty minutes looking for tomatoes, or catching a glimpse of the famous Katie? Tomatoes can be found anywhere. In fact, tomatoes can be bought ten minutes from his house at the local market—why doesn’t his Mrs. go there?
So he follows the street, which opens up onto a field, trampled free of grass. The crowd, a thousand men or more, waves the familiar saffron flags. They whistle and clap. Some men cluster around an enterprising phuchka walla, a seller of spiced potato stuffed in crisp shells, who has set up his trade. The scent of cilantro and onion carries. On all the men’s foreheads, even the phuchka walla’s, PT Sir sees a smear of red paste, an index of worship—of god, of country. The men, marked by the divine, wear pants whose bottoms roll under their feet, and hop up now and then to see what is happening. The stage is far away.
“Brother,” he says to a young man. He surprises himself with his friendly tone. “Brother, is it really Katie Banerjee up there?”
The young man looks at him, hands PT Sir a small party flag from a grocery store bag full of them, and calls a third man. “Over here, come here!” he yells. Soon that man rushes over, holding a dish of red paste. He dips his thumb in the paste and marks PT Sir’s forehead, drawing a red smear from brow to hairline. All PT Sir can do is accept, a child being blessed by an elder.
Thus marked, party flag in his hand, PT Sir steps forward to hear better. On stage, it is indeed movie star Katie Banerjee, dressed in a starched cotton sari. She, too, is marked by holy red paste on her forehead, PT Sir sees. Her speech drawing to a close, she raises both hands in a namaste. “You all have come from far districts of the state,” she says, “for that you have my thanks. Go home safely, carefully.”
The microphone crackles. The crowd roars.
When the star leaves the stage, her place at the microphone is occupied by the second-in-command of the party. Bimala Pal, no more than five feet two, arrives in a plain white sari, her steel wristwatch flashing in the sun. The crowd quiets for her. PT Sir holds the flag above his head for shade, then tries his small leather bag, which works better.
In the microphone, Bimala Pal cries, her words echoing over the speakers: “We will seek justice (ice)! For the lives lost in this cowardly (ardly) attack (tack) on the train (train)! I promise you (you)!”
After a minute of silence for the lost souls, she continues, pausing for the echoes to fade, “Where the current government (government) is not able to (to) feed our people (people)! Jana Kalyan Party (party)—your idle government’s hard-working opposition!—has provided rice (ice) to fourteen (teen) districts (icts) for Rs. 3 per kilo (kilo)! We are inviting plastics and cars (cars), factories which will bring at least fifteen thousand jobs (jobs)—”
While PT Sir watches, a man wearing a white undershirt pulls himself up, or is pushed up by the crowd, onto the hood of a jeep far ahead of him. PT Sir had not noticed the jeep until now, but there it is, a vehicle in the middle of the field, still a distance from the stage. The man stands on the hood of the car, surveying the raised arms, the open mouths and stained teeth. Then he climbs a step up onto the roof of the car, the car now rocking from the crowd shoving and slamming, their fury and laughter landing on the polished body of the vehicle.
“Fifteen thousand jobs!” they chant. “Fifteen thousand jobs!”
Whether they are excited or merely following instructions from party coordinators is hard to tell. A few TV cameras will pick this up, no doubt.
“We know (know) that you are sacrificing (ficing) every day!” Bimala Pal calls, shouting into the microphone. “And for what? Don’t you deserve (serve) more opportunities (ies)? This party is standing with you to gain those jobs (obs), every rupee of profit (profit) that you are owed, every day of school (ool) for your children!” Bimala Pal pumps a fist in the air.
PT Sir watches, electricity coursing despite himself. Here, in the flesh, are the people of the hinterland about whom he has only seen features on TV. He knows a few things about them: Not only is there no work in their village, there is not even a paved road! Not only is the factory shut down, but the company guard is keeping them from selling the scrap metal!
“Remember that this nation belongs to you, not to the rich few in their highrises or the company bosses in their big cars, but you!” Bimala Pal wraps up. “Vande Mataram!”
Praise to the motherland!
The man at the top of the car repeats, screaming, “Vande Mataram!”
PT Sir might have thought that this man, along with hundreds, has been trucked here from a village, his empty belly lured by a free box of rice and chicken, his fervor purchased for one afternoon. He might have thought that, for these unemployed men, this rally is more or less a day’s job. The party is feeding them when the market is not.
But the man’s cries make the hairs on PT Sir’s arm stand up, and what is false about that?
The man on the car lifts up his shirt and reveals, tucked in the waistband of his trousers, wrapped in a length of cloth, a dagger. He holds the handle and lifts it high in the air, where the blade catches the sun. Below him, surrounding the car, a man dances, then another, and another, a graceless dance of feeling.
The dagger stays up in the air, itself a sun above the field, and PT Sir looks at it, frozen in alarm and excitement. How spirited this man is, with his climb atop a jeep like a movie hero, with his dagger and his dancing. How different from all the schoolteachers PT Sir knows. How free.
When the men begin to tire, a coordinator announces, “Brothers and sisters! There are buses! To take you home! Please do not rush! Do not stampede! Everyone will be taken home free of charge!”
PT Sir returns to the train station. He has missed the delayed train, and when the next one comes, he finds an aisle seat, tucking his behind, the fifth, into a seat meant for three. The soles of his feet itch, reminding him they have been bearing his weight for much of the day. Somebody shoves past, dragging a sack over his toes. The person is gone before PT Sir can say anything. A woman then stands beside him, her belly protruding at his ear, and her purse threatening to strike him in the face at any moment. In this crowd, a muri walla, a puffed rice seller, makes his way. “Muri, muri!” he calls. The coach groans.
“Today out of all days!” comes the woman’s loud voice above his head. “First the delay, now there is no place to stand, and you have to sell muri here?”
“Harassment, that’s what this is,” says a voice from somewhere behind PT Sir. “This commute is nothing less than daily harassment!”
“Here, here, muri walla,” somebody objects. “Give me two.”
“And one here!” someone else calls.
The muri walla mixes mustard oil, chopped tomato and cucumber, spiced lentil sticks and puffed rice in a tin. He shakes a jar of spices upside down. Then he pours the muri into a bowl made of newsprint.
PT Sir’s stomach growls. He lifts his buttocks to try to reach his wallet.
“And one muri this way!” he says. “How much?”
The muri walla makes him a big bowl, heaping at the top.
“Don’t worry,” he says, handing the bowl to PT Sir. “For you, no charge.”
“No charge?” says PT Sir. He laughs, holding the bowl, unsure whether it is truly his to eat. Then he remembers: the red mark on his forehead, the party flag in his lap. PT Sir feels the other passengers staring at him. They must be thinking, who is this VIP?
At home, after dinner, PT Sir sits back in his chair, gravy-wet fingers resting atop his plate, and tells his wife, “Strange thing happened today. Are you listening?”
His wife is thin and short, her hair plaited such that it needs no rubber band at its taper. When she looks at him from her chair, it appears she has forgiven him for the forgotten tomatoes.
Something has happened at the school, she thinks. A man teaching physical training to a group of girls, all of whom are growing breasts, their bellies cramping during menstruation, their skirts stained now and then. A bad situation is bound to arise.
“What happened?” she says fearfully.
“There was a Jana Kalyan rally in the field behind the station,” he begins, “then one man climbed on a car—understand? climbed on top of a car—and took out. Tell me what he took out!”
“How will I know?” she says. When she bites into a milksweet, white crumbs fall on her plate. “Gun, or what?”
“Dagger!” he says, disappointed. The truth is always modest. He goes on, “But Katie Banerjee was there—”
“Then Bimala Pal also was there. Say what you like about her, she is a good orator. And she was saying some correct things, you know. Her speech was good.”
His wife’s face sours. She pushes back her chair and its legs scrape the floor. “Speech sheech,” she says. “She is pandering to all these unemployed men. This is why our country is not going anywhere.”
“They are feeding a lot of people with discounted rice,” he says. “And they are going to connect two hundred villages, two hundred, to the electricity grid in two years—”
“You,” says his wife, “believe everything.”
PT Sir smiles at her. When she disappears into the kitchen, he gets up and washes his hands clean of turmeric sauce on a towel that was once white.
He understands how his wife feels. If you only watch the news on TV, it is easy to be skeptical. But what is so wrong about the common people caring about their jobs, their wages, their land? And what, after all, is so wrong about him doing something different from his schoolteacher’s job? Today he did something patriotic, meaningful, bigger than the disciplining of cavalier schoolgirls—and it was, he knows as he lies in bed, no sleep in his humming mind, exciting.