Touted as the one of the most defining literary debuts in recent times, Megha Majumdar’s A Burning centers around a Muslim girl, Jivan who decides to take charge of her life even though she is born to unfavourable economic situations. Her life, however, is upended when she is held responsible for executing a terrorist attack on a train owing to an innocuous Facebook comment.
In an interview with indianexpress.com, the author had traced her inclination towards politics. “We watched the news that our parents did. We were aware of what was happening around us,” she had said.
Here’s an excerpt
Uma madam taps her steel-tipped stick against the bars of our cells. Down the corridor she goes, clang clang clang.
“Up, up,” she calls. “Time to get up!” I hear the sound coming closer. In front of my cell it stops. I look up from the mattress, where I have been, not asleep, but unwilling to begin the day. It is six in the morning, and the sun’s heat has already warmed the walls and cooked the air. My skin sticks. When I raise my head,
Uma madam points her stick through the bars. “Especially you!” she says. “Because of you we are having to take all this trouble. Why are you still sleeping?” My case has brought scrutiny upon the women’s prison. TV channels and filmmakers want to show how we live, what we do. I imagine them crawling inside, observing us like we are monkeys in a zoo: “Now the inmates have one hour to watch TV. Then they will cook the food.” The more requests the administration denies, the more suspicious they look. The men and women of the administration protest that it is a matter of security and safety. But what does our prison have to hide? How bad are the conditions? The public wants to know. It is looking likely, we hear, that some TV requests will be granted. Before the camera crews appear, the prison must be “beautified.”
“Beautification!” Uma madam scoffs as she walks away.
This morning, I receive the task of scrubbing decades of grease and black soot from the kitchen walls. Others mop and wipe the floors, replace lightbulbs, and plant saplings in the garden. A favoured few do the gentle work of painting murals on the walls. Americandi, leader of all, sticks a melting square of Cadbury in her mouth and supervises.
The work causes old aches to flare. Throughout the week, women complain about the long hours on their feet. The steel wool and kerosene with which I scrub grease make my palm burn, but who knows if this hand, at this task, in this prison, is mine? In my mind my hand grips the table in front of me in the courtroom, watching as my supporters—Kalu, with his neck tumour; Lovely, of course; some regular customers of my mother’s breakfast business who have been asking her to reopen her morning shop—appear in the courtroom to tell all gathered that they have seen me taking books to Lovely. They know I teach her English. Lovely’s neighbours know too. Isn’t this, the knowledge of a dozen people, a kind of evidence?
The next time Purnendu comes, I tell him about the day I told my mother I was quitting school. “Ma,” I said to her one day, “I will tell you something, but you can’t be angry.” Purnendu leans forward, as if he is my mother. She turned around from the stove, a flour-dusted ruti on her upturned palm, and looked at me. “After class ten,” I said, “I will leave school. I will work and support you and Ba.” My ears were hot. My mouth was dry. “Who taught you these stupid things?” Ma said, looking up at me. “You want to leave school? Look at this smart girl! And do what?”
“Work, Ma, work!” I said. “Ba has not worked in months, because his back is not healing. That nighttime market is not safe for you. Did you forget how you got attacked? How are we making money?” “That’s nothing for you to worry about,” she snapped. “When did you become such a grandma? Just go to school, study hard, that is your job.” But I could not give up. If I let her talk me out of it, I would never attempt it again. “Class ten graduates,” I said, “can get well-paying jobs. I can finish class ten, sit for the board exams, then look for a job.”
After days of back and forth, Ma gave up. One night, as we were finishing our meal, she threw up her hands. “Now this job ghost is sitting on your shoulder, what can I do?” she said. “So fine! Ruin your life, what do I care? Grow up and live in a slum, that will be good!” Maybe that was a poor decision. But whom did I have to teach me how to build a better life?
In the month leading up to the board exams, I studied hard. Late nights I sat on top of the high bed, a flashlight in one hand aimed at the page, my body swaying back and forth as I murmured paragraphs. As night grew deeper, in the silence around me, sometimes I heard a man pissing in the gutter right outside the house. Sometimes I heard footsteps, soft like a ghost’s. I don’t know how much I learned, but I did memorise whole textbooks by heart.
In March, the board exams began. I went to my assigned school building—we were assigned seats in different schools, away from our own, so that we could not scratch answers into our desks beforehand. A few girls were pacing in the lane, textbooks open in their arms, their lips moving. Some distance away, a girl was bent over and vomiting while her mother patted her back.
Inside, in a classroom, it was strange to take my chair, a sloping desk before it that belonged to somebody else. The desk was scratched with hearts which said S+K. Sheets of answer paper were passed out by a teacher, and I waited with my sheets, gripping my new ball pen, until the question paper was distributed. Outside the window a tree held still.
Three hours later, when the bell rang, I handed over my sheets, bound with an elastic string, to the invigilator. My middle finger was swollen with the pressure of the pen. In the corridor, girls stood in clusters, hands smudged with ink, some rubbing their aching hands. I left, overhearing pieces of conversations. “What did you write for the summer crops question?” “Sorghum!” “I knew this diagram would come.”
On the day of results, my heart leaped to see I had passed, with fifty-two percent. It was the poorest score in my class, and my classmates looked at me with concern. They expected me to cry, or collapse in despair. A few girls were standing in the corner, sniffling into handkerchiefs because they had received seventy percent. But unlike them, I was not planning to go to college. All I needed was to pass, and I had. At home, I was feted as a graduate. How proud were my mother and father. In celebration, my mother pressed a milk sweet in my mouth, and distributed a packet of sweets to the neighbours.
“My daughter,” she announced proudly, “is now class ten pass!” It was as if she had forgotten my plan. I had not.
The week after, with a copy of my exam certificate in hand, I walked into the New World Mall and got a job, in the jeans section of Pantaloons.
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