A Burning by Megha Majumdar: Of hyper-nationalism, power dynamics and scapegoating.

A Burning, as the name itself, burns with a fire so strong, one continues to feel its warmth long after it’s been doused.

Megha Majumdar’s propulsive debut novel holds up a mirror to the current political scenario, offering a kaleidoscopic canvas into lives of contemporary India’s most neglected, weaving a realistic account of hyper-nationalism, right-wing politics & hunger for power. An innocent Facebook post by Jivan, a young muslim woman, leads to brandishing her as a terrorist. She is immediately linked to the recent terrorist bombing on a train that killed many. Her fate rests in the hands of PT Sir and Lovely, who belong to different classes of society, unaware that their lives are intricately intertwined in an unfortunate thread. Narrated by alternate POVs, the novel races in a rhythm that’s both breathtaking and intense, traversing across the murkiest side of right-wing electioneering and chest-thumping nationalism.

If anything, A Burning blurs the distinction between reality and fiction focusing on the similarities one finds in today’s India. Communal hatred, widespread lynchings, unlawful arrests of activists and protesters, muzzling freedom of speech and targeting minorities are few of the many themes Megha intelligently covers. Through its characters, the novel propels itself forward; we see immense will power in Lovely, a hijra who aspires to be an actor and knows Jivan, we see how power corrupts, and reduces one’s identity as PT Sir tries to lift himself up from the shackles of his meagre, despondent fortuity. Lastly, we see Jivan, confined against her wishes, a mere puppet at the hands of those in power, ready to be slaughtered. 

We’ve seen gross misuse of justice which seems to be prevailing everywhere. Megha highlights the perils one is forced to undergo in the face of hopelessness, fear and utter disregard for human lives. While Jivan rots in jail, there’s a media circus and politicians baying to make someone their scapegoat for political gain and colossal power. The end was inevitable. I still hoped against hope, as one often does when faced with no option, that there would be a shift, a sudden unnatural escape route. But alas, life isn’t a series of happy coincidences, is it? 

A Burning, as the name itself, burns with a fire so strong, one continues to feel its warmth long after it’s been doused. 

The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas: A story of love, art & loss in the midst of political turmoil.

Art connects. Art brings you back from the depths of the earth, shakes you and makes you step outside of your little world, and create something you didn’t think you were capable of. The beauty & power of art is infinite, it’s capacity limitless. It transforms and recreates and gives birth to revolution, to freedom, the ability to defy. Art is all encompassing. 

The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas takes us through Pakistan’s tumultuous political scenario between 1969-1979 where power and state sanctioned brutality displaced, killed and tortured thousands of people. While the prolonged civil war and formation of Bangladesh as an independent country took shape, we see the union of two separate individuals belonging to wealthy Karachi family unfold, and how the societal demands and expectations are loaded on Tahira, who ultimately surrenders but finds solace in art; her precious paintings.

From the start, you can feel the bitterness, the uncalled criticism meted out to Tahira by her husband and in-laws. Tahira, a young, educated girl withers away under constant jarbs and marital expectations, realizing with growing contempt that her life has been snatched away, reduced to dust. The only solace given to her by her in-laws was the freedom to paint only because it would add to their status obsessed image. It was infuriating to see Tahira undergo so much trauma, injustice and disrespect at the hands of her in-laws. 

The beauty of this book lies in the creation of other characters who I was equally fond of. We have Tahira’s childhood friend, Andaleep, who encourages her to take up painting with renewed gusto. Always looking after his sister, Waseem, defines masculinity in a new light. He considers himself a socialist distressed by the unfortunate path his country was heading towards. Both Waseem and Andaleep grappled and disappointed by Tahira’s submissiveness distance themselves for fear of losing her completely. 

It’s commendable how Sadia Abbas has encapsulated the internal and external activities of Pakistan and its people, delving into the political and social constraints, of personal and private lives being uprooted, and has brilliantly captured the intimate and most vulnerable of human emotions.