Its characters are at the very front of the stage, and we can feel their breath ... [the] spare plot moves with arrowlike determination ... Majumdar’s novel is compelling, yet its compulsions have to do with an immersive present rather than with a skidding sequence. Her characters start telling us about their lives, and those lives are suddenly palpable, vital, voiced. I can’t remember when I last read a novel that so quickly dismantled the ordinary skepticism that attends the reading of made-up stories. Early Naipaul comes to mind as a precursor, and perhaps Akhil Sharma’s stupendously vivid novel Family Life. Sharma has spoken of how he avoided using 'sticky' words—words involving touch and taste and smell—so as to enable a natural velocity; Majumdar finds her own way of achieving the effect ... It’s only at the end of this brief, brave novel that one becomes fully aware of how broad its judgments have been, how fierce and absolute its condemnations. Through the gaps that open up among and behind these three characters, a large Indian panoply emerges. The book’s surface realism—that great boon to writers—is abundant and busy and life-sown ... But the system that at once supports and undermines this diverse vitality is seen with an unrelentingly cold authorial eye, in all its small and large corruption, its frozen inequality, murderous racism, political opportunism, and unalleviated poverty. At the same time, because societies are complex, and because Megha Majumdar is a sophisticated student of that complexity, her novel gains flight as a tale of competing dynamism. Her three ambitious and intelligent characters are all moving up, out of the class they were born into; Jivan’s plight is that this ambition, forced by circumstance into a desperate resolve, involves a struggle that she seems fated to lose.
...[a] propulsive debut novel ... a baldly, horrifyingly plausible premise ... The narration swivels from the perspective of one character to the next, each of whom, by dint of status or sensibility, knows something the others cannot ... Lovely is the guerrilla unit, the novel’s most exuberant creation ... The texture of the novel — its amplitude, tenderness, commotion — comes to us from her curiosity and habit of attentiveness ... This is a book to relish for its details, for the caress of the writer’s gaze against the world, the way it dawdles over all that might be considered coarse or inconsequential ... Majumdar’s descriptions of life, of stench and bodies, of stifled ambitions and stoked resentments, feel instructive, a rejoinder to the ways reality is so commonly distorted ... Majumdar writes with a lanky, easy authority; the narrative stride is broken only by rare missteps ... What we describe helplessly as our fate is, very often, other people’s choices acting upon us — choices that remain largely unknown or, at best, dimly perceived. The novel flays open these mysteries ... The interplay of choice and circumstance has always been the playing field of great fiction, and on this terrain, a powerful new writer stakes her claim.
...remarkable ... a kaleidoscopic portrait of contemporary India told through a wildly divergent chorus of characters ... a narrative that often feels as cinematic as Lovely’s screen test: a rush of brightly textured prose that reads sometimes as pointed satire, and other times as pure tragedy. It's a tricky line to walk, and Majumda...handles it deftly, building toward a climax that feels both shocking and somehow inevitable ... More resonant than the book's sometimes fragmentary strands of the plot, though, is the immediacy of her characters, their hopes and fears and ordinary dreams. Early buzz is already comparing A Burning to the work of modern literary stars like Tommy Orange, but the voice—or voices—here are entirely her own.
... caught me off guard with its urgency and deep understanding of the relationship between an individual and India’s purportedly democratic society ... Majumdar illustrates how ordinary people find themselves swept up by a broken political situation in which their own agency can become belittled ... Thankfully, this is not a savior narrative. Instead, it’s a scorching and intimate look at those who find themselves bearing the full brunt of an enormous, diverse society’s prejudices and passions. Told in effortless, pitch-perfect voices that borrow from traits of prophetic oratory, A Burning works on the reader emotionally and directly, free from authorial intrusion ... In a time of brutal governmental intrusions, we need literary voices that eloquently speak complicated truths about individual agency and collective decisions. A Burning is a taut, propulsive and devastating debut novel. Gripping fiction, sure, but there’s not a false note in here.
... fierce and assured ... Majumdar is so far from exoticizing her setting as to be almost too economical, leaving the reader to snatch at clues where she can as to political, social and cultural context. From the moment of Jivan’s arrest, A Burning hurtles along like the unfortunate train finally freed from the station, smoke and flame still pouring from its windows, but its final destination, the terminus of inflexible steel tracks, feeling somewhat ordained ... these slight ties among the three loosen and dissolve as the story proceeds; their fates are not convincingly entwined. What the characters do share, not only with one another but with the novel as a whole, is a quality of embodied and astonishing momentum, of exponential change triggered mostly by chance. It’s a sensation particularly apt to our present global moment, when we’ve already run out of ways to articulate a worldwide convulsion still in progress. Though pandemic is not one of the many contemporary horrors Majumdar unsparingly weaves into the tapestry of everyday life in A Burning, this is a novel of our pandemic times, an exploration of precarity in all its forms ... Majumdar excels at depicting the workings of power on the powerless; for her characters, power is no abstract concept but a visceral assault on the body and its senses ... While the bondage of the subject to power is meticulously portrayed, the bonds between individual characters can feel less developed; for a story so packed with cause and effect, there is little of the emotional variety...moments of reckoning, of the exacting of emotional tolls, don’t come. The primary relationship, for each character, is with fate — but fate has rarely been so many-faced, so muscular, so mercurial, or so mesmerizing as it is in A Burning.
This all-consuming story rages along, bright and scalding, illuminating three intertwined lives in contemporary India ... [Majumdar] demonstrates an uncanny ability to capture the vast scope of a tumultuous society by attending to the hopes and fears of people living on the margins. The effect is transporting, often thrilling, finally harrowing ... Majumdar’s outrage is matched only by her sympathy for these ordinary people so deft in the practice of self-justification. Building on their perfectly natural weaknesses, the short, intense chapters of A Burning present a society riven with influence peddling and abuses of power but still wholly devoted to the appearance of propriety.
... Majumdar presents a powerful corrective to the political narratives that have dominated in contemporary India ... Majumdar offers her novel as a reassertion of the pluralism once at the heart of Indian democracy ... While Jivan is the protagonist, Majumdar shines most in the stories of her secondary characters, who are of different religions, classes and genders...In weaving their voices alongside interludes from marginal characters, Majumdar creates a vivid portrait of India as a polyphonic crowd, a patchwork of differences. All the characters are subject to the nationalist forces pulsing through the country, but in the face of corruption, persecution and powerlessness, they manage to hold on to their dreams and humor.
... indelible characters ... A Burning is a penetrating exposé about how the possibilities of fame and fortune gradually erode one’s integrity. The book’s title may represent, on a literal level, the violent act in its opening pages, but it also evokes a dynamic metaphor for greed and the dark side of ambition. That Majumdar has chosen to illustrate this with Lovely and PT Sir, two seemingly well-meaning characters who hail from humble circumstances not too far from Jivan’s own, makes the book’s execution all the more unsparing ... A Burning keenly illuminates the unfortunate reality that justice has limited reserves and a rigid expiration date.
...one of the most invigorating debuts in recent memory ... Majumdar brings a grave immediacy to the novel as her characters face the often fatal consequences of negligence and complacency ... By the end of her novel, Majumdar is swift and certain in her denunciation of inequality and capitalism, the insidious carelessness in holding power, and the criminal justice system in India. A Burning is like a sparking power line, releasing jolts of bright light, humor and compassion.
...[a] rich debut novel ... All three characters are outsiders at the start, each wanting to change their situation, to find a life that’s different from the one they have known. A Burning examines their desires for change and the obstacles they face, and, in so doing, beautifully portrays the world in which they live ... Along with the three perspectives, the book also includes chapters where other peripheral characters are featured, creating a rich fullness to Majumdar’s world. While the book is the story of Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir, it is also about everyone else. There are millions of people on the outside looking in, hoping for something just a bit better ... Throughout the novel these desires cause friction between the self and the community. Do we do what is best for ourselves, or do we do what is best for us all? A question for these times, for sure, in ways that Majumdar couldn’t have anticipated, and one that resonates loudly ... A Burning forces us to see the inequities in this world, and the way desire for freedom is so often thwarted, especially for those less fortunate, by those around them.
Majumdar deftly weaves several narrative threads together in a novel that is fast-paced enough to feel like a literary thriller, yet also turns a wise eye toward the complexities of life in contemporary India ... [Majumdar} reveals herself to be keenly attuned to the injustices of life in contemporary Kolkata, especially when it comes to issues of class and gender. The novel renders the physical landscape of the city in brief, vivid imagery ... Majumdar skillfully reveals the ways that her characters rationalize their own moral compromises in a system that rewards them for doing so. In this regard, A Burning is not just a novel about India, but also a mirror through which American readers might contemplate the failings of our own increasingly degraded political system ... The novel ends on a dark note, a stark reminder that those who rise to power often do so at the expense of the poor and the powerless. In this way, A Burning is very much a novel for our times.
... powerful ... Majumdar’s prose comes alive ... Majumdar masterfully translates Lovely’s voice—and her Bollywood dreams—by writing her dialogue in the present continuous tense and maintaining the singsong rhythms of Bengali ... a real page turner—even when the outcome seems obvious all along ... What makes Majumdar’s novel so compelling, timely, and propulsive—the new word 'doomsurfing' comes to mind—is that Jivan’s predicament, at least initially, is quite plausible in modern-day India ... not just a critique of modern Indian society but a universal parable on inequality ... Jivan’s story of betrayal by the country of her birth could resonate to some extent for Black Americans, as protests over the killing of George Floyd have lighted up the world’s cities ... will attract critics, especially in India, who will say its portrayal of the country is too bleak. And they will have a point. For all its flaws, India has more resilient checks and balances—and at least some redeeming features—than the novel lets on ... And its civil society, which has displayed a heartening resistance to government overreach and social injustice in recent years, doesn’t get a mention. In that sense, Jivan’s story can seem a bit contrived. But the role of the novelist is to take artistic license, to not just describe how things are but warn how they could be. That’s what makes A Burning such essential reading. If Majumdar has tapped into the fury of the moment, it’s because her novel brilliantly explores some of the sources of the helplessness so many people currently feel. And we must listen to those people, because for many of them, the only way forward seems to be to burn it all down.
... showed me that there is an unbeatable richness to reading about the present moment as it unfolds ... a powerful, incandescent snapshot of the changes rocking India today ... As I reached the last page of A Burning, I felt that Majumdar had reminded me what great fiction can do. Her gift is to make you feel empathy for those who fall through history’s cracks ... Sometimes, a novelist speaks for those who will never get to tell their stories, and Majumdar does so with a blend of empathy and contained rage.
... taut, exceptionally paced ... Lovely's character is written with such verve that she is a joy to follow ... packed with both exceptionally fine writing, and the dizzying breadth of human experience in a contemporary Indian megacity like Kolkata.
... gripping ... One of the remarkable strengths of A Burning is Majumdar’s ability to illustrate how easily we abandon others for our own convenience ... Carefully sculpted, with no word wasted, emotionally resonant, and replete with telling detail, A Burning is the calling card of a significant new voice. It is an excellent novel and an impressive debut ... the Muslim girl is called Jivan. This is an unusual name for a Muslim girl, though, especially in Bengal, poorer Muslims can sometimes have Hindu names, or (most often) nicknames. I have not met any — out of the thousand plus Muslims I have met until now — but sociology assures me that this happens ... What is less likely to happen is that people will accept a Muslim girl’s claim that her brother is named ‘Purnendu Sarkar’, as they obviously do in the novel...because the author of A Burning is a person of unusual talent and empathy, I want to bring it to her notice.
Majumdar unspools the many layers of this injustice with clarity and precision, revealing that the casual callousness that most often guides it ... In PT Sir, [Majumdar] creates one of the most outstanding portrayals in a recent novel of the allure of the right wing to a man of an all too familiar disposition ... a novel of weighty concerns yet it resists a ponderous pace...Her prose is fleet-footed, marked by lithe sentences that often twist away in unexpectedly charming directions. And in the sharpness of her observations – of place, the physicality of her characters, and the peculiarities of human behaviour – she delights. It’s a pace that is partly achieved by the closeness of the first person narration, rendered in an unrelenting present tense for Jivan ... But when Majumdar inhabits the perspective of Lovely, she falters...a perplexing choice for a character whose story seems to have otherwise been crafted with care and thoughtfulness ... food is sometimes described in stilted translations, and there are endearments that can be jarring in otherwise seamless prose ... Majumdar is too talented a writer, however, for these to waylay her moving, extraordinary debut. Among the greatest achievements of A Burning is an understanding of the vast web of our interconnectedness, within which the ability to shape life is determined by the power you hold compared to the next person.
... a quiet, searing study of the underclass and the aspiring middle class in India, whose tentative stake in the capitalist economy is complicated by the many tyrannies of gender, religion and class endemic to society ... assured ... pulsates with the cadences of everyday life, the ebb and flow of ambitions, aspirations, disparities and disappointments ... [Majumdar's] editorial expertise shows up in the craft of the novel, in the teasers she throws in by way of episodic interludes, in the cinematic pace with which she alternates between the narrative voices. A Burning is a novel firmly of the here and now, but Majumdar packs in layers of history in her idiosyncratic use of the English language ... The subtlety with which Majumdar moulds language to the spirit of the city and its inmates rings out best in the voice of her most endearing character, Lovely, who speaks in broken pidgin English that fits into the nooks and crannies of her life...It is here, in the authenticity of the polyphonic voices that people her fictional landscape, that Majumdar’s novel soars.
... an ambitious first novel, a critique smuggled into a thriller ... The book is unsettling from the start, and its flashes of humor hardly dampen the building terror. Majumdar’s spare writing, infused with dark imagery, intensifies the reader’s dread ... Majumdar’s talent at conveying the sinister is especially evident in a later interlude ... Much is concealed in this growing society, which this book shows more clearly than a news article ever could: the violence masquerading as justice, the imprisonment behind Lovely’s stardom and PT’s power, and the death and division behind nationalists’ proclamations of unity. If prosperity is a mask hiding the violence of contemporary India, then A Burning rips it off for us to see.
With this high-stakes premise, Megha Majumdar carefully crafts her debut novel...as a gripping thriller with compassionate social commentary. Each chapter jumps through various perspectives as Majumdar devotes time and care to each person’s motivations. Above them all, the ability to rise – to power, fame and wealth –is everyone’s greatest ambition or moral folly ... While these internal struggles may be pivotal plot points in A Burning, what’s really compelling is how Jivan fights for herself ... But A Burning also makes the reality of the situation startlingly clear. Girls like Jivan don’t stand a chance in prison. Politics willingly ignore incarcerated people – especially those with no money or status to their name ... It’s hard not to feel intense heartache while reading A Burning. Majumdar's powerful debut is carefully crafted for maximum impact, carving out the most urgent parts of its characters for the whole world to see. This novel rightfully commands attention.
A Burning jumps off the page with the pace of a thriller screenplay and the technicolor vividness of a comic book ... [Heinrich] Boll’s novel [The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum] had a clearly political purpose in 1974, and came with a subtitle that made the book sound like a work of nonfiction. For all the implausibility of some of its plot details, A Burning comes across with the same kind of prophetic, political urgency as a warning against exactly the same process: 'how violence develops and where it can lead.
These are up-to-the-minute issues, and, while engaging, the book occasionally reads more like straightforward social commentary than a fully realized fictional world. What rescues it from polemicism are the detailed and personal voices of its narrators, particularly the women at its heart. Told primarily in three voices, all either students or teachers, the novel relies heavily on dialect and colloquial phrasings. This approach, seemingly naïve, camouflages some beautiful and subtle imagery, as when Lovely, the least educated of the three main narrators, first appears ... small decisions by Lovely and PT Sir that collectively loom large, propel the book, and the novel’s breakneck pace stumbles when these narrators are absent ... When it focuses on the struggles of Lovely and her peers, fellow underdogs, fighting for their own small piece of success, A Burning is heartbreaking, a damning indictment of a society depicted as utterly corrupt and racist. Even with its flaws, the book is an engaging and fast read.
Weaving together these story lines, the author offers fresh, brisk, striking language while remaining relentless in her depiction of Jivan’s fate and of the kind of rampant suspicion and finally hatred that burns us all.
Kolkata-born and Harvard- and Johns Hopkins–educated book editor Majumdar presents an electrifying debut that serves as a barometer measuring the seeming triviality of human life and the fragility of human connections.
A polyphonic novel that sharply observes class and religious divisions in India ... debut author Majumdar has a gift for capturing the frustrating arbitrariness of local government and conjures up scenes in just a few well-chosen images ... But Jivan’s storyline feels a bit thin, seemingly purpose-built to make a point about the very real injustices of being poor and a member of a hated religious minority ... The novel’s brilliant individual vignettes far outshine a rather flimsy overarching plot.