|The night before, I had been at the railway station, no more than a fifteen-minute walk from my house. I ought to have seen the men who stole up to the open windows and threw flaming torches into the halted train. But all I saw were carriages, burning, their doors locked from the outside and dangerously hot."|
A Burning is a debut novel by an Indian woman, born in Kolkata and now living in the United States. Its three featured characters are all from the poorer classes, and all seek to rise to middle class. Their prospects intersect and cross.
Jivan is a young Indian woman living in a slum in Kolkata who is in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up being accused of being a terrorist. A Burning is her story with the Indian justice system — jail, lawyers, judges, and a journalist she tells her story to.
But it's also the story of PT Sir, the gym teacher who considered Jivan a promising athlete until poverty forced her to drop out of school to get a full-time job. PT Sir is drawn to a political campaign rally and sets his goal on becoming a party apparatchik.
And, third, it's the story of Lovely, a friend of Jivan's and a transgender woman who is an aspiring actress.
PT Sir and Lovely are both witnesses in Jivan's trial who feel societal pressure against giving any testimony that might exonerate the "terrorist" who has been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion.
The facts of the story are enlightening for American audiences. The Indian justice system is a fun house mirror of the American justice system, with neither reflecting true justice. The story should also be enlightening to Americans in its glimpses of a culture so different from our own.
There are sentences like this, "Outside, a pillow filler is walking by, twanging his cotton-sorting instrument like a harp."
And this, "The school is no more than a five-room shed. Murals on the exterior walls show a lion, a zebra, and a giraffe strolling alongside a herd of rabbits. A sun with a mane like a lion’s smiles at them all. A civic-minded artist has included, low to the ground, an instruction to passersby: Do not urinate."
But there are sentiments that feel at home in certain segments of American communities, like, "Nothing good comes of contacting the police. Everybody knows that."
A Burning is short, gripping, and relentless. If you learn a little something about life in Kolkata slums, consider it educational as well.
"A Burning" is available in Kindle format from the Richardson Public Library.