51 pages 1 hour read

Megha Majumdar

A Burning

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


A Burning by Megha Majumdar is a contemporary fiction novel that explores issues of tribalism, community, social media, and how we get ahead in a harsh world. Although the book takes place in India, its reflections on hope, humanity, and society are recognizable to all readers. The novel follows the interconnected narratives of Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir after a terrorist attack in India. Jivan and Lovely’s chapters are narrated in first person with dialect and syntax that is specific to their social status and level of education. PT Sir’s story is told by a third-person omniscient narrator who also provides commentary on society, India, and human psychology.

Published in 2020 to widespread acclaim, A Burning was a National Book Award Longlist honoree and an instant New York Times best seller.

Plot Summary

Jivan, a young Muslim girl working hard to lift herself out of poverty in India, witnesses a terrorist attack on a commuter train. She scrawls through Facebook and, perturbed by the reactions to this attack, posts an antigovernment comment in frustration. In a shocking twist to Jivan’s quiet and humble life, she is almost immediately arrested on charges of terrorism, accused of helping to plot and implement the burning of the train. Jivan is sent to prison, where she tries to prove her innocence in a headline-grabbing case.

Lovely is transgender, a social outcast whose oddity is also often admired. An aspiring actress, Lovely struggles to make her way amid India’s harshly outlined social rules. When Jivan, Lovely’s English tutor, becomes headline news for charges of terrorism, Lovely finds herself famous for testifying at the trial. Against all odds, Lovely’s rejections turn into major yeses when famous film producers begin putting her in their films after her acting reel goes viral. Lovely has Jivan’s alibi, but with Jivan’s demise comes Lovely’s rise out of poverty and judgment.

PT Sir, a conservative gym teacher, is shocked when he sees Jivan’s face on the news. She was a student of his, and he remembers her as hungry and shy but excellent at sports. However, feeling slighted because Jivan never thanked him for his care or support, PT Sir readily believes in Jivan’s guilt. He then becomes inspired to try his hand at politics. At first, PT Sir helps other officials in his political party with connections and errands, but as Jivan’s trial gains more heat, PT Sir seizes the opportunity for a new life as a political crony. PT Sir abandons his morals, choosing to believe in the potential of the party over freedom and justice for individuals.

While PT Sir and Lovely steadily gain success in ways they couldn’t have imagined, Jivan grows increasingly despondent in prison as she sees how the Indian public and news media eviscerate her, and how her impoverished parents struggle even more. Lovely’s fame grows, and PT Sir receives dream promotions in his political party. Jivan dies as an unfairly convicted terrorist, her story a haunting lesson about the lack of control we have over how we’re perceived through the lens of social media and public opinion.