Intersectionality in Majumdar’s A Burning: Class, Gender, and Religion (@theTable: “Summer Book Club”
By Yasmine Singh.
How does one live in an atmosphere where most if not all bets are against you because of your class, gender, and/or religion? Is advancement possible for those who dream and aspire but struggle to survive? If so, at what cost? Who gets a second chance if they find themselves at the wrong place and the wrong time—or worse, if they make a costly mistake? Megha Majumdar tackles these questions in her debut novel, A Burning, by following the interconnected lives of three characters who are affected by the aftermath of a terrorist attack in modern-day Kolkata, India.
The book opens with the protagonist, Jivan, reflecting on the circumstances in which she impulsively voiced an opinion on social media that resulted in her incarceration for a crime she did not commit. Jivan was witness to the torching of a train that led to the death of over a hundred people. The terrorist attack sets social media ablaze with concerns over security, protection, and aid. With a newly purchased smart phone in hand, Jivan decides to participate in a public debate that she optimistically but naively thought was part of her freedom of speech. She also desired to generate more “likes.” The post read:
“If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?”
Jivan’s criticism of the government on Facebook sets the stage for her arrest. Readers witness the unfolding of her past and present as she awaits trial over the allegation that she befriended and aided the terrorists. Her future is determined by the life trajectories of the book’s two other main characters, each having shared a teacher-student relationship with Jivan: Lovely, whom Jivan coached in English lessons; and PT Sir, Jivan’s high school P.E. teacher. Both Lovely and PT Sir are tasked with testifying in court at Jivan’s trial. Lovely is more sympathetic than PT Sir, who is critical of Jivan and doubts her innocence. Their ultimate decisions to act on behalf of or against Jivan depend on how each character maneuvers through life circumstances. And their maneuvers are made complex by personal desires, the rarity of opportunities, political corruption, and sensational media, all of which are influenced by the politics of gender, religious, and class identities.
As is often the case in hierarchical systems, the characters who occupy similar backgrounds are pitted against each other in competition for resources and recognition. While the characters are distinct in their gendered and religious identities, they share similar economic backgrounds, all dream of upward mobility, and are each required to make difficult ethical decisions when opportunities arise. This can be seen through the following brief descriptions of the three main characters.
PT Sir is a lower-middle-class Hindu man who is bored with his job at a girls’ high school. Desperate for power and recognition, he joins a local political party, and his endeavors benefit from his Hindu nationalist inclinations and the fact that he is male.
Lovely, who lives in the same slum as Jivan and dreams of becoming a movie star, is a hijra – recognized in most South Asian countries as a third gender and as having sexual and magico-religious capacities that are met with caution. While she remains aware of her slim chances of success in Bollywood as a hijra, she works hard to make a name for herself and learns from her environment. Indeed, it was her ambition – and her cognizance of the role that English can play in upward mobility – that led Lovely to take classes from Jivan.
Jivan is a young Muslim woman living under an aspiring Hindu nationalist government that has sought to marginalize its Muslim populations. She grew up in poverty but seeks to rise above her life in the settlement by working as a sales representative at a clothing store. Unfortunately, her dream of becoming “not even rich, just middle class” is curtailed when she is indicted on baseless charges of terrorism that are nevertheless treated as credible because she is Muslim. However, it is not only her Muslim identity that keeps her incarcerated. As Majumdar demonstrates through the minor character of Sonali Khan – a wealthy Muslim film producer who is sentenced only to house arrest for the killing of an endangered rhinoceros – her class plays a major role, too. Thus, it is the intersection of her identities that makes Jivan an easy target for the state. As Jivan says when reflecting on the social media post that got her arrested:
“I wrote a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write.”(emphasis mine)
Majumdar is careful not to judge the characters she has created, even when she places responsibility on them. Instead, she blames a system that encourages people to take sides in situations already marred by structural inequalities and violence. At the same time, in this unforgiving and oppressive milieu, the actions, as well as the circumstances of each character, are decisive in the making of their own and each others’ fates. In other words, the novel presents agency and structure as interlinked.
A Burning is divided into short chapters that more or less alternate between the point of view of the three characters. In this regard, it is entirely bingeable. What really makes it binge-worthy, though, are snapshots Majumdar provides of the dreams and aspirations of those who are least privileged and most marginalized. As Majumdar herself has indicated, this is a novel that is appropriate for our current times. The book was launched amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, which has highlighted the inequities and complexities in governmental provision of care and management of populations.
Dr. Yasmine Singh is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University. She is an ethnographer of religion interested in goddess worship and pilgrimage traditions, gender and sexuality, and caste and class dynamics in South Asia.
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