• Among the Lowly: On Megha Majumdar's A Burning

    Steve Almond

    Summer 2020

    How’s this for a delicious irony: Victor Hugo’s desk-buckling, 655,478-word epic Les Misérables opens with a preface that totals 109 words.

    “So long as there shall exist,” Hugo observes, “by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”

    That’s the whole shebang. I was put in mind of this sentence after setting down, rather ginger with awe and gratitude, Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning. It’s one of the most enthralling books I’ve read in years; it may be the most important, too.

    I say none of this lightly. On the contrary, it strikes me as a critical necessity to celebrate a work of imagination that captures experiences and emotions so distinct from the other sorts of novels that clamor for our attention in this age of compulsive self-absorption.

    A Burning fulfills the grim ambitions set out by Hugo more than 150 years ago. We are shown—in precise and unflinching prose—the degradations of those residing in and around the slums of Bengal, India. But the novel’s central theme is the pursuit of power among the dispossessed, and the perils that ensnare those who dare to strive for justice in a society predicated on exploitation.

    All of which, I know, sounds like an incredible bummer, particularly for those readers (like myself) who move through life safely cosseted within the gold-plated delusions of American capitalism.

    In fact, A Burning offers a piercing vision of what happens to the individual in a nation where corruption is the coin of the realm, where violent bigotry and calculated deception are essential political tools, where social media become the apparatuses of foment and surveillance, where social justice is seen as sedition, and where the acquisition of fame and power make the conscience expendable.

    Sound familiar?

    The wonder of Majumdar’s novel resides in the tremendous vitality of its three central characters. They are all go-getters who see the world around them as luminous with possibility. Jivan is a young Muslim woman reared in poverty who yearns for a life amid the middle class of her city, with its material comforts and privileges of liberty. Lovely is the exuberant trans woman she tutors in English, who dreams of Bollywood stardom. PT Sir is the teacher who once looked out for Jivan, and whose political awakening unleashes his monstrous aptitudes.

    “Now the sky is holding more light than the ground,” Lovely declares, as she readies herself for a betrayal that will enable her bliss:

    There is a half-moon, with gray spots on it that I was never noticing before. Like the moon is having pimples also. Clouds like cotton pulled from a roll are moving under the moon, sometimes hiding it, sometimes revealing it. I am feeling that the world is so big, so full of our dreams and our love stories, and our grief too.

    By the end of the tale, Jivan has suffered a grotesque descent, while Lovely and PT Sir—forsaking her suffering and profiting by it—are borne aloft in India’s shiny new predator economy at the small price of their souls.

    Hell on earth indeed.

    At this point, I would love nothing more than to detail the novel’s intricate and propulsive plot. We need to do a little historical business first, though, to understand the tradition in which Majumdar is writing—the tradition of the social novel.

    It’s a term that can sound a bit ominous in the wrong ears, but it really just means a book written from within, and about, the experiences of the poor and marginalized. That’s the whole deal. The New Testament, if you redact the various spasms of Pauline marketing, is a social novel.

    Hugo is the gold standard here, as is Dickens, who wrote about little else. Let’s go ahead and include Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Jane Eyre and Shirley by Charlotte Brontë, and the lion’s share of Dostoevsky. In the American tradition, we have books such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn—which addressed the atrocities of slavery—and, more recently, the novels of Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) and Ralph Ellison (The Invisible Man). Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, and John Steinbeck all wrote with the explicit aim of exposing the inherent sadism of industrial capitalism. And we can go ahead and include The Color Purple, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and the dozens of other novels (most of them unpublished) written to confront the ways in which patriarchal culture criminalizes female volition. To quote the mob: “Lock her up!”

    Any novel built to endure has to travel beyond its own noble intentions, or else it becomes a slave to them, rhetorical puppetry in which the dramatic action imparts neat lessons rather than leading the reader deeper into her own moral confusions. This is what Orwell meant when he observed that Dickens wasn’t advocating for the poor to stage a revolution against Victorian inequity: “his target is not so much society as ‘human nature.’”

    The fundamental question is one of attention. To what sorts of people is the novelist devoting her attention? Whose fates are we impelled to care about, and whose inner lives?

    Because literature is a rather big-ticket item on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the people who write and read novels are generally those with the privilege to focus and imagine and reflect. And thus, most of the characters we encounter in these works are—to be blunt, and speaking as one of them—privileged neurotics, whose struggles center around self-fulfillment.

    There’s also the question of execution. Is the author able to faithfully convey the complexity of these unseen worlds? The recent trouble over the Jeanine Cummins novel American Dirt isn’t most centrally about whether Cummins (who is white) has the “right” to tell the story of a Mexican mother and son who journey to the US border after a drug cartel murders the rest of their family. It’s about Cummins’s imprecision, the fact that she misrepresents the world she’s writing about, and that she’s not especially interested in the larger political and economic forces that have shaped that world. Is the novelist engaged in a project that puts “a tag of shame on the greedy bastards,” as Steinbeck demands? Or is it just a highbrow form of exploitation?

    For now, let’s just agree to call the social novel what it is: a story that devotes its attention to dispossessed human beings and bothers to investigate the systems of power that render them so.

    One of the great pleasures of reading A Burning is how swiftly Majumdar sets the story into motion. We begin, Jane Eyre-ishly, with a young woman too smart for her circumstances. Jivan has come from a rural village to the big city and now lives in the Kolabagan slum. Despite her fierce intelligence, she has quit school to support herself (and her parents) by working at a clothing store.

    One night, she witnesses the aftermath of a terrorist attack in the subway station near her house. A fire spreads from the station to nearby huts; more than a hundred people die. That night, Jivan watches a video on her new phone of a woman who witnessed her husband and child perish in the blaze while a Jeep full of policemen idled nearby. She posts the video with a comment condemning the cops. Wounded by the indifference to her comment and incited by a troll, Jivan goes one step further: 

    And then, in the small, glowing screen, I wrote a foolish thing. I wrote a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write. 

    Forgive me, Ma.

    If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean, I wrote on Facebook, that the government is also a terrorist?

    A few nights later, the police show up and drag Jivan into custody. She is Muslim like the terrorists, was at the crime scene, had contact with an alleged recruiter on Facebook, and posted those damning comments. The media does the rest. A scapegoat is born. It takes Majumdar all of fifteen pages.

    But Jivan isn’t just some Christic martyr whose degradations are marched before the reader like a passion. She is a complex young woman, needy for regard, shortsighted, and boiling with rage at the injustices that have besieged her family and disfigured her ambitions into fatal flaws.

    The teacher who eventually testifies against her in court, PT Sir, displays a more poisonous admixture. He treats Jivan with great kindness as a teacher, but becomes indignant that she isn’t more grateful. He joins a populist political party, awakened by idealism. But he also does the dirty work necessary to rise in the party, bearing false witness in court repeatedly. He watches the brutal sectarian murder of innocent Muslims by zealots from his own party. And yet he remains a loyal lieutenant. He ultimately intervenes to stanch any hope of clemency for Jivan. PT Sir embraces political power as a form of personal aggrandizement. But Majumdar doesn’t present him as a monster. On the contrary, he is merely responding to a society that incentivizes our most malignant human impulses: pettiness, greed, narcissism. He is the Trump lurking within all of us.

    And that’s the essential hallmark of a social novel. It forces us to recognize the possibility that right-wing demagogues are continually promoting: that our destinies are largely at the mercy of the state. A young woman like Jivan, born into a story of powerlessness, has no margin for error. Her life is disposable: one misstep and she’s gone.

    Americans may be uniquely resistant to social novels precisely because we have been steeped in gauzy myths about the power of the individual to transcend structural inequities. The rags-to-riches tales of CEOs, tech disruptors, and social media influencers have largely replaced the grim and necessary work of social justice.

    Which brings us to the parable of Lovely, the aspiring starlet. She is part of the population known as hijra, which includes eunuchs, trans, and intersex people. As a trans woman, Lovely is marginalized both by her identity and her poverty. And yet she offers a dramatic statement on behalf of Jivan in court: “‘She was spending her time on teaching the poors. How many of you are doing that in your own life?’ she demands. ‘Who are you all to judge her?’”

    Within hours of this appearance, Lovely has gone viral. TV reporters descend on her, “hungry for a feel-good take, for a reminder that dreams and dreamers do exist in this city.” With her charms on full display, Lovely leaps into the role of the plucky underdog for the cameras. Her talent for self-commodification brings her to the attention of movie producers. There’s only one catch. “You may be fond of that girl, but you must choose,” her mentor warns. “Are you wanting to rise in this film world? Or are you wanting the public to see you as a person who is defending a terrorist?” Lovely picks the silver screen.

    And that’s the whole point in a social novel. The individual who wishes to thrive in a corrupt system must internalize corruption as an adaptive measure. There is no collective agenda, and thus no loyalty.

    This helps explain the narrative form of Majumdar’s novel, which unfolds as a series of braided monologues in which characters tell their own stories. We get a chorus of voices, each driven by radical subjectivity and inexorably drawn into a clash of personal agendas. Majumdar includes brief monologues from minor characters, such as the political aide whose side hustle consists of swindling rubes by selling them plots of swampland. “So this is the riot economy,” he reasons. “In this economy, I am a broker, nothing more.”

    Reading these soliloquies, by turns earnest and slickly self-justifying, I couldn’t help but think of the interludes woven through The Grapes of Wrath, those uncensored outbursts of Americanus hucksterus, which help us understand the Joad family’s experiences as part of an aggregate—individual symptoms in the larger contagion of greed we have agreed to call capitalism.

    Let me say more explicitly (and less gracefully) what Steinbeck and Dos Passos and London and now Majumdar are suggesting: a system that equates economic worth with self-worth represents a moral regression to the worldview of Hobbes, in which the individual is engaged in a perpetual “war of all against all.” We exist, you might say, therefore we exploit.

    It is astonishing to me—though it shouldn’t be—that the first great social novel of the Trump era has been authored by a young woman who grew up in India and emigrated to America to further her education. She has captured the dimensions of our moment with chilling precision: the deranged national lust for fame, the activation of tribal grievances, the political uses of sacrificial sadism, the gleeful nihilism that disguises our national despair.

    Language is an instrument of truth. “It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish,” as Orwell notes, “but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Orwell’s concerns were rhetorical, but they extend to the aesthetic. When we praise the beauty of a particular writer’s prose style, what we’re really praising is the gleaming residue that represents a dogged pursuit of truth. We are saying: Wow, here is a writer swift and precise and fearless in how she sees the world! And wow, does she find just the right words to ax through the frozen sea within each of us.

    This is exactly how I felt as I read A Burning. Majumdar has captured the rhythms of life among Bengal’s destitute with a ruthless and tender precision. Her language is musical, textured, and unexpected without ever calling attention to itself, as when she writes about the monsoon that keeps Jivan’s mother from peddling home-cooked food on the street in front of their hovel:

    But my mother had to stop when the rains came, beating on roofs, muddy water rising from the wheels of passing rickshaws churning waves that soaked the stove and licked at our high mattress. I took a bucket, its handle cracked so that I had to hold it by the bottom, and tipped the water out on the street, where it joined a stream in which seedpods and the brown shells of cockroaches floated.

    Majumdar has the unerring eye of a novelist, one that snags on the most cogent details, from the “trail of crushed cigarettes” left by the media rabble outside Jivan’s home to the imperious manner in which her prison warden “looks at me blankly and continues on her path, the ring of keys singing at her hips.” When PT Sir visits a remote village, the jeep he’s riding in “slows as its wheels crush grain placed on the road by villagers. A girl sits on the pads of her feet, supervising the use of passing cars as millstones.” When Jivan’s cellmate, a heartbroken bully by the name of Americandi, brokers a meeting with a tabloid journalist for cash, she treats herself to some perfume:

    Americandi turns her chin up and tilts the bottle at her neck. Striated with lines, a column wobbly with fat, her neck newly glistens with a patch of scent. . . . I wipe my nose with the back of my hand, and sniff the air around me. It smells like roses and chemicals. It smells like a disguise. Beneath it, there is sewage and damp and washed clothes hung to dry. There is indigestion and belching and the odor of feet.

    I am quoting Majumdar at length not to flaunt her talent, but to underscore the integrity of her execution. The central risk assumed by the social novelist, after all, is that she will bow to sentiment, converting human ruin into linguistic performance, or didactic drama, flattening people into exalted archetypes. Majumdar describes human hardship with a terrible vibrancy. But her characters are not made noble by their suffering, merely sad and bitter and bewildered. Her central aim is not to rouse the reader’s pity, or prick at her conscience. It is to document that such people exist in our midst, despite our efforts to put them out of mind.

    As the novel hurtles towards its climax, Majumdar chronicles the harrowing dehumanization of her heroine. “When I am thinking about it, I am truly feeling that Jivan and I are both no more than insects,” Lovely observes, and it’s no coincidence that vermin plague Jivan: “I scrub the toilet, and pour boric acid down a pipe. The acid, diluted in water, stings where my hand holds old cuts. But it will kill the moving, pulsing soil smeared in the sewage lines, dozens of cockroaches.”

    By the end of the book, the young woman—whose crime is a single provocative post on Facebook—has been so degraded that cockroaches become her only playmates. Her “arms naked and cold like a plucked chicken,” she huddles in isolation: 

    in one corner, a low wall separates the room from the toilet, which is a hole in the ground from which dark cockroaches emerge, their whiskers feeling. The first time I see one, I whack it with my slipper.

    Now I flick one and another away with my fingers. It is a game of carrom. More fun when the carrom disks, tossed into the drain, come back for another round.

    If readers recoil at such images, well, that’s the whole point: “to rip a reader’s nerves to rags,” as Steinbeck recommends.

    A Burning enters the world at an historical moment when citizens all across the globe have surrendered their capacity to imagine the suffering of others. This moral lassitude has been a gift to the rich and powerful, to the morally demented who profit by incitement and have happily fortified the legal and economic structures that exploit by design and reduce immigrants and refugees to social vermin.

    Literature is a part of this struggle. “If she had received a chance to tell her story, how might her life have been?” That is the question Jivan poses early on in her descent. It haunted me long after I set the book down.

    “I don’t know whether it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone,” Hugo insisted, of his magnum opus. The same may be said of Majumdar’s debut. It is a searing light cast into the shadows of a world we wish to ignore but nonetheless inhabit.

    Steve Almond [www.stevealmondjoy.org] is the author of eleven books, most recently William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life. He lives outside Boston with his wife, his three children, and his anxiety. 

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