How “A Burning” grapples with India’s current political reality

25 June 2020
In some ways, A Burning reads terrorism in a manner that is by and large non-existent in public discourse. It shifts the focus onto the terror of the state and its machinery, which practises institutionalised discrimination and alienates a part of its own citizenry in the name of inimical ethno-nationalism.
In some ways, A Burning reads terrorism in a manner that is by and large non-existent in public discourse. It shifts the focus onto the terror of the state and its machinery, which practises institutionalised discrimination and alienates a part of its own citizenry in the name of inimical ethno-nationalism.

In my late teenage years, I wrote an incomplete novel in Urdu, the only language I could express myself in. It was about a student moving from Patna to study at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. I studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University as well as Jamia, many of whose students and research scholars are currently unjustly booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The police indeed described Urdu and its marvellous poet Ghalib, whose statue marks Jamia’s landscape, as terrorists. Write as I did that novel in Urdu, I was almost desperate to learn how to write in English. 

In Megha Majumdar’s new novel, A Burning, I did not see that struggle or jihad with the language. The narration is seamless. On occasions, I was envious of the curly, flying movement of its language. With gripping characters, its story flowed smoothly and effectively. I found its structure innovative. Its chapters alternated between its three key characters: Jivan, PT Sir and Lovely, though the titles of some chapters, especially in the latter half of the novel, felt unevenly descriptive for me—for instance, one is named: “The Past Tense of Hang is Hung.” Perhaps there was another reason I finished the novel in just a day and a half. Only a week ago, I had written the Anti-Conclusion to my book manuscript on terrorism, a subject on which I’ve written before. 

Although there is some violence in any summarisation, since what the novel says in about three hundred pages, I have attempted to condense in three, the essential plot goes like this. In Kolkata—the setting is meant to be inferred, rather than named explicitly—a bomb blast in a train kills over a hundred people. Jivan, the lead protagonist, depicted as an enterprising Muslim from a slum, is at a railway station when the blast occurs. Clueless and frightened, she runs away with her bag of books, meant for Lovely, a hijra to whom Jivan teaches English. Later, in a Facebook post, Jivan comments: “If the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?” She posts this in response to a video in which a woman angrily asks why the police looked on while her daughter and husband perished in the train. Taken as a sign of disloyalty to the government and nation, this comment, along with her fleeting contact on Facebook with someone who turns out to be a terrorist recruiter—about whom readers get no further detail—become the bases on which a trial court sentences her to death. Her repeated pleas of innocence to a journalist go unheard. Rather than help her, PT Sir, Jivan’s schoolteacher, who left his job to join a party that formed the new government, wants her executed swiftly. Lovely, too, heeds the advice of the film world and her own community to focus on her future as a rising film star, rather than on Jivan. She still grapples with some moral conflict, but PT Sir has none. In fact, after Jivan “is killed by the state,” he addresses a rally and praises the government’s achievement in getting her executed.  

While reading, the image of Mohammad Afzal Guru, a key convict in the attack on India’s parliament in 2001, rushed through my mind. There were striking similarities with Jivan’s story. Both wrote mercy petitions. Even the judge’s words had the same resonance: in Jivan’s case, he claimed to be “soothing the conscience of the city, of the country.” In Afzal’s case, it was to satisfy “the collective conscience of the society.” 

What the novel does best is make visible what is starkly absent from the mainstream debates: state terrorism. Second, it shows the sheer power that media exercises over contemporary Indian society, including the judiciary—this was the reason that Jivan was desperate to tell her story of innocence to a journalist, who published the story but only to implicate her in the blast. Third, the novel seems to say that democracy, ruled by a majority community, is a state of terror. It gestures to the idea that Jivan was executed because she was a Muslim. Without naming it overtly, the novel demonstrates the project and working of the supremacist Hindutva democracy manifest, inter alia, in the killing of and discrimination against Muslims, calls not to appoint Muslims as teachers, and a thriving “riot economy” run by politicians and real-estate warlords.  

Irfan Ahmad a political anthropologist, is a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious & Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, Germany. Author of two monographs, most recently he is the co-editor, with Pralay Kanungo, of The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare: A Long View of India’s 2014 Election (Oxford University Press, 2019). 

Keywords: terrorism Muslims in India Muslim
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