Photo: BJP and Shiv Sena flags. Al Jazeera English / Flickr
Photo: BJP and Shiv Sena flags. Al Jazeera English / Flickr

The cost of conscience

Megha Majumdar’s novel depicts a world where progress requires bigotry.

Atul Bhattarai writes about culture and politics and is based in Nepal.

About a third of the way through Megha Majumdar's lean, propulsive novel A Burning, published in early 2020, the protagonist tells a reporter who has come to visit her in jail: "You must understand my childhood to know who I am, and why this is happening to me." A young woman living in a Kolkata slum, Jivan is awaiting trial after being arrested on charges of "crimes against the nation" for an attack on a train that killed 112 people. She is, however, innocent. A risky post on Facebook, along with an unfortunate set of coincidences, has allowed the state to link her to the attack as an accomplice of shadowy terrorists who have already fled "across the border".
'A Burning: A Novel' by Megha Majumdar. Knopf (2020)
'A Burning: A Novel' by Megha Majumdar. Knopf (2020)
Over the course of several interviews with the reporter, Jivan recounts a life defined by poverty and helplessness. The story begins with her childhood in a mining town, from which her family is unceremoniously evicted to allow for new mines. During the demolition of their home, her father is assaulted by the police and seriously injured. The family's move to the city is accompanied by further misfortunes until Jivan is compelled to drop out of school and take up a job to support her family; as a sales clerk at a retail store, she is finally able to imagine a path out of destitution. But the charges that have been brought against her, Jivan seems to be implying, are in keeping with her past misery.
Jivan is perceived very differently by the world outside, where a political party flying "the saffron flags of ardent nationalism", the Jana Kalyan Party, is gaining ascendance. We soon discover that Jivan is Muslim, and from the outset is labelled a terrorist, her guilt in the attack taken for granted. One TV news programme asks why she bears "so much hatred in her heart for her own country". Jivan's hopes of communicating her innocence to the public vanish when the reporter's article is finally published under the words "A terrorist tells her life story". In it, an anecdote about lobbing "bombs" of shit and urine at her evictors is transmuted into a story about actual bombs and woven into a narrative of her apparent disloyalty to the state.

In one of the novel's most affecting passages, after blessing a newborn with her hijra sisters, the baby's mother returns inside the house and Lovely hears her "washing her hands of us": her hands are "so, so clean" Lovely thinks when the mother emerges.

Jivan's fate, however, will ultimately rest on the testimony of a limited cast of characters. One is PT Sir, Jivan's former teacher who held a soft spot for her as an athletically gifted "charity student" at an elite girls' school. Another is Lovely, a hijra to whom she used to teach English and who aspires to make it as an actress. But as Jivan's case amasses notoriety, their lives are transformed. Soon after learning about Jivan's apparent treachery, PT Sir becomes entangled with the Jana Kalyan Party and rises through party ranks, aided by his connection to "the terrorist". Lovely, searching in vain for a break into the film industry, is suddenly catapulted into the public eye. Much of the novel's drama turns on whether these characters, in the changing circumstances of their lives and their country, will testify to Jivan's innocence.
Capital as an index of progress
In an early chapter, Jivan reflects that after dropping out of school she was moving up in the world: "From an eater of cabbage, I was becoming an eater of chicken." As an aspiring entrant to the middle class at a time of aggressive consumerism – present-day India, shaped by economic liberalisation in the early 1990s – her purchases form an index of her progress. Jivan is proud of the "smartphone with a big screen" she has come to own, but still covets the table lamp at a friend's house and the "purses with little plastic cards, sources of endless money" that customers use at the store in which she works. This is true too of Majumdar's other characters, who are struggling to escape their circumstances. PT Sir, for instance, dreams of a position that will allow him the comforts of a middle-class professional – air-conditioning, a computer, "an office with a leather chair."
At the same time, these material wants form only the surface of their ambitions. What Jivan most desires is a semblance of control and authority over her own life, which, before she entered an elite school, she likens to that of a goat at a slaughterhouse, its future preordained. In her eyes, poverty has exposed her family to ill and capricious treatment, such as a condescending doctor whose indifference causes her father's condition to worsen and leaves him unable to work. Meanwhile, the rich move with impunity. Scrolling through Facebook, she envies those who are "not afraid of making jokes. Whether it was about the police or the ministers, they had their fun, and wasn't that freedom?" Those with money, she thinks, knew people who "were capable of making all problems disappear." In one scene, Jivan catches a glimpse of this life when she talks back to an unwilling bureaucrat and gets him to resolve a water supply issue at home. Afterwards her mother celebrates her achievement: "The system doesn't always work for us", she tells her daughter. "But you see that, now and then, you can make good things happen for yourself." Jivan thinks: "Only now and then? I thought I would have a better life than that."

Yet this impoverishment is seldom described in mainstream media today, which, especially since the 1990s, has preferred to linger on stereotypes of Muslims as gangsters and "gun-toting jihadis".

Lovely's aspirations too are fuelled by an imagined release from daily indignities. As a poor hijra who makes a living from begging and performing occasional blessings, she's often treated with contempt and ridicule. She conceals her pain with a dazzling ebullience. When we first meet her, Lovely is hurrying to an acting class and asks a guava seller for the time: "'Eight thirty,' he is grumbling, because he is not wishing to share with me the fruits of his wristwatch. Leave him." But the disappointments in her life accumulate: she feels forced to break up with her partner, Azad, under pressure from his family to marry someone 'normal'; her attempts at an acting career, despite her abundant talent, are waylaid when she's written off even before her audition as 'B-class' material. In one of the novel's most affecting passages, after blessing a newborn with her hijra sisters, the baby's mother returns inside the house and Lovely hears her "washing her hands of us": her hands are "so, so clean" Lovely thinks when the mother emerges. "When I am a movie star," she fantasises, "that mother will be regretting that she washed me off her hands."
From these indignities greater wealth and power promise relief, and most importantly respect. Small wonder then that there's a frenzied desire, at a time when class boundaries have become seemingly permeable, to seize this better life. Even PT Sir, whose circumstances as a lower-middle-class schoolteacher are by no means desperate, craves power, disaffected as he is with the stultifying routines of his life and the emasculation he feels as the only man at a girls' school. One day as he's returning home on a crowded train after stumbling into a Jana Kalyan rally, PT Sir is mistaken for a party member and handed a complimentary bowl of muri. Majumdar describes here the beginnings of an ambition he will try to realise in the rest of the novel: "PT Sir feels the other passengers staring at him. They must be thinking, who is this VIP?"
Condoning public prejudice
But a widespread desire for advancement does not, of course, guarantee that everyone is equally poised or able to achieve it. The explosion of wealth and the middle-class expansion that neoliberalism brought to India left its Muslims largely untouched. The government's 2006 Sachar report documented the community's deprivation; studies conducted a decade later showed that their conditions are largely the same. Save for a small group of elites, it continues to be one of the poorest and least educated communities in India. And yet this impoverishment is seldom described in mainstream media today, which, especially since the 1990s, has preferred to linger on stereotypes of Muslims as gangsters and "gun-toting jihadis", as the political scientist Maidul Islam puts it.

But Hindutva in its current form is enabled by more than just strident ideologues, and Majumdar is interested in its persuasive properties.

Our impression of Jivan, however, is tightly focused around how she portrays herself: a harried member of the economic underclass. In Jivan's eyes, class is central to her misfortune. And yet the kind of essentialising and stereotyping to which she is subjected is the particular fate of the Muslim poor. This context is hinted at in one scene. A rumour circulates among Jivan's fellow inmates that a famous director, Sonali Khan – who is presumably Muslim as well – might be headed to the same jail; but she avoids imprisonment in favour of house arrest. "Even the meaning of 'prison' is different for rich people." Jivan thinks. "Can you blame me for wanting, so much, to be – not even rich, just middle class?" The prejudice by which "every bearded man is considered an ISI agent," as reported in the Sachar commission, devastates the most helpless. The livelihood of Jivan's own family, already on its last legs, collapses when her mother's small breakfast business is wrecked by a group of men who rob and assault her, telling her to "go back to Bangladesh."
The idea that religion is (or should be) immaterial to one's progress is a secular hope, but has been advanced even by the Bharatiya Janata Party. In the late 1990s, the BJP's project of embracing the neoliberal policies begun by the Indian Congress was met with scepticism: how could it reconcile its exclusionary nationalism with the individualist underpinnings of capitalism? Yet the BJP did manage to do so publicly, softening its more outspoken Hindu messaging and stressing inclusive development over religion. During the 2014 elections, one of Narendra Modi's core campaign slogans was "sabka saath, sabka vikas" – with everyone's participation, development for all.

What to do when advancement itself seems to be dependent on condoning public prejudices – where standing by principle imposes a stupendous opportunity cost on someone like her?

But an exclusionary Hindutva still spread, marked by controversies such as 'love jihad' – the notion that Muslim men sought to marry Hindu daughters in order to convert them to Islam – or underhanded comments such as Modi's in 2001 that "all Muslims are not terrorists but all terrorists are Muslim". Majumdar lays out a future where its ideological groundwork is largely complete, and public feeling is in close alignment. In the background of Jivan's case is the horrifying communal violence against Muslims taking place today, which has seen a marked uptick since the BJP came into power. In one interlude, Majumdar depicts the mind of a village mob as it slaughters a Muslim family accused of killing a cow, imagining itself chillingly as a "flood of cleansing water". The prejudice is subtler but no less present among the urban friends and family of Lovely and PT Sir, who accept unquestioningly that Jivan is a terrorist. What resistance to this view that does exist is in tatters: a newspaper article asks readers to beware of a "trial by media"; at a rally, some students hold a banner calling for "Justice for Jivan".
But Hindutva in its current form is enabled by more than just strident ideologues, and Majumdar is interested in its persuasive properties. PT Sir's initial assignment for the Jana Kalyan Party is to provide false witness testimony against alleged criminals. It's a "peripheral matter", he is assured, that the first one he accuses "also belongs to the wrong religion, the minority religion that encourages the eating of beef". His scruples here are further eased by remuneration and the prospect of becoming a party man. Later, after his visit to a village results in a riot in which Muslims are lynched, he's beset by guilt – he thinks he is "no less than a murderer" – about not doing enough to help. A tense scene ensues in which he confesses what he has witnessed to his wife, who is a sceptic about his growing political affiliations; but it is followed in sequence by a scene of release: the couple is seen buying expensive cookware with PT Sir's newly fattened salary, a reward for loyalty to the party. His submission is affirmed when he's asked to suppress Jivan's case, his initial objections – that Jivan should have her legal rights – rapidly giving way to compliance.
But it is in Lovely that the combination of aspiration and Islamophobia finds particular expression, plunging her into a moral quandary. For much of the novel Lovely views Jivan's case with empathy and concern, culminating at the trial in an irreverent testimony in Jivan's defense: "What is shocking me," she tells the courtroom, "is how you all are making up such lies." (This is sneered off by the judge as the words of "an individual who begs on the streets for money", Lovely's contribution to Jivan's case, she thinks, "as useful as a shoe is to a snake.") But she gets a rude awakening afterwards when she discovers that her testimony has apparently been invidious as well as ineffective: assuring her that "politics is not entering my mind", a mentor who had earlier championed her work complains that she has "gone and said all these things in court."
Soon after, Lovely's luck takes a turn. Her performance at Jivan's trial causes one of her acting clips to go viral on WhatsApp, her subsequent rise through social media as swift as Jivan's downfall. She's applauded for her talent, and finds that those who were previously keen to stay away suddenly want to associate with her. But Majumdar is careful to show how this surge of interest is misleading; her talent alone doesn't exempt her from having to bow to public opinion, even though one director tells her that it doesn't matter "whether your words at that trial are true, false, or in between!" The guardian of her hijra community dispenses sobering advice. "In life…I have learned we cannot be having everything," she tells Lovely, and hers is a "moment for sacrifice": "You must choose: Are you wanting to rise in the film world? Or are you wanting the public to see you as a person who is defending a terrorist?"

The ideological battle seems to be largely over, and Hindutva guides the capitalist economy. People needn't ascribe to it for bigotry to prevail; just following one's self-interest is sufficient.

This is the dilemma Majumdar places before Lovely: what to do when advancement itself seems to be dependent on condoning public prejudices – where standing by principle imposes a stupendous opportunity cost on someone like her? In a series of small capitulations after the trial, Lovely stops advocating for Jivan, just as her testimony had begun a public reassessment of the case. She's filled with shame, but "still shame is weaker than the other thing", she thinks – a stab at fame and a reversal of fortune. Sure enough, her rise proves to be inextricable from social currents. A director tells her she wants to avoid "bad publicity", and Lovely chooses to disassociate herself from Jivan entirely, contrite even as she betrays her.
What makes Lovely's submission so poignant is the keen solidarity she feels with Jivan: "Jivan and I are both no more than insects", she reflects after the trial. But in an oppressive system weighted so heavily against her, can someone like Lovely afford to stand by her principles? She inveighs against "this society" that has forced her to give up a man she loved and her own happiness, and which is now "screaming for the blood of innocent Jivan, only because she is a poor Muslim woman." Society too was the reason her own family turned against her, an "unnatural boy" who might corrupt others, and the reason she ran away from home and a protective mother: "how long can a mother be fighting against the laws of society?" she reasons. The prejudice against Jivan too has hardened into a kind of social law.
Sliding into the new dispensation
In 2016, two years after Narendra Modi became India's prime minister, the writer and activist Arundhati Roy gave a speech that, though generally despairing, also struck a note of cautious optimism. Recently a feeling had swept through the nation, she said: "ordinary people began to show discomfort with what was going on." Yet a few years later Modi would go on to win re-election for a second term, and in a 2019 address Roy's tone had become one of alarm: "We can only hope that someday soon, the streets in India will throng with people who realise that unless they make their move, the end is close."
It is this latter vision of India that seems to reign in Majumdar's novel, although we are never entirely sure if hers is an assessment of the present or a dire prognostication. In any case, Majumdar does not point us to any exits. The ideological battle seems to be largely over, and Hindutva guides the capitalist economy. People needn't ascribe to it for bigotry to prevail; just following one's self-interest is sufficient.
The novel shies away from easy resolutions and exclusively moral terrain. But moral categories have not yet collapsed. Majumdar is unsparing about the grievous human consequences of her characters' actions, which may be far from inconceivable but no less shocking for it: at the end Jivan, utterly abandoned by her would-be defenders, is convicted and hanged for her crimes.
It's relatively palatable to have characters in such situations who are unthinking or morally vacant. In Roy's own 2017 novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, as India is washed by the "saffron tide of Hindu Nationalism", a character with flexible principles has "slid into the new dispensation in one smooth slither". Majumdar's characters are more reluctant and self-aware – Lovely in particular is fiercely intelligent and remarkably clear-eyed about her actions – but they submit nonetheless. And this is perhaps the bleakest part of her vision: her characters possess consciences, and yet choose to ignore them.
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