Talking to Megha Majumdar about her novel "A Burning"

Chris Schluep on June 25, 2020

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Megha Majumdar's debut novel A Burning is, in the words of The Washington Post's Ron Charles, "emerging as the must-read novel of the summer." The Amazon editors agreed, which is why we named it a Best Book of the Month.

The novel is set in present day India and opens with a young Muslim woman named Jivan leaving a message on Facebook that criticizes the government. Unfortunately, she does so in reference to a train station bombing—as a result, her almost cast away comment will come back to haunt her. The story is told from three different points of view: there is Jivan; there is Lovely, a Hijra who wants to be a movie star; and there is PT Sir, a gym teacher who finds himself drawn to a local populist movement.

The book can be read on many levels. Not only are the characters well-drawn and believable, but there are themes in the book that you will want to discuss with another reader. It is also beautifully written.

Here is our conversation with Megha Majumdar:

Chris Schluep, Amazon Book Review: So, how do you describe the book to people?

Megha Majumdar: A Burning is a book about three people chasing big dreams in conditions of oppression as the society around them makes this dangerous turn toward right-wing nationalism.

This is your first novel, right?

Yes, that's right.

Did you always know that this would be the first book you were going to write?

You know, I don't think it was such a grand plan as that. I was writing for a long time, but until I landed on the idea for this book, I think I felt like a little bit of a tinkerer. I was kind of tinkering with language, writing short stories. And then when I felt that I needed to write this book, it just came to me as this idea, this project that I needed to do. And it's really by writing the book over several years that I grew serious about writing. So I didn't set out thinking, Okay, this is going to be my first novel. But that's how it turned out.

Were you always going to incorporate Indian politics into the novel, or did that come later?

That was always part of the core of this book. I felt angry, alarmed by what was happening in India. The rise in hate crimes. The rise in this sort of extreme nationalism. And I wanted to see how ordinary people still chase big ambitions, still hold onto humor, still live with spirit and laughter and jokes.

When you write a novel that involves politics like that, there's always the risk that you could come off as didactic. But you made the characters so human. I really appreciated that you were able to perform on both levels—this big stage, and then every character seemed very real, which I appreciated.

I really appreciate that. Thank you, Chris. Yes, you know so much of my project with this novel was that I wanted to write complex full characters—characters who are like people, in that we act sometimes morally and sometimes immorally. Sometimes we're generous and sometimes we’re selfish. And I wanted these characters to hold these contradictions within themselves. And I also knew that having full human characters would be a big part of inviting readers into the book. I didn't want to write a polemic. I didn't want to write this kind of dull book that had no life to it. I wanted to write a book that had serious intellectual ideas, but that also was entertaining.

The story is told from three different points of view. Was that always your intention?

For a while I think I felt a bit of despair that I couldn't follow more than three stories with any depth or complexity. So three did feel like the number where I could follow each character, give them each a full and hopefully satisfying arc, and do their lives justice.

Did you write more characters than the three you wound up featuring? How did that process work?

So one part of that question for me was, Where do I leave my main characters? I wanted to finish their arcs at a place that felt satisfying and fulfilling but not artificially tidy. So I did some work. I wrote a little bit more of the arcs than I think made it into the book, and then I decided that the stopping points that are in the book felt most authentic and satisfying to me.

And then another part of that question is, you know, in addition to these three characters, the book also has short chapters called interludes where I follow minor characters. I follow a real estate broker who makes a living from selling land to people displaced in riots. I follow a person who goes to a new mall for the first time and finds this unexpected barrier, and so on. So these are minor characters in the book, and I just wanted to open these imaginative doors and gesture to the reader, saying, Look there are all of these other full, complex, rich lives that we could follow if we wanted to.

Jivon is the center of the story. Lovely is the scene stealer. I'm interested in PT Sir. How did he come to be?

I was very interested in writing a character who… you know, he’s this ordinary school teacher. He feels that his life isn't really having the kind of vigorous impact on the nation that he might have dreamed of. And so what will this person do, who has this perfectly ordinary life, when he gets a little taste of political power? I wanted to see what such a person would surrender. What morals would they hold on to? Whom would they betray? So I wanted to look at the effects of a little bit of power in this society with huge power differentials?

One of the things that I noticed—and I didn't really realize it until after I'd finished the book—was that everybody in the novel dreams big. Would you agree with that?

Yeah, I think so.

But then in a lot of ways their stories are sort of Sisyphean, like there's something structural keeping them down.

Right, you know that was such a big part of what I wanted to examine—how we live within these oppressive systems and institutions, which curtail what we can do, and which deny us the opportunity to move forward. So I wanted to see how you can dream really big, you can work really hard, you can move forward really earnestly. But you have to think about the ways in which social structures contain our lives.

I'm sure you didn't write the book with these times in mind, because they actually hadn't happened yet—but you could draw some parallels from the novel to what's happening in this country right now, to what people are talking about, right?

Yeah, absolutely. And that's been so eerie for me to watch. I started writing this book several years ago, but in a similar mood, paying attention to how the state's systems bring their full oppressive might to bear upon certain groups. And we're seeing this uprising, this fight for justice in the U.S. right now. And the other part of this, which is very interesting, is that the links between Hindu nationalism and white supremacy—these hate-filled, xenophobic ideas of a “pure” race, and so on—there are very strong links between these two ideologies. So I think these countries are definitely holding up a mirror to each other in very interesting ways.

I also thought it was interesting that the novel starts off when Jivan writes a pretty innocuous message on a Facebook page that comes back to haunt her. Were you trying to say something about social media, and how brush fires turn into wildfires online? Was that something that you were thinking about, or is that just the way the world works right now?

Part of the reason that I wanted to have this Facebook comment in the book is it's so much a part of current Indian reality. I think India is the country with the most number of Facebook users in the world. So there's a huge population that's just coming online, just getting used to social media, and becoming aware of the ways in which we can use and can get used by both nationalist traditional media and social media. And the other thing that I was interested in was this idea that social media is any kind of free space. I think when you have vulnerabilities in your real life, the notion that social media is the space where you can say anything, speak anything, is just not true for a lot of people. You carry those vulnerabilities over into your virtual life as well.

Is there a character that was the most fun to write?

I think I really loved writing Lovely. She is a character who is living at the intersection of various kinds of systemic oppression due to her class, her religion, her gender. And yet she holds on to this wild dream of becoming a movie star. She goes to these amateur acting classes every week and she tries to bag roles, and I felt that this is a character who refuses to accept the shame that society wants to put on her. She lives with defiance. She lives with boldness. She teases and jokes with other people. She's very confident in who she is and what she wants, and I found that really beautiful to write.

I know the book is just out, but have you heard from readers yet?

I've heard from readers on Instagram and Twitter, and that's been really fun. A very fun experience that I have these days is I'll just be scrolling on Instagram and I'll see my book pop up, and then somebody, you know, writing this really thoughtful note about how they connected with the book. And it's such a jolt of surprise and joy.

That's great. And you're a book editor as well?

That's right.

How do you balance your day job with your writing?

I wrote this book very slowly. I wrote it over several years, and most of the time that I was able to devote to the book came in increments of 20 minutes or a half an hour before work. But I really tried guarding that time. I really tried protecting a few minutes each day before work that I would dedicate to this book—because as you know, once you go into work and you start looking at work emails and you start thinking about work deadlines, it's hard to get yourself back in that zone of thinking about the imaginative world that's in your mind. So that constant devotion, that quiet discipline. I also didn't really talk about the book at all while I was working on it, and I think that helped me a lot. I kept it very separate from my work life and from the space of casual conversation.

One more editor question: was it strange to take direction from another editor on your novel?

I loved it. I didn't find it strange at all. You know, I think that my agent, Eric, and my editor, Jordan, were really instrumental in shaping parts of this book. Their feedback, their criticism, their suggestions were invaluable. I mean, I think it's such an honor to have brilliant people come in and read your work with so much attention and so much care. I think the best form of editing and receiving edits is really receiving such a form of care, and I will always be grateful for it.

What are you working on next?

I'm working on my second novel, very slowly. It's very different, but like with my first book, I'm doing my best to keep its energy close to itself and not talk about it too much.

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