At one level, a reader can gauge the crisis the novel as a literary genre is facing by the adulatory reception Megha Majumdar’s debut work A Burning, a ‘new India’ novel, has received in the US. At another, the reader can be amused that the West still doesn’t want to forsake the image of India it has built and nourished over centuries for its cultural and political consumption.
If the novel is a political enterprise, the latter is also worrying. The novel, many illustrious scholars have told us, was among the major carriers of colonialism. As the prime cultural genre of the West, it enabled the construction of an image of colonised countries that suited the imperial masters. It distorted the histories of colonised societies, imposed on them a false memory whose burden they would carry forever and, ironically, forced them to bow in gratitude towards the novelists for narrating their lives.
Glancing through the paeans A Burning has received, one cannot help asking—is the novel still being asked to fulfill the similar purpose?
With interwoven tales of three prime characters, located in a neighbourhood of Kolkata, A Burning is just a mild stab at contemporary India that gets contended by perfunctory outlines and makes little attempt to capture the country in its nuances and complexities. A young woman, Jivan, has been arrested for a Facebook post, and is accused of helping terrorists who set a train on fire. Lovely, a ‘hijra’ (that’s how the novel calls this character), wants to be an actress. She takes English classes from Jivan and gives auditions.
Jivan hopes that Lovely will testify in her favour and it will be established that the package she was carrying had books for Lovely.
And there is PT Sir who was Jivan’s teacher in school. He joins Jan Kalyan Party which seeks votes in the name of religion. The novel doesn’t name the religion or its fanatic members but we know what they are talking about. Soon we have a frenzied election that JKP wins and a Hindu right-wing party comes to power. There’s also an instance of a mob lynching a Muslim on the suspicion of him being a beef-eater.
Already too much familiarity?
Constructing a political novel through immediate newspaper headlines requires significant creative enterprise. The immediate is often tempting, but art lives for posterity. The possibility of the authorial intrusion is perhaps highest in novels in which novelists, with little temporal remove, write about the events they are witness to. Majumdar excels on this count. The terseness of her style, short chapters with sparse prose minimise the occurrence of an iron hand guiding the plot.
But she flounders on the other front. The incidents in the novel come with little cultural or political context to lend them any authenticity. The characters appear contrived and lack conviction.
Consider two instances.
In jail, Jivan narrates her life story to a journalist, Purnendu, over many sessions, hoping it would help her. But he betrays her and publishes a damning report in which a ‘terrorist’ reportedly admits to have thrown “bombs at the police”. The judge admits that the interview is inadmissible in the court, but nevertheless convicts her to have “an ongoing relationship, on this website called Facebook, with a known terrorist recruiter”. She now must be executed “for soothing the conscience of the city, of the country”.
In another fanciful episode, the video of Lovely’s testimony in the court becomes viral and, after watching the video, the casting director gets convinced about her ‘acting’ abilities.
The novel is a disappointment, to say the least, but here’s a question: had this novel been written not in English but in any Indian language, and first published in India instead of the US, what kind of media space would it have received?
There’s also the politics of publishing—and that’s all the more worrying because it, sadly, threatens to reduce the novel, that greatest form of modern literature, into a neocolonial enterprise.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj is an award-winning writer & journalist