The Book Show #1666 - Megha Majumdar | WAMC

The Book Show #1666 - Megha Majumdar

Jun 23, 2020

Joe Donaue: Megha Majumdar's debut novel "A Burning" is about three characters whose lives become entwined after a terrorist attack in India. It is taut, electrifying, and dazzling. Jivan is a Muslim girl from the slums determined to move up in life who is accused of executing a terrorist attack on a train because of a careless comment on Facebook. PT Sir is an opportunistic gym teacher who hitches his aspirations to a right wing political party, and finds that his own ascent becomes linked to Jivan's fall. Lovely is an irresistible outcast who has the alibi that can set Jivan free, but it will cost her everything that she holds dear. Megha Majumdar grew up in Kolkata, India and studied social anthropology at Harvard and Johns Hopkins. She is currently an editor at Catapult. This is her first novel. 

And it's a great pleasure to welcome Megha Majumdar to The Book Show this week, thank you very much for being with us. What a delight to have you on.

Megha Majumdar: Thank you so much for having me, Joe.

I can't tell you what a thrill and what- How lovely it was to read this novel. I will be honest with you. It was the blurb from Tommy Orange that got me, that said, I want to read this. And then when I did, I was like, I wrote Tommy and I said, "Oh, thank you."

What a dream to have a blurb from Tommy Orange. Truly.

Oh, It's just, it's just terrific. So give me a sense as to how it started to percolate. And when you, you thought: "Okay, this is the novel that I would like to write."

You know, I grew up in India. And so even though I moved to the US, I was keeping an eye on what was happening in India and I was watching the rise of the right wing in that country. And you know, I was following the news and I just found myself feeling furious. I found myself feeling I'm alarmed by the rise in hate crimes and the sort of extreme nationalism. And I wanted to write something about that, but I wanted to do it as a novelist. You know, I wanted to look at how ordinary people, even in conditions of vast systemic inequality, and vast oppression, how ordinary people still hold on to dreams and chase big dreams.

There are certainly major differences, but there is a universal quality to the novel, right? I mean, because it's not just India who is facing these huge issues.

That's true. It's very strange to me that the book is launching into this particular moment of uprising and a search for justice in the US because, when I started writing the book several years ago, I think that I was in a similar mood of watching something go really wrong and wanting to speak up about it. And, you know, the novel is so much about police brutality, it's about being let down by the justice system. It's about turning to the media to tell your story and all of that feels eerily current.

There is that aspect, I was going to ask you about that. There is a component, a regular theme in the novel where someone will go to someone in authority for help and they are dismissed. They are not listened to. And, and there's also there, there's no good graces. It's, it's usually very blunt and nasty.

Yeah, you know, I think that's so many people's experience of the institutions and systems that we are surrounded by, you know? There's a character in the book who, her father is injured because of the violent way in which their house is demolished. She seeks a reliable water supply and is kind of dismissed by this bureaucrat. And I think that is just so true to so many people's experiences of trying to navigate, trying to move forward, trying to get even the basics for themselves and being dismissed like you say, by the people in power.

Let us talk about the three characters that I mentioned in the introduction. Beginning with Jivan, who as I said, as a Muslim girl from the slums. Talk a little bit about this character who is- This is the first voice we we meet in the novel.

That's true. Jivan is a young woman. All she wants is to keep her job at the mall, enjoy her new smartphone, she wants to rise to the middle class and have a better life than her parents did. But, because of careless comment on Facebook, she gets caught up in this case and she's accused, like you said before, of having been involved in this terrorist attack. And through her I really wanted to see how somebody who works really hard, really earnestly can still be challenged in really profound ways, by the justice system, by the police, by the courts, and even by a very nationalist media.

This character basically has everything going against her, right? I mean, the, the court appointed lawyer isn't doing much. Obviously being a woman isn't helping at all. Being in prison- No one is listening to her at all.

That's true. And you know, at one point she takes matters into her own hands and without giving away too much, I wanted to see what happens when somebody who is driven to that place who realizes, "Well, nobody's going to help me the systems aren't here to support me, I have to do what I can." She tries to do that, and, um, even that is not simple.

Was attempting to put a character who was much higher in the, in the system and had great power- But you didn't you didn't go that way.

You know, I wanted to look at- There's a character who is a school teacher, and he becomes involved with this right wing political party. So I wanted to look at how somebody who gets a tiny taste of political power feels himself lifted up from the common person that he is. What will he do, you know? What morals will he hold on to and what will he surrender? So it was more interesting to me rather than to look at somebody who is very clearly in a position of power to look at somebody who is gaining proximity to that power. You know, how will that change this person? And how is his rise complicated by the ways in which he too is oppressed?

PT Sir is the character, the gym teacher, who you are talking about and this right wing political party that he becomes very involved in is, is really almost designed to take people in like PT Sir. Right? That that, that is they're out there feeding these people, literally to feeding them to to bring them in to their cause.

Right. The way in which he gets involved is he goes to this rally and decides to offer help when this political party has a kind of technical sound problem. And his sheen of an educated, somewhat sophisticated person who belongs in the middle class, has the respectability of a teacher. That sheen of respectability is so alluring to the members of this political party who often do very questionable things and often condone violence, but want that sheen of respectability that he brings?

PT Sir does have a connection to Jivan, but it is it is one that is is tainted. In the sense that they they were close. Or at least he felt there was a closeness, which was not returned.

Yes. So Jivan in the book, studied as a scholarship student at the school where PT Sir taught. And seeing her enthusiasm for sports and PT Class, that is what we used to call it in India. He becomes fond of her. He decides to help her out when he sees that she's wearing old shoes, and she often doesn't have enough to eat at lunch. And he wants something in return for that help, right? He wants gratitude. He wants to kind of performative gratitude. And when she fails to give it to him, that relationship sours

And it shows her independence very early on, doesn't it?

I think so. You know, she's a person who has learned to battle from a very young age. She has learned that she has to be her parents’ guardian. She has to help them get, you know, a medical test and an X ray, she has to speak up when they feel meek before the authorities. So she has learned that she has to really carve her own path.

Megha Majumdar is our guest on this week's Book Show. The new novel is "A Burning", it is published by Knopf. It is fascinating, because we learn about Jivan’s story through her telling of it to a reporter who's who's really- Actually listens and, and through that telling we understand her, her backstory. And it really was a perfect way I guess for you- And I'm interested in, as a writer of how you came to that decision to: "Okay, this is the way that I'm going to tell her backstory and give you the context of Jivan.

That's such a great question. You know, I worked really hard on how to weave in her backstory. I know that backstory's often not anybody's favorite thing to engage with, but I knew that for this character, to have legs, I needed to show how she has spent her life struggling against systems that seek to put her down. And so, I needed to have this history of slum demolition, seeking a water supply speaking up before doctors who don't believe you and don't listen to you, I needed to have that in the story. And having her tell her story to the reporter felt to me like a perfect way. This is of course up to the reader to decide. But to me it felt like a perfect way of having her story feel meaningful and relevant to this one inciting incident.

You write in that part of the book. And it's, it, the line comes from Jivan's mother, and it is, it's after one of these victories and the mother says "'This system doesn't always work for us. But you see that, now and then you can make good things happen for yourself.' And I thought, 'Only now and then?' I thought I would have a better life than that." Even the victories really aren't enough for Jivan.

Yes. You know, part of what I find really poignant is this drive of a child to do better than their parents could, you know? To refuse to accept what their parents had to accept. This willfulness, this determination to say, “I am going to have a better life and that life is not going to be just for me. It's going to be for you as well." You know, "I'm going to protect you, I'm going to lift you up." And so, I wanted to write this character who is very observant and sees the sacrifices that her mother has to make and determines that she is going to give her mother a better life.

Let us talk about the third character, who has a voice in this novel and it's quite a voice, Lovely. How was this character created? And I assume it was the most fun to write but I don't know tha.t

I think you're right, I found lovely really fun to write. So she is a Hijra, which is a particular category in South Asia, at the intersection of gender and class and religion. And Lovely is thought to have a close connection to the divine. So she is welcomed to weddings, to bless the couple. She is welcomed to bless newborns, but at the same time, she is looked down upon and she is somebody who earns her money from begging, on trains and in the streets. So I wanted to write this character who is marginalized and all of these very complex ways, but she still holds on to a wild dream and her dream is to become a movie star. Every week she goes to this amateur acting class in order to chase this dream and get roles, and gain glory and fame in the movies. And part of why she was really fun to write is, you know, this is a character who society wants to shame, society wants to say, "You do not deserve that kind of glory," but she refuses to accept that shame. She chases her dream with so much grit and humor and defiance. I found her arc so joyous. I really loved being in that arc.

There is a passage in in her telling, where she says "In this life, everybody is knowing how to give me shame. So I am learning how to reflect shame back on them also." So there is a deep- I don't know if anger is the word, but a resentment, certainly.

Absolutely. You know, I think despite her displays of strength, and despite her teasing and joking and embarrassing people around her, there is this tender core to her where she holds this wild dream close. She understands how much people seek to remove her from the center of society, how much people want her to go away. There's a scene where she's standing in front of a, you know, a vehicle repair shop and the owner tells her to move out of the way because customers "won't come in if she's standing right there." And you know, in the moment, she's flippant, but of course, that kind of insult cuts really deep.

And that's what I was saying earlier that so many of the interactions with others, amongst these characters, has them be dismissed. And I'm curious of you putting that into a cultural context of, of what this of what this means for for these characters and, and really of of how easy it is, then for, in Jivan's case, to be accused of a horrific crime.

Right. You know, part of the argument that I wanted to make with this book, if we can speak of fiction as making an argument, is to show how certain people are scapegoated and blamed and, you know, they're just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But if a violent extremist state looks at their background and looks at their identity in place and society, a kind of vicious narrative logic poses itself upon their lives, where it becomes easy for the stage to say, "Well this person did this, because look at these aspects of their identity, look at these aspects of their background." And it becomes very easy to subjugate someone who is already systematically subjugated.

You just saying that phrase of fiction, of using fiction, as an argument. The- Obviously you don't go in thinking that way, but it does become a tool, right?  You do think of, of what you're able to discuss, and, and basically, how you can make your case.

Yes, you know, I think that, writers probably start from different places. For me, I had this idea of wanting to write a response to the rise of the right. And so I wanted that interview. Electoral seriousness and my book and I wanted that argument in the book. I tried to work on the book so that it is not only argument, so that it is also about rich and full people, people who hold contradictions with themselves and people who hold nuance. Um, but I do hope that the book is ultimately an instrument with which a reader can think about injustice around them.

Megha Majumdar is our guest on this week's Book Show the new novel, her debut is "A Burning". It is published by Knopf. At what point did you decide that it would be the, this trio of voices that it would be these three characters and you would tell it through their individual voices?

Initially, I think I had a moment of despair when I realized that I could only write three characters with depth and fullness. And I could only do three characters justice, because I felt that there are so many specific stories that you can follow in this world. But three definitely felt like the right number for writing them with complexity, which was so important to me. I never wanted to write simple characters or flat villains, I wanted to show how people make choices, as well as they can within their circumstances. And sometimes those choices are terrible choices.

Let's talk about the language because you you write about the importance of of English, and the power of English in India, which I found fascinating as well.

I think if anybody listening to this is from India or from South Asia, they will know this so much intimately but India has, you know, because of its history of colonization, there is such baggage that the language of English holds in India. Now, of course, it's the language of the elite. It's the language of aspiration. And growing up, I was taught, I needed to learn English in order to move ahead and have a good life and be successful. And in fact, I'll share that, when I was a kid I really struggled to learn English, I had to go to the special English coaching class when I was really little, kindergarten age, to learn English. So this aspiration, this striving, I knew that it had to be in the book in some way. And it's perhaps most clearly visible in Lovely's character, who is a character who speaks in this nonstandard, you might say broken English, but I really wanted to capture how she's trying to learn English. And I wanted to see how English can settle into the nooks and crannies of her life.

And that is how that is how Lovely meets Jivan. Because it's Jivan, who starts to teach Lovely English and even beyond some initial test., just keeps on going. Because that was such an aspiration that Lovely held.

Yes, um, I actually took that from personal experience. When I was in, I think Middle School, we had programs where we were encouraged to teach somebody in our neighborhood, the basics of English. And so I had that experience of teaching someone. Jivan and Lovely, they come together because Jivan, being a person who is in a place of striving herself, I think knows what it is like for another person to be marginalized and oppressed. So she wants to share what little she can and that happens to be teaching someone English.

But even with that oppression, even with with that discrimination, there is dreaming and there is joking and there is his life to be had.

Yes, absolutely. Something that was so important for me to bring into this book is the spirit of inventiveness and making do and hustle that will be so familiar to anybody who has lived in India. I think that people in hard places, like India can be, sometimes. People develop a particular intelligence and a particular humor, because they have to navigate systems and institutions and everyday problems where they know that, you know, they are not being served. They have to find their own solutions. And from that comes great humor from that comes jokes and the ability to laugh in the face of challenges. And it was so important to me to have that lightness and that spirit in the book.

I want to get back to the trio of voices. The story can be very complex. And I think if you didn't have that chorus of voices, it wouldn't have quite the complexity would it?

I hope that the three characters allow a reader to enter the situation definitely with more intricacy and more nuance and see the whole situation with more complexity. The book also has beyond these three characters- It has these very short chapters, which are called interludes and they are small openings into the lives of minor characters. So there is a person who is a broker who sells land to people displaced by riots, there's a lawyer visiting his spiritual guru, there's a person who goes to visit a new mall and finds that there's an unexpected barrier for him. So I wanted to see how these complex stories exist all around us. And you can really follow so many of them.

There is complexity, and we've talked about much of it throughout our conversation. But you know, there's also at the very beginning, when we were talking about what this book is about. It is that Jivan makes a remark or writes a post on Facebook. And it is a criticism, taken as a criticism of the government and then implicates her. It also really does tackle this this issue of our relationship with social media. And, and really the fairness of of that for everyone.

That's true part of why I want her to have this element of social media in the book is that it feels true to the reality of India. You know, I think India is the country with the most number of Facebook users in the world, I think. And India has a vast population, which is just now gaining access to the internet onto social media. So, you know, there's a great deal of excitement and aspiration bound up with what social media is and can do and at the same time. I wanted to show how it's this site of freedom, it's this site of joking and saying what you want to, and you know, holding powerful people to account. But again, that is only true for certain people. For some people, you have to be very careful what you are allowed to say and how much of your mind you can speak and that's as true in real life as it is on social media.

With this out and your first novel behind you, what is next?

I'm working on a second novel, you know, something that I think served me, very well for this book is I didn't talk about it, really while I was working on it. So I'll hold the energy of the second book close and I hope I get to share it with people as well.

But you have the the internal energy, you're enjoying that process now?

I am yes, it's a very, very different book. And it feels urgent to me in the way that "A Burning" did.

Well, it is a beautifully crafted novel and just thrilling. It's an "A Burning", it is published by Knopf. Megha Majumdar, I thank you so much for being with us. And thank you for such a lovely novel at just the perfect time.

Thank you so much, Joe. Thank you for incredibly thoughtful questions. Such a pleasure,

A great pleasure. Thank you very much. Again, Megha Majumdar is the author of "A Burning", the book is published by Knopf. We enjoy hearing from our listeners about our shows. You can email us at book@WAMC.org, and you can listen again to this or find past book shows via podcast or at WAMC.org Sarah LaDuke produces our program. Bookmark us for next week, and thanks for listening for the book Show. I'm Joe Donahue.