By Sukant Deepak
New Delhi– A careless comment on Facebook in reaction to hate posts on her community, and Jivan is accused of a terrorist attack on a train. The ‘PT Sir’, a physical education teacher who is completely drawn in by the right wing ideology. And then, there is ‘Lovely’, a transgender dreaming with her eyes open to become a star.
It may have taken years for Megha Majumdar to write ‘A Burning’, (Penguin Hamish Hamilton), considered the biggest literary debut of the year, earning ravishing praises by authors like Amitav Ghosh and Yaa Gyasi and rave reviews by publications like Time, New York Times and others, but the moment you start reading it, what jolts is the fact that the situations depicted are so stunningly similar to what is being experienced today in India and the US — ascent of the right wing, and the massive ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests in the west. She admits, “Yes, it feels rather eerie considering the book is launching during protests in the US.”
Originally from Kolkata, Megha, moved to the United States to attend college at Harvard University, followed by graduate school in social anthropology at Johns Hopkins University and is presently based in New York.
As one discusses the multiple voices in the book, she asserts that doing the same was important to her. “I wanted to write a book with complexity and fullness, and these three voices held some truth for me.”
As far as the people who share their lives in ‘A Burning’ being complex, making them hard to ‘box’, the author insists, “Complexity is important to me in a narrative-flat and simplistic characters are neither capable of holding truth nor interesting for a reader. Especially for the character of PT Sir, I wanted to write about somebody who wants to do the right thing, who wants to contribute to society in a meaningful way, and finds himself confronting difficult moral choices.”
Talking about how the three major characters in the book were conceived, Megha says that she wanted to see how individuals living under oppressive and discriminatory systems still chase big dreams, still hold on to laughter and humour, still try to act from a place of free will. “Of course they face different moral reckonings and in some cases have to take matters into their own hands.”
For anyone reading the book, it would not really be tough to draw parallels between contemporary social and political situations in the country. The author admits that some of the scenes in the book do feel drawn from the news-slum demolition, police brutality, an unreliable water supply, and so on. “Specific correspondences don’t come to mind right away as I was drawing on the accumulation of reading such news reports over years. And at the end of the day this is a novel, about fictional characters moving through a place with significant fictional aspects, so I’ll let readers make their own connections as they read.”
She goes on to add, “I was reading a while ago about the women-led protests around the country last fall, and how many of the women participating were seeing themselves as citizens with a public voice for the first time. There’s great hope in that.”
An associate editor at Catapult, this debut writer feels that being an editor has made her a sharper reader and she knows the kind of movement, surprise, and complexity that appeals to her.
“As an editor, you are your writers’ biggest fan-so being close to their work and collaborating with them feels like a dream. It’s very energizing. In my editorial work, for instance, I’ve been lucky to work with Vikram Paralkar, Jayant Kaikini and Tejaswini Niranjana.”
‘A Burning’ was written slowly , over a period of several years. As somebody with a full time job, she was able to work on the book in short bursts on weekdays before going to work, and weekends.
“I think any writers reading this will know that the process is all about discipline-you have to come back to a project you’re struggling with every day, or as often as you can, and face that struggle, and try to find a way forward.” (IANS)