In its focus on moral choices amid political extremism, A Burning echoes Russian novelist Vasily Grossman’s Forever Flowing from 1970 (also translated as Everything Flows), which explores the motives of those who denounced friends, relatives and neighbours during Stalinism. Yet the book is far from Grossman’s Soviet gloom. Majumdar’s Kolkata pulses with the energy of a population in which nearly everyone is on the make — and willing to cheerfully sacrifice others, with only brief flickers of conscience, to get ahead.
This is a short, sharp shock of a novel that shows us how easy it is to rally a mob, to kill a Muslim woman and to silence a whole community. These are things we all know on paper, but the power of a great novelist — and Majumdar has a Dickensian flair and scope — is to transform what we simply know into something we can feel. What a treat to start the year with a talent as fresh as this.
A Burning won rave reviews in America last summer and follows a long tradition of Indian novels that probe social conscience with literary flair, among them A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Majumdar, who has set her novel in her native Kolkata, evokes degrees of economic deprivation with grim economy and avoids explicit judgment, although her characters are poignantly aware of their failings. Lovely feels the consequence of her thirst for fame. “This night, I am sleeping in shame, and I am waking in shame, and still shame is weaker than the other thing.” PT Sir moves into an apartment with air conditioning, but lives with a “ghost who weeps in his mind when he is alone”. In this powerful, painfully ironic novel Majumdar shows how we betray each other and in doing so betray ourselves.
In their different ways, all Majumdar’s characters are drawn to gadgets and appliances that can help them transcend their surroundings. Their shiny phones offer textures of another life, one that’s modern and urban, at once connected and individualistic, zingy and fast paced rather than traditional. Is this other realm just a fantasy? When Lovely visits a new mall on the site of a former sewing machine factory, she’s aroused by the air conditioning and the smell of leather bags. Before she can enter, a security guard blocks the path and demands an entrance fee he doesn’t solicit from affluent women shoppers. “Do I make the rules?” he protests when challenged.