A Burning and Death

Reading Like a Writer with Allison Wyss

Megha Majumdar’s A Burning is about a young Muslim woman in India who witnesses a terrorist attack and then makes a reckless post on Facebook.



[Spoilers ahead.]



She is accused of being a terrorist, spends a long time in jail, and is eventually executed. 

I’m really interested in the way her death is handled.

Before I get started, here’s what you need to know: The POV alternates between Jivan and several other people who are connected to her. Jivan’s sections are narrated by her in first-person. There’s another character who also narrates in first-person, but her voice is quite distinct from Jivan’s. Other sections are told in third-limited, aligned with other characters. You also need to know that most sections are titled with the name of the character whose perspective we are getting. And these sections are usually quite short, just a few pages before the voice switches. 

When the day of Jivan’s execution arrives, we have been warned. To be honest, I kept hoping for a reprieve—because I didn’t want her to die!—but, really, I knew there would be no reprieve. Jivan knows her death is coming too, but she is not told that it’s finally that day or why she’s made to take a bath. (The bath is reminiscent, by the way, of the first page of the book, when Jivan washes smoke from her hair.)

The last thoughts of Jivan before she is taken to be killed are devastating. 

I could have been an ordinary person in the world. Ma, I could have gone to college, the city college where girls my age sit under trees, studying from their books, arguing, joking with boys. This is what I have seen in the movies.

Then I too would have given scraps of my meal to the stray dogs. I too would have had nostalgic corners of campus, corridor romances. I might have studied literature, and I might have spoken English so well if you had met me on the street, Ma, you would not have known me! Ma, you would have thought I was a rich girl.

She’s not thinking of her death but of the life she never got to have. We feel the loss more strongly when we can understand what is missing. Not only that, she’s suddenly addressing her mother. I can’t think of a better way to evoke fear, tenderness, and a sad goodbye.

The next section, instead of being named “Jivan,” is titled “The Past Tense of Hang Is Hung.” Unlike past titles, this one leads right into the first sentence of the section: “Unless what is being hung is a person, in which case the world is “hanged.” 

This makes the transition between sections smoother and more gradual than we have learned to expect of the book. It’s a bridge instead of a chasm. Something is changing, and we are led there, just as Jivan is. It’s subtle but felt deeply. The book’s gentleness in this transition feels like a kindness to Jivan—the world has not been kind to her, but maybe this writer can be. Significantly, the sentence also makes a point of Jivan’s humanity, even as she is treated as less than human.

When we’re fully in the new section, we are in a third-person voice instead of first-person. It’s an objective voice, describing her from the outside, signaled by the shift in the way time and people are described in the next sentence.

One morning, after the president of the country rejected her mercy petition, and before the journalists loitering outside the prison walls had a chance to crush their cigarettes underfoot and ask what was happening, Jivan was taken from her cell to the courtyard.

We can guess how she feels from the circumstances and also from her gestures: “She licked her lips. Swallowed. Rubbed a cold palm on her kameez.” But we don’t go into her thoughts or her feelings. 

And in this section, her death occurs. This really matters. The voice moves from inside her head to outside of it, an echo of her death, another way we feel it. 

It’s even more intense because not only were we in Jivan’s brain in the previous section, we were in her imagination—the most personal part of her—as she conjured the future that might have been. We move from an intimate and personal connection with her, a glimpse of her imagined other life, to see her body from the outside. This is like death—a movement from inside a body to out of it. The loss of perspective is such a profound way to understand death. 

Then we get a new section, titled “Jivan,” and death lets her speak again.

Mother, do you grieve?

Know that I will return to you. I will be a flutter in the leaves above where you sit, cooking ruti on the stove. I will be the stray cloud which shields you from days of sun. I will be the thunder that wakes you before rain floods the room.

When you walk to market, I will return to you as footprint on the soil. At night, when you close your eyes, I will appear as impress on the bed.

I always love when writers find ways to let characters speak, even when the worlds they live within will not. It’s witness. It’s powerful. The world of the book kills her, but Majumdar makes sure we know that Jivan speaks anyway.