June 30, 2020

Blog | June 2020, The Caravan

How “A Burning” grapples with India’s current political reality

by Irfan Ahmad

This blog  was originally published on 25 June 2020 in The Caravan.


In my late teenage years, I wrote an incomplete novel in Urdu, the only language I could express myself in. It was about a student moving from Patna to study at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. I studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University as well as Jamia, many of whose students and research scholars are currently unjustly booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The police indeed described Urdu and its marvellous poet Ghalib, whose statue marks Jamia’s landscape, as terrorists. Write as I did that novel in Urdu, I was almost desperate to learn how to write in English. 

In Megha Majumdar’s new novel, A Burning, I did not see that struggle or jihad with the language. The narration is seamless. On occasions, I was envious of the curly, flying movement of its language. With gripping characters, its story flowed smoothly and effectively. I found its structure innovative. Its chapters alternated between its three key characters: Jivan, PT Sir and Lovely, though the titles of some chapters, especially in the latter half of the novel, felt unevenly descriptive for me—for instance, one is named: “The Past Tense of Hang is Hung.” Perhaps there was another reason I finished the novel in just a day and a half. Only a week ago, I had written the Anti-Conclusion to my book manuscript on terrorism, a subject on which I’ve written before. 

Although there is some violence in any summarisation, since what the novel says in about three hundred pages, I have attempted to condense in three, the essential plot goes like this. In Kolkata—the setting is meant to be inferred, rather than named explicitly—a bomb blast in a train kills over a hundred people. Jivan, the lead protagonist, depicted as an enterprising Muslim from a slum, is at a railway station when the blast occurs. Clueless and frightened, she runs away with her bag of books, meant for Lovely, a hijra to whom Jivan teaches English. Later, in a Facebook post, Jivan comments: “If the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?” She posts this in response to a video in which a woman angrily asks why the police looked on while her daughter and husband perished in the train. Taken as a sign of disloyalty to the government and nation, this comment, along with her fleeting contact on Facebook with someone who turns out to be a terrorist recruiter—about whom readers get no further detail—become the bases on which a trial court sentences her to death. Her repeated pleas of innocence to a journalist go unheard. Rather than help her, PT Sir, Jivan’s schoolteacher, who left his job to join a party that formed the new government, wants her executed swiftly. Lovely, too, heeds the advice of the film world and her own community to focus on her future as a rising film star, rather than on Jivan. She still grapples with some moral conflict, but PT Sir has none. In fact, after Jivan “is killed by the state,” he addresses a rally and praises the government’s achievement in getting her executed.  

While reading, the image of Mohammad Afzal Guru, a key convict in the attack on India’s parliament in 2001, rushed through my mind. There were striking similarities with Jivan’s story. Both wrote mercy petitions. Even the judge’s words had the same resonance: in Jivan’s case, he claimed to be “soothing the conscience of the city, of the country.” In Afzal’s case, it was to satisfy “the collective conscience of the society.” 

What the novel does best is make visible what is starkly absent from the mainstream debates: state terrorism. Second, it shows the sheer power that media exercises over contemporary Indian society, including the judiciary—this was the reason that Jivan was desperate to tell her story of innocence to a journalist, who published the story but only to implicate her in the blast. Third, the novel seems to say that democracy, ruled by a majority community, is a state of terror. It gestures to the idea that Jivan was executed because she was a Muslim. Without naming it overtly, the novel demonstrates the project and working of the supremacist Hindutva democracy manifest, inter alia, in the killing of and discrimination against Muslims, calls not to appoint Muslims as teachers, and a thriving “riot economy” run by politicians and real-estate warlords.  

I know of three accounts in Urdu fiction, published in magazines—two short stories, or afsana, and an imaginary dialogue, or mukalma, between a madrasa graduate and his “modern” friend—that deal with terrorism, and they do so powerfully. While the short stories are titled “Dahshat”—terror—and “Jamhuriat ka Jaal”—The Trap of Democracy—the dialogue is called “Media’s stance toward Muslims.” Based in Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Bihar, these writers—Muhammad Iqbal Tinkarvi, Ravnaq Jamal and Aqil Ziyad—are not well-known. They are likely not well known even within the Urdu public sphere. I wonder why their stories remain unknown and have not been translated into other languages, including English, which A Burning calls “the language of progress.” Since they belong to a world outside the “digital India” that Majumdar portrays so deftly, I cannot hyperlink these Urdu accounts.  

The reason I mention these Urdu writers is that they narrate Muslims as terrorised, not as terrorists. In “Dahshat,” when the character Farzana comes to know that her son, Ansar, is being projected out of the blue as the “mastermind” behind multiple blasts, she bursts into a cry: “Ya Allah! My son is being falsely charged. He cannot even see the scene of someone killing a rat.” As she continues crying, someone in the crowd gathered at her home says, “O Aunt! Please endure with patience. We cannot imagine how many more families would be ruined by the CBI.” This description is juxtaposed with a sketch of a devastated mother, on the upper left of the page, with her eyelids raised and tears rolling down her cheek. In 2011, when two of the three Urdu accounts had not yet appeared and I did not know the third one, I had published an article in  Al-Jazeera  describing Indian Muslims as “terrorized.” Al-Jazeera was threatened with legal action if it did not remove my article. Al-Jazeera did not. After its publication, on social media I was slapped with almost every nationalist abuse that was hurled against Jivan: “anti-national,” “anti-India” and so on. 

In some ways, A Burning reads terrorism in a manner that is by and large non-existent in public discourse. It shifts the focus onto the terror of the state and its machinery, which practises institutionalised discrimination and alienates a part of its own citizenry in the name of inimical ethno-nationalism. But its description of this world, unlike that of the Urdu fiction, lacks the depth of cultural experience of what it means to be projected as a Muslim terrorist. In fact, the reader is not given much besides a sparse description of Jivan celebrating the Islamic festival of Eid as a child. There is a hackneyed reference to “a whole goat slaughtered”—can one slaughter half a goat?—and biryani cooked on Eid. There is also a mention of a butcher shop with slaughtered goats, which Jivan passed by every day. Such a threadbare description of Muslim culture resembles those in Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger, the only difference being that, in the latter, Muslims slaughter chickens and they have “this urge to blow trains up every year.” 

What Muslims do on Eid, however, is not to “slaughter” goats but do their zabiha or qurbani, whose meaning approximates the Hindu practice of bali. If a novel attempts to go beyond journalism, and this one certainly does in many important respects, it ought to be judicious in its choice of words that reflect a culture, rather than use reductive ones that distort it. This is also evident in the phrase “riot economy.” A character in the novel says, “So is this riot economy. In this economy, I am a broker, nothing more.” On the surface, it is quite apt. It shows how political violence is linked to the economy, especially in relation to manoeuvred sales of land in the aftermath of violence. However, the novel here shows its captivity to the vocabulary of colonialism, which first deployed the term “riot,” and which the “postcolonial” elite has used relentlessly since then. A professor of sociology in the novel discusses ideas surrounding alienation and terrorism. But in that discipline, a riot is viewed as a convulsive act. What happens in India is often purposive. Therefore, sociologically, such attacks, I have explained elsewhere, are pogroms. The novel also christens a planned raid by Hindus on the Muslim section of the village of Kokilhat, and the subsequent killing of Muslims, as a “massacre.” Echoing the deadly reality of contemporary India, it depicts the massacre as being caused by a political rumour that Muslims had killed a cow, the nation’s sacred icon. “Riot” as a word, then, stands in descriptive infidelity to the conditions of the novel’s own narration. 

Notably, the novel hardly shows Muslim society responding to Jivan being on the cusp of execution. A Burning has next to no optimism. Nearly no one comes to genuinely fight with and for Jivan. Her life is more a tale of deception and betrayal than of solidarity. In the victory of his party voted to power, the terror wielded by PT Sir, the teacher-turned-politician, and hence the majoritarian ethnic polity presided over by his political boss, Bimala Pal, is total. In fact, seldom is any voice of dissent against her hanging raised from any quarter, Muslim or Hindu. The word “Hindu” is mine; the novel does not use it even once. This is monumental—India stands normalised as Hindu and Muslims are portrayed as an exception to that alleged normality. 

Before we come to the central question of the relation between fiction and truth, let me point out a few key issues that are missing in the novel but which had the potential to further enrich its texture. For instance, Muslims are ubiquitously deemed as outsiders to India. After being assaulted, Jivan’s mother is told, “Go back to Bangladesh.” To subvert this myth of Muslims as Bangladeshi on its own terms, the novel could have brought up the distinctions between the terms “Ghoti” and “Bangal,” respectively signifying Hindu Bengalis natives to West Bengal and Hindus who migrated from East Pakistan. The novel could have asked why Hindu Bangals are not considered foreigners, whereas Jivan’s mother, born in West Bengal, is.

I found the novel wanting in its treatment of terrorism as purely a national phenomenon. It is not. The discourse of terrorism is international and the result of a need by the “democratic West”—with India as its ally at the moment—for a new enemy to replace its old one, the former Soviet Union. This lack of synchronic reference to polities other than in India goes hand in hand with diachronic effacement, by which I mean the absence of context and perspective surrounding the term, beyond the immediate present. There is no mention of terrorism in colonial Bengal. No Khudiram Bose. No Praful Chaki. Would the placement of Bose and Chaki—to the British, they surely were “terrorists”—in the plot have given a different direction or meaning to Jivan’s story?  

The novel also lacks in critical thinking. One sentence reads, “On all the men’s foreheads, even the phuchka walla’s, PT Sir sees a smear of red paste, an index of worship—of god, of country.” Of course, the subtext is that the tilak here is an index of Hindu worship. Given this phrasing allows only for the association of the nation with Hinduism, with Muslims as the constitutive outsider and other of the nation-state, Jivan signing her petition as “your loyal citizen” is naive, if not vacuous. The reduction of lives like Jivan’s to what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls bare life—ready for annihilation—logically emanates from, rather than contradicts, this ethnically Hinduised notion of citizenship, in which shouting loyalty, howsoever aloud, is doomed to go unheard.   

Finally, the novel bypasses the question of truth: who indeed did set the train on fire? Clearly, the question of what constitutes such “truth” is far from easy. Notions surrounding verisimilitude and the ways in which it is pursued vary across disciplines, as well between literary genres. In a recent piece, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, a noted literary critic and writer of fiction, states his take on it: “Fiction-writers … compel us to treat the event they describe as truth, though it is not true like someone describing a situation unfold in front of their own eyes.” A writer may, of course, choose to not make this pursuit of truth that Faruqi speaks of explicit to her readers, or to avoid offering any sense of closure. Majumdar appears to have chosen to leave readers to speculate on their own. 

But a consequence of leaving this question hanging in the air may be that readers concede that Jivan has been wronged but still believe, as our 24/7 national discourse portrays it, that it was nonetheless Muslims who burnt the train. We are consistently witness to such presumptions of guilt around us. Mufti Abdul Qayyum was tortured, humiliated and sentenced to death for his alleged involvement in the 2002 terrorist attack on the Akshardham temple. Later, the Supreme Court set him free. But why is there no curiosity about its truth—who actually attacked the temple? And, as the lawyer Nandita Haksar said of the parliament case, “We still do not know really who planned the atrocious attack.” Also, consider that earlier this year, the police arrested Davinder Singh, deputy superintendent of the police who had previously admitted to torturing Afzal Guru at a camp in Kashmir, while he was travelling in the company of militants from the rebel force Hizbul Mujahideen. Such murky episodes raise serious questions about the attack on parliament and the hanging of Guru. Showing Jivan innocent by no means undoes the regnant discourse of terrorism centred on the figure of the Muslim. If the court disposed of the truth throughout Jivan’s trial, the novel does not fare better either, reflecting as it does Saadat Hasan Manto’s dark but revealing remark: “My court thought that truth and literature should be kept far apart.”

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