A Burning by Megha Majumdar was one of the most anticipated novels of this year. It justifies the hype. The prose is chiseled and divided into short chapters for this information-deluged world. The simplicity of its language, the empathy in its undertow, and the grace with which difficult arguments and situations are narrated make it a plausible debut.
If anyone says to you that it’s the story of Jivan, then that’s a lie. It’s no one’s story. The function of this story is this: The book convinces you that all stories are interconnected and no one is central to any plot. It’s this deemphasis of centrality to the characters in this book that make it for me.
One of the three major characters in this book is Lovely. Lovely is a hijra who works at traffic signals for a living. She lives in a slum in Kolkata and dreams of becoming an actor. Not only that she dreams it, but is working toward it. The setting is a breath of fresh air as most of the novels, when describing the movie world, are obsessed with the tinseltown, Mumbai.
At Mr. Debnath’s acting classes she gives her all. She’s appreciated by many. But the world remains unfair to her. When, with Arjuni Ma, her Guru, she goes to the home where a child is born she watches how the mother goes inside quietly and washes her hand. “Someday, when I am a movie star, that mother will be regretting that she washed me off her hands.” It’s not the only condescending behavior that she observes against the hijra community or trans people. Whenever she boards the train to go to her acting classes, she’s often ridiculed and asked to leave by fellow passengers. An exchange with the muri walla sums up her daily struggles: “This hijra couldn’t find a different compartment to hassle?”
Why Lovely Is a Well-Written Character
Lovely has a distinct voice in this book. The unbroken English speaks a lot about the opportunities that she couldn’t grab because of being a hijra. She knows she loves Azad, whom she calls her husband, but also coaxes him to get married, which he did. And when Lovely went to wish the couple well, she ate, as she said, shamelessly; but food was a luxury which she clearly couldn’t miss.
When most discussions around queer lives are hijacked and limited to the intellectual ability and viewpoints of a few self-assigned spokespersons, treatment of a character like Lovely must be celebrated. I completely disagree with a review on Scroll, which says that she’s been othered. Clearly demarcating the violence that a hijra faces in a society by conveying it in prose is a job well done, and something that we need to give it to Majumdar. Majumdar has treaded on a path that’s easy for her to falter on, had this character been treated an inch here and there, it’d be a disaster. But by showing it as a little flawed one, as we all are, a little eager to achieve the stardom that she wants for herself is something that’s entirely human.
She has a language of her own in this book, and with this she moves us like anything. In a painful account of Ragini, who’s getting operated at a dentist’s place without anesthesia, she deftly conveys the struggles of hijras and trans people who want to celebrate who they are at any cost, sometimes not knowing that gaining a part would lead them to losing their whole.
‘Ragini was interrupting, “No problem, what is some pain? Some painkillers I will take after the operation.” She was looking at me, like don’t make the doctor angry. She was eager to do the operation. So I was keeping my mouth shut … From what was she dead? Nobody was knowing, because all of us, and even Arjuni Ma, were afraid of going to real doctors.’
In Lovely’s Words
In the story where someone is put behind the bar because she posted something on Facebook carelessly, and criticizing the government, Lovely has become a known face in the industry where her acting class practice video went viral on WhatsApp.
Technology acts in funny ways. The new viral sensation doesn’t have to worry about a few things now. As we were introduced to her in the book, Lovely says: “Nothing is simple for a person like me, not even one hour on the train. My chest is a man’s chest, and my breasts are made of rags. So what? Find me another woman in this whole city as truly a woman as me.”
And there truly is no one. She places her photo taken on the sets of a shoot between the posters of Priyanka Chopra and Shah Rukh Khan she’s in her home. She realizes she’s famous.