A Burning

A Burning, the debut novel by Megha Majumdar, received a very unusual stellar review by James Wood in the New Yorker:

Majumdar marshals a much smaller cast of speakers than Faulkner did, and her spare plot moves with arrowlike determination. It begins with a crime, continues with a false charge and imprisonment, and ends with a trial. The book has some of the elements of a thriller or a police procedural, but one shouldn’t mistake its extraordinary directness and openness to life with the formulaic accelerations of genre: Majumdar’s novel is compelling, yet its compulsions have to do with an immersive present rather than with a skidding sequence. Her characters start telling us about their lives, and those lives are suddenly palpable, vital, voiced. I can’t remember when I last read a novel that so quickly dismantled the ordinary skepticism that attends the reading of made-up stories. Early Naipaul comes to mind as a precursor, and perhaps Akhil Sharma’s stupendously vivid novel “Family Life.” Sharma has spoken of how he avoided using “sticky” words—words involving touch and taste and smell—so as to enable a natural velocity; Majumdar finds her own way of achieving the effect.

“A Burning” is about the fateful interactions of three principal characters, who take turns sharing their narratives. At its center is a young Muslim woman named Jivan, who lives in the slums of Kolkata, and who witnesses a terrorist incident that tips her life into turmoil. A halted train at a nearby station is firebombed, and the ensuing inferno kills more than a hundred people. At home, Jivan makes the mistake of posting a politically risky question on Facebook—“If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?”—which attracts official attention. The police come for her in the middle of the night.

…There are two people whose testimony could save Jivan, and much of the novel turns on their capacity and their willingness to offer it. One is an aspiring actress named Lovely, who also lives in the slum. Lovely—the name she took at eighteen—is a so-called hijra, a designation that affords intersex and transgender people a recognized status, but a perilously ambiguous and marginal one.

…The third protagonist, a physical-education teacher called PT Sir, knew Jivan when she was one of the “charity students” at S. D. Gosh Girls’ School.

I agree, A Burning is very good. I will add only two points. I wrote about the hijra of India when I was living in Mumbai and that post is well worth reading for background. Second, most of the reviews, especially the annoying NYTimes review by Parul Sehgal (compare Wood and Sehgal on Lovely’s voice, Wood is right and obviously so if you are not blinded by political correctness) focus on the Indian setting and contemporary Indian politics. That’s a natural, if superficial, vantage point. What impressed me more was the less obvious commentary on social media which is very relevant to the US. How does the pressure and potential of being seen by many others alter our choices? There are multiple mobs in A Burning; two of the mobs, one virtual, the other not, result in the brutal murders of innocent people, a third mob launches a star.


Doesn't Cowen have a discussion scheduled with Majumdar? By the way, she now resides in NYC (a graduate of Harvard and Johns Hopkins), not India, and worked (works?) as an editor at a book publisher. I would have guessed she had spent time as a journalist, given the writing style described in Tabarrok's post (more Hemingway than Faulkner). Maybe it's the result of her working as an editor.

No scheduled discussion with Majumdar. I was confusing her with Melissa Dell because their wikipedia pages don't know their birth years. I didn't know that was so common. Would Tabarrok or Cowen correct his wikipedia page if his birth year were in doubt?

It's James Wood.

So wanted it to be James Woods.

I am Scott Alexander.

--Tyler Cowen


Thank you, Tyler. I am Scott Alexander too.

Slums, a transsexual, an attack on Modi. You know, it has got all the right boxes ticked. For someone who lives in New York this should do well.

America used to export culture. Now it exports culture wars.

The Hijra are a meta-analogy of our modern politics and culture. Did you know that Hijra in India effectively get by through blackmail? See, when a major life-event happens like marriage or the birth of a child, in India you're supposed to have a hijra/s present and to say a blessing over said life-event otherwise they put a curse on you. This is not a joke. Look it up.

It's meta-analogous because that's exactly what trans/etc. do in this country. You'd better include them and make the necessary reparation or they'll make your life quite nasty. It's blackmail and extortion. It's how they live. It's the good old mafia protection-racket except the practitioners aren't Italian goombas, they're simply deranged.

Don't worry, they aren't going to steal your precious fluids.

"Like you've ever met a trans person"

Considering real transsexuals (as in hermaphrodites/ism) represent approx. 1 out of every 83,000 births - meaning that there are roughly 94,000 true/real transsexuals out of 7.8 billion people - it is highly unlikely that I've ever met a real 'trans person'. So you're right.

Something which wouldn't work if mainstream Hinduism did not prescribe them by superstition as impure and possessing dark and mysterious powers which do not exist in fact... Perhaps there's an analogy there, too...?

I don't read novels written by women. Leave those to other women. Men should read novels written by men.

"Maybe the government is the real terrorist," is certainly something a teenager would say. Is she prosecuted simply for that statement, or do they try to link her to the murders? Does India actually have the state capacity to police its social media like that?

There are tools made by Silicon Valley that allow states to monitor social media. It allows a handful of bureaucrats to monitor millions using the combination of keyword search and artificial intelligence. Say the wrong thing and expect a knock on your door.

Unfortunately these tools aren't the greatest, like a black man in Detroit arrested falsely because facial recognition software failed, the first case in the US. There's also the separate question of why they re-purposed the DMV picture database as the equivalent of an electronic police lineup. Most of us in the US live in places where we need to drive and now we involuntarily signed up for automatic profiling by the local police.


That had nothing to do with social media, though. Also, the article itself notes that the software at issue was created by a small company in South Carolina, not anyone in Silicon Valley.

Set in Minneapolis, is it?

I did not think the reviewer Sehgal that AlexT said was awful did such a bad job at all. I do have an issue with the novel in this passage: "The publishers have framed the novel as a literary thriller, burdening it, I worry, with an unfair expectation. True suspense is in short supply; in fact, the story is marked by an undertow of bleak inevitability. As a girl, Jivan used to pass by a butcher shop on her way to school. “The goat must have had a life, much like me,” she would think, looking up at the row of skinned carcasses. “At the end of its life, maybe it had been led by a rope to the slaughterhouse, and maybe, from the smell of blood which emerged from that room, the goat knew where it was being taken.”

Anthropomorphism with animals noted. I'm not convinced animals know or care too much about death. When one animal dies the rest just keep on eating, though, I do notice that even sheep seem to know they are about to be slaughtered and kick and fight. Pigs in particular seem to know.

I just ordered my copy!

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