Foreign Policy

A portrait of India on hearth

"Is it a crime to write a few words on Facebook?"

Asks Jivan, the young protagonist of Megha Majumdar's powerful debut novel A Burning, after being falsely accused of working with a terrorist on social media. Over a hundred people were killed in an attack on a train station near their slum in Calcutta, and tensions are high. Given what is happening to her, Jivan could have asked her differently: Is it a crime to be born into a poor family in India? To be muslim? To be a woman? To imagine a better life, driven by their meager salary as a retail salesman and animated by their new smartphone?

A burning sensationMegha Majumdar, Knopf, 304 p., $ 25.95, June 2020

Of course, Jivan's Facebook post that started the novel was badly advised – especially given the reality of today's India with its rise in nationalism and the increasing suppression of free speech. "If the police didn't help ordinary people like you and me when the police saw them die, doesn't that mean the government is a terrorist too?" She writes. Whatever the police and government are, they know a good scapegoat when they see one. They arrest Jivan, accuse them of turmoil and detain them as an Indian public and a Jingoistic media bay for the death penalty. (It's no coincidence that Majumdar, who grew up in Calcutta, gave her character a name that means "life" in Bengali.)

And so begins Majumdar's abolition of the term Indian dream – the promise of social mobility, if not wealth, in one of the most class and caste-bound societies in the world – operated by the current government under Narendra Modi and mimicked by most Indians becomes a TV news channel.

Let's take Jivan, an impoverished Muslim slum dweller. Even before she was locked up, she had little chance of getting up. (Once she sees a man in a clean shirt and shiny shoes and wishes she could be as rich as he was. But she realizes: "Of course he was not rich. Later I learned that what he was was called middle class . ") When Jivan tells her life story to a corrupt reporter in prison, Majumdar's prose comes to life and reminds us of a woman who thinks she has an agency, but whose life was doomed from the start. She reveals every aspect of the Indian system: the police, social services, real estate agents, doctors and more. Jivan naively declares her innocence to the press in the hope that she will get a fair hearing.

Fat chance. The only good thing that ever happened to Jivan is that an NGO sponsored her education at a private school for girls. Education should give her a passport for a better life – the ability to speak English. But life intervened: after passing her 10th grade exams, Jivan dropped out to support her parents. Jivan's mother searches for fish and vegetables at an illegal night market and runs a poor shop selling bread and curries outside the family home. Her father, who was permanently injured by police brutality, usually lies on his back at home.

For someone with so little, Jivan has a lot to give. Before she was locked up, she spent her free time giving free English classes to an aspiring actress named Lovely. Lovely is a hijra – part of a community of mainly eunuchs, but also intersex and transgender people, both of whom are adoredberated in Indian society for its supposed ability to bless or curse babies and newlyweds. They are often paid for their services, but it is common for them to beg in markets and on the street. Hijras dress in colorful saris and are known for throwing out bawdy songs. Majumdar masterfully translates Lovely's voice – and her Bollywood dreams – by writing her dialogue in the present and maintaining the singing rhythms of Bengali:

I go into a room and stand nervously in front of a theoretical camera, not a theoretical camera. It is balanced on a tripod and it flashes red. The man with the sleepy eyes is behind it, and although I don't like him and he doesn't like me, I feel like a real actress. I look at the lens and know – through this lens I will one day reach a thousand people, a million people.

PT Sir, Jivan's former physical education teacher, completes a triptych of the main characters. Everyday life in school and the mockery and giggles of schoolgirls who are much richer than him wear him down. But soon PT Sir – his sobriquet comes from his work as a sports teacher – began to develop character and rose to the ranks of a regional right-wing political party. Majumdar puts us in his thoughts:

He lies with his head on his thin pillow and wonders why his wife cannot tolerate something exciting that is going on in his life. She is upset, he feels, because he didn't have a big appetite for the yogurt fish that she cooked. She is upset because he has filled his belly with Biryani bought in the store. But he's a man! He is a man of greater skill than the dinner she cooks.

Will Jivan get a fair trial in the Indian legal system? Spoiler alarm: Of course not. The stories of the three main characters and the structure up to the moment we experience Jivan's fate are a real page turner – even if the result seems obvious all the time. PT Sir, who has the chance of redemption, misses the opportunity to say something good about his former student when called to the witness stand. While Lovely is at least trying to defend Jivan, the judge rejects “the word of a hijra”. Later, shortly before the video became famous, even Lovely agrees to appease her studio and drop her politically harmful support for Jivan. In Majumdars India everyone has a price.

Illustration by AJ Dungo for foreign policy

What makes Majumdar's novel so special? So convincing, up-to-date and driving – the new word "doomsurfing" comes to my mind – that Jivan's situation in today's India is at least initially plausible. (Disclosure: I met Majumdar for the first time in Kolkata, our hometown, about 14 years ago, and we've kept in touch since then.)

Freedom of the press dies when the Modi government punishes prominent journalists for their work. Publishers curb criticism of the authorities because they fear losing advertising that most media rely on. The mainstream news agencies have largely become compliant and accept the fact that Modi has ruled for six years without holding a single press conference. Since 2009, India has lost 37 places in Reporters Without Borders' annual press freedom ranking. But not only professional writers have suffered. A growing number of citizens – like the fictional Jivan – have been arrested or detained for posting comments that were critical of their chosen leaders. The police, especially in states controlled by Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata party, feel encouraged to defend their government and act accordingly.

Sometimes that means looking away. In March, as protests against a controversial citizenship law that discriminated against Muslims increased in New Delhi, the city's police were ready when Hindu mobs destroyed Muslim homes and businesses. For some years now and increasingly under modes, the police have also closed their eyes to vigilante groups roaming through suburbs and villages to punish Muslims suspected of killing cows, sometimes by lynching.

Cruelty has become banal in today's India. Consider that in March when New Delhi suddenly announced a nationwide ban to prevent the spread of the Corona virus, the government did not seem to think about the approximately 140 million migrant and day laborers who would be stuck in India's cities. Desperate and unable to make ends meet, most walked to their villages. (Many also carried the corona virus, which accelerated the spread of the pandemic.)

Majumdar's characters tell of several such crimes against the poor and voiceless in the country, many based on real events. At some point, PT Sir, now a political figure, delivers a campaign speech in a village when a rumor breaks out that a Muslim man is keeping beef in his fridge – a story that tells of a real incident in a village near New Delhi in a year 2015 reflects A Hindu mob breaks into his home, rapes his wife and kills him.

Majumdar cleverly puts the smartphone at the center of some of the novel's key themes. After all, with the spread of cheap smartphones, almost half of the country's population has gone online. For most Indians, the smartphone is not only their first internet device, but also their first computer and camera, a democratizing force that enables them to be digital citizens even when they don't speak English. The smartphone is the embodiment of the new Indian dream: it is a potential instrument for strengthening and even employment for an aspiring and entrepreneurial generation.

This fact makes Majumdar's shutdown more devastating. Jivan's first big purchase is a smartphone that she uses to read people's comments on Facebook, among other things. She is surprised that her carefree speech seems to be the definition of freedom. The Facebook algorithm and her desire for a few more likes prompt her to type in the words she admits: "Nobody like me should ever think, let alone write." When rumors and so-called fake news spread in India, it spreads on WhatsApp – a messaging app from Facebook that is used by more than 400 million Indians. It's no exaggeration to say that Facebook is the largest and most powerful misinformation provider in the world's largest democracy.

The things Jivan's boosters are said to drive and then boost India's success – cheap technology, democracy, justice, and the police – help spell their doom. The illusion of hope makes their eventual disappointment even more acute.

Majumdar's timing is either extremely happy or remarkably forward-looking. Her book is rising on the global bestseller lists, also thanks to his response this summer to discontent and despair, a time when public confidence in leadership and big tech is waning.

One reason why A Burning should appeal to readers unfamiliar with India is that the novel is not just a criticism of modern Indian society, but a universal parable about inequality. Systems promise a lot, but prove to be defective. Social mobility is exposed as a myth. Hope is an illusion. Anger is only natural. Jivan's story of treason through the country of her birth could resonate to some extent with black Americans, as protests against George Floyd's murder have illuminated the world's cities.

Burning will attract critics, especially in India, who say the country's portrayal is too bleak. And they will have a point. Despite all of its shortcomings, India has more robust checks and balances – and at least some redeeming features – than the novel suggests. For example, the country's legal system would almost certainly have moved Jivan's case to a higher court for closer examination. And there is no mention of civil society, which has shown encouraging resistance to government overruns and social injustice in recent years. In this sense, Jivan's story can look a bit fictitious. But the role of the writer is to acquire an artistic license, not just to describe how things are, but to warn what they could be. That makes A Burning such an important read. If Majumdar has tapped the rage of the moment, it is because her novel brilliantly examines some of the causes of helplessness that so many people are currently feeling. And we have to listen to these people because for many of them the only way forward seems to be to burn everything down.

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