Through Jivan, Lovely and PT Sir, The Burning explores the condition of the marginalized and the helplessness of the poor in their fight against state institutions. In Jivan, Lovely and PT Sir, Megha Majundar constructs three interconnected and well-formed characters. Each is on the margin of society in a distinct way. Jivan is a Muslim girl (in Hindu majority India) who lives with a peasant trader mother and her invalid father. They moved to the slums after the government destroyed their previous home and in the ensuing violence, her father was beaten by the police. Lovely is a hijra – part of a community of mostly eunuchs, some intersex and transgender people. Shunned by most and denigrated at every turn, like the other two protagonists in The Burning, Lovely is on the margins of Indian society. Like Jivan, Lovely is full of dreams and aspirations. Aspirations that are not even so lofty but made almost unattainable by her marginalisation. For Jivan, it is to escape the clutches of poverty and become part of the middle class. Fo Lovely, it is to be a renowned actress; a dream that is very achievable given her incredible acting talent and her dedication to her craft. Lovely’s audacity to aspire is incredibly inspiring, even to the reader.
Jivan had dropped out of school in Grade 10 to work and support her poor mother and sick father. One of the dividends of her job as an assistant in the shopping mall is that she is able to afford a smartphone. The same benefit ends up being the channel of her incarceration. A careless post on Facebook makes her a prime suspect in a train bombing near her slum. A terrorist act that leads to the death of hundreds of train passengers. Because she is on the margin – poor and Muslim, the government are able to use her as a scapegoat to satisfy the thirst of the nationalistic public in their hunger for jungle justice.
PT Sir is a worrying character. He is not as marginalised as the other two but turns a willing tool in the hands of the oppressor, all in a bid to satisfy a desire for political power. Permanently unstable in all his ways. He is giving to deep introspection but his hunger for power means that he always ends up betraying his conscience. He longs to belong to the political elite but because he is on the outside, climbing the ladder will mean betraying his conscience.
The intertwined nature of the three protagonists is well-crafted and the distinctiveness in each of their voices in dedicated chapters is skillfully written. Lovely is the stand-out protagonist. Not just for her physical uniqueness but also for the narration done in the present progressive tense. It gives her voice a sense of immediacy that denotes defiance. In all, The Burning is an excellent novel that reiterates the point that most governments are willing to trample on the marginalised in a bid to satisfy populist tendencies.