Megha Majumdar’s debut social protest novel illuminates India’s illiberal democratic movement
In “Harlem,” Langston Hughes’ much anthologized 1951 poem, the poet ponders what happens when a liberal society’s promise of equal protection under the law is continuously deferred. His answer is ambiguous. Does it dry up? Fester like a sore? Crust and sugar over? Or perhaps, the poem concludes, might it explode? Megha Majumdar’s new social protest novel, A Burning, published this year by Alfred A. Knopf to great acclaim, asks a similar question. Majumdar’s novel, though, is not so much interested in asking how an oppressed class might react to oppression. The question A Burning asks is what happens when a society itself abandons its commitments to pluralism and political liberalism altogether. Majumdar’s answer is unequivocal: explosions both literal and metaphorical.
The preamble to the Constitution of India holds that the nation shall be a “socialist secular democratic republic” wherein justice, liberty and equality for all are secured in a state of fraternity promoting the dignity of the individual. No power is exercised sinlessly in a sinful world, however, so the Indian government’s record of pluralism has suffered its fair share of stain and disrepute throughout the years. The rapidity with which this record is being tarnished is increasing in recent years, unfortunately, under the ignominious rule of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist political party, Bharatiya Janata Party.
Modi’s real world marshalling of Indian society down the path of illiberal democracy finds its fictional analogue in Majumdar’s novel in the character of Bimala Pal. Pal populates her movement with all manner of corruption, media manipulation and, borrowing from Henry Adams, systemized organizations of hatred. That hatred finds its target in Jivan, a young female Muslim falsely accused of an act of terrorism.
Jivan should be A Burning’s main character. It is the novel’s major flaw that she is not. It is Jivan’s story that provides the novel’s inciting incident at the train station. It is her life that is irreparably harmed by the false terrorism accusation. Pity then that Jivan’s character achieves all the fullness of a protest placard complete with a similar brevity and lack of subtlety. Her character is largely hollow, she doesn’t achieve any real growth nor any development. She stands as a mere symbol of injustice. And here is the central issue with A Burning: while it works well as a document of social protest it doesn’t quite satisfy the novel’s task of breathing full life into its characters.
A Burning wants to communicate to readers the dangers of illiberal democracy. It wants to show what happens when politics is divorced from the rule of law, to describe the ghastly yield of popular passions untempered by rights constraints. It achieves these goals in the characters of PT Sir and Lovely.
PT Sir and Lovely share similar character arcs. Both have burning passions. PT Sir, a physical education instructor at a rundown local school, wants a better life among the burgeoning middle class. Lovely, an impoverished hijra, dreams of Bollywood stardom. Both achieve their goals by turning on Jivan. PT Sir offers false witness against her. He leverages his service into a position in Bamila Pal’s Jana Kalyan Party. Lovely, when confronted with the opportunity to save Jivan, opts instead to keep her mouth shut so she can secure a part in a famous director’s new film. So we see in PT Sir and Lovely’s stories the sacrifice of justice at the altar of professional advancement.
Same as with Jivan, however, the presentation of PT Sir and Lovely aren’t quite brought to full life. They don’t escape the page. The most successful social protest novels, say, Émile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart cycle or some of the work of Charles Dickens, present a social critique by means of fully realized characters peopling a lively narrative. Majumdar doesn’t quite take us there. A Burning doesn’t fail entirely on this account. There are some very effective passages in the novel, particularly those documenting the sensory abundance of life in the dense Indian slums. And the alternating point-of-view chapters speak to the wonderful mosaic of India’s diverse populace. A Burning is certainly one of the better literary novels to be published recently.
Megha Majumdar has done well in lighting a match to help illuminate a dark corner of the global illiberal democratic movement. The explosion her career as a novelist is sure to ignite, however, remains to be seen.