Thursday, September 9, 2021

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.


This book was on my list, I believe from an NPR recommendation. It seemed promising, a novel about the rise of far right Hindu politics in India. I found I was a bit disappointed. It isn’t a bad book, but it just felt a bit thin. Let me explain a bit.


First of all, the book is short. Although careful design stretched it to 289 pages, there is a lot of white on the page, both in the margins and between lines. It is also a small format book, so in reality, it is more of a novella than a full novel. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but because it attempted to tell three separate although connected stories, it really felt like it sacrificed depth for breadth. In fact, it reminded me a good bit of a YA novel in that way - and in others. 


The biggest sacrifice to the length was the depth of characterization. We get to know the characters at a surface level, and we are told (rather than shown) their feelings and dreams. Dialogue is perfunctory as well, again, I suspect, because of length. The result is characters - types - who feel like they are inserted in the book to perform their roles in the plot, not full humans who end up taking the plot where it might not otherwise have gone. 


Also, like a YA novel, it feels heavy-handed and preachy. Bad things happen to good people, some people turn bad because of their circumstances. Things are mostly hopeless. 


I have a few theories about why I felt this way. First is that I recently read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which, like this book, tells about the hard lives and tragedies of religious minorities in India’s slums. Not only did I read another book, albeit non-fiction, with some similar themes and characters, but I read the far better book first. Katherine Boo just writes with far more nuance than Majumdar, and the characters - who were real - felt more human. This isn’t so much a fiction versus non-fiction issue as whether the author has the ability (and practice) of seeing humanity in a deep way. 


Another reason that I was disappointed is that I have read some fiction lately with better nuance to the characters. The Vanishing Half, for example, or La Rose, or Transcendent Kingdom, or Everything I Never Told You. You get spoiled with so many examples of great writing. 


A third would be that I am having a difficult time right now with stories that seem to have no hope in them. If I want to read a straight-up polemic on how fascism destroys the innocent, I can find that in the non-fiction section. Same thing if I want something about how religious and ethnic minorities get brutalized when mobs get riled by demagogues. Or that criminal justice systems are anything but just. If I am going to read a story on the other hand, it can’t just be a “see how horrible it all is” tale. There has to be humanity, nuance, and, dare I say it? HOPE? 


The basic story centers on three characters, who, if given enough time to develop, might have been good. First is Jivan, a young muslim woman who is trying to rise above the slums, who is falsely accused of collaborating with terrorists who firebomb a train. Second is Lovely, a hijra (the closest analogy would be transgender or third sex, but it is more complicated than that) who is aspiring to be an actress. The third is PT Sir, a physical education teacher who accidentally find himself at a far-right rally with a chance to rise in the ranks, as long as he is willing to commit perjury for the party. 


Of the three stories, the only one that I did not find predictable was that of Lovely. Her character was the best of the three, with at least a little bit of human nuance. Also, the book did take time to give some of the color of the hijra subculture and place in society, which is probably not as familiar to those of us who grew up in Christendom, with its insistence on a rigid gender binary, with no room for anyone who isn’t one or the other. It is helpful to understand that many other cultures have found ways of accepting (at least to some degree) people who do not fit the rigid categories. (Native Americans seem to have the richest culture regarding LGBTQ people generally - we could learn a lot from them.) 


So yes, a bit disappointing. I wanted to like it more, but never could entirely get into it. Not a bad book, but not as deep as would have been nice. 


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