In an unnamed Indian city, a teenaged girl becomes a scapegoat for a terrorist attack. Jivan appears to be one of the few lucky ones who might be able to rise out of extreme poverty with her intelligence and school performance until it all comes crashing down in a rush to plan someone for a train fire that killed over 100 people. But A Burning, by Megha Majumdar, is not just the story of how one person can be swept up in a miscarriage of justice. It also tells the story of how two people with good intentions use Jivan for their own rises to fame and fortune.
Jivan is accused of terrorism after she is found at the wrong place at the wrong time, physically and virtually. Not only was she seen with a package (of textbooks) before the train caught fire, it appears that Jivan was using Facebook Messenger to talk to a boy who (allegedly) turned out to be a recruiter for a terrorist organization. Jivan had no idea who she was talking to; she says so repeatedly during a brutal interrogation that eventually coerces a confession out of her. Before she knows it, Jivan is locked away in a women’s prison with only an overworked attorney and her poor family as advocates.
Meanwhile, two people have the opportunity to help or hurt Jivan in court. First, PT Sir, who was Jivan’s physical education teacher before she dropped out to find work, has become a low-level tool for a rising political party. PT Sir relishes the little bit of power he gets from delivering testimony against people in court. He never thinks twice about committing perjury as the party assures him that the defendants are guilty; the police just couldn’t find the evidence to prove their crimes. The second person, Lovely, a hijra who Jivan was teaching English, goes viral thanks to her twin performances in an acting class and as a witness for Jivan in court. But, like PT Sir, Lovely drops her support for Jivan when a producer and Lovely’s guru ask her to. It might hurt Lovely’s career, they say.
Reading about PT Sir and Lovely’s twinges of conscience against the background of Jivan’s hopeless cause is agonizing. A Burning is, therefore, a painful reminder of how hard it is—and how necessary it is—to stand up for the right thing. In order to save Jivan from an unjust sentence, PT Sir and Lovely might have to give up their hopes of a better life. They would have to go against popular opinion that wants someone punished for the actions of terrorists. They might be tarred with the same brush. Turning on Jivan is the easy, pragmatic thing for them to do. In fact, PT Sir and Lovely’s decisions seem so easy that one has to wonder, how often does this happen in our supposedly just legal systems?
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.