Megha Majumdar Head Shot

Stories Worth Telling: An Interview with Megha Majumdar

Megha Majumdar’s debut novel A Burning is a portrait of three characters seeking to rise above their circumstances in contemporary India. But after a deadly terrorist attack rocks their city, their desires to ascend the social ladder put them at odds with one another. The book was longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction. In addition to writing, Majumdar works as an editor at Catapult.

Matthew Wamser (MW): A Burning follows characters with vastly different social statuses and differing political opinions. Did you know from the outset that you wanted to tell the novel from multiple perspectives?

Megha Majumdar (MM): I did. The question that energized me was pretty complex: how individuals chase their dreams when surrounded by systems that don’t serve them. All the while, their struggles are set against the backdrop of the rise of the political right-wing. That felt like too much for one storyline to tackle, so writing multiple perspective characters helped me. It was also really freeing to write that way because I could kind of stay in the fictional world of the novel but move through different perspectives. It was a huge amount of work, though, because I was essentially writing three different stories. I wrote the different characters in three separate documents, and I had to stitch them together chronologically and looked for places where the three stories could converge.

MW: In addition to the story’s three main perspectives, you included several “interlude” chapters, in which the novel gives short glimpses into the lives of several minor characters. How did you decide to add the interlude chapters, and what did you want them to bring to the novel that you couldn’t do with the three main perspective characters?

MM: At a certain point, I despaired that I could only write three characters with adequate depth in the space of one book, but there were so many other stories in this world that interested me. I thought of the interludes as imaginative doors left slightly ajar for the reader to see that this book follows the three main characters but that there are also so many other characters in the world of A Burning with stories worth telling.

I also wanted to resist simplification in all aspects, so I wanted to avoid making the minor characters into mere plot devices, who perform a function and go away. I wanted to show them as real people who were coming into contact with the main characters but also have their own worries, passions, and concerns. It gestures towards the bigness of the world, but it also specifies that these are very specific stories that are not claiming to represent all of Indian reality.

MW: One of your main characters, Lovely, speaks in a style of English distinct from the other characters’ chapters, and there are moments in her chapters that draw attention to the status of the English language in contemporary India.

MM: I wanted her language to come out of her character. She’s learning English but is not very good at it yet. English has a strange place in India; it was once the colonizers’ language, and now it’s the language of the elite, the language of privilege and aspiration. 

When I was a kid, I really struggled with English. The first time that I applied for schools after kindergarten, I didn’t get in anywhere because my English was so poor. I had to go to extra classes to catch up with everybody else, so I learned as a child that you have to learn English to get ahead in India. I wanted to bring that sense of aspiration to Lovely’s chapters. Something of her struggle needed to be in her language. But even though it starts as nonstandard English, I hope that later in the book, the reader begins to feel the Lovely’s language becomes a hybrid style of speech all her own.

People like Lovely, who don’t have all the resources in the world, still dream of something bigger than what society tells them they can have. Where does that aspiration go in a society where people have to make tough moral decisions? I wanted to write about the ways in which people have to sacrifice certain parts of themselves and maybe push somebody else down in order to rise in such a society. It’s profoundly unjust that people are put into these corners.

MW: You dedicate many chapters to characters who are in conflict with the state, but you also include chapters from the perspectives of characters who support the state, most notably PT Sir, a physical education teacher who becomes involved in right-wing politics.

MM: He’s an ordinary person who thinks he is being patriotic. He starts off making these decisions where he feels that he is doing what is necessary in order to catch whoever is responsible for the attack on the train in the book’s opening pages. I was interested in seeing how a person who starts from a good place can become morally corrupt. He can choose his family’s comfort and wellbeing, or he can do what is just and right. I felt that it would be a novel of wishful thinking if I if I didn’t try to explore that complexity.

But he’s not evil; he doesn’t start from a place of wanting to crush others in order to rise. He starts with certain complaints: he feels neglected in his career and doesn’t fit in with the other teachers. After going to a political rally and being close to powerful people, he feels private excitement and aspirations.

I wanted the book to feel truthful and draw from what I have observed about society. Of course, this is just my imagination of how one character might come to support the state and push other people down so that they can rise. But in the realm of fiction, a reader isn’t moved by polemic. The reader needs to be close to the characters. If PT Sir was just a flat villain, the story wouldn’t be doing its job because it wouldn’t be pushing the reader to understand him.

MW: You wrote A Burning over the course of four years, and the book engages with many contemporary social issues. The world looks very different today than it did four years ago, and sometimes it can feel as if politics and society are changing so rapidly that it can be hard for a writer to keep up in trying to address current events. How did you write about the rise of right-wing politics in a world that’s always changing?

MM: Fiction’s purpose is not to be current. It’s somewhat removed from news cycles and is more a space of reflection. You do research and read what you can, but then the writer’s job is to respond to it in the fictional space. And even though current events are moving fast, they aren’t moving so fast that something you write over a period of several years will feel untrue by the time that it’s published.

Even though a lot of the issues in the world seem utterly urgent right now, many of them have been problems for decades or even centuries. I think it’s good to have that sense of urgency paired with a sense of confidence that each of us has a mind with imaginative capacities and powers. There is nobody responding to current issues in the way as anyone else. A writer should trust that if they tell a story that rings true to them, then it will ring true for others.

I also did not want to pin A Burning very narrowly to actual events. Readers who are familiar with Indian politics, for instance, might pick up on the fact that while I’m writing about a particular region of India, the actual region’s politics don’t quite map onto the politics in the book. I wanted to be free to write fiction without feeling trapped by writing something very closely tied to real current events. While this is a book nourished by the news and hopefully feels like it has real-world stakes, it’s also a work of fiction. I made it up, and I wanted to be free to have fun with it.

MW: In addition to being informed by the news, what were some of the other works that influenced the writing of A Burning?

MM: I learned a lot about pacing by studying the way TV series tell stories and keep viewers engaged from episode to episode. I was probably watching what everybody else was watching. If people are binge-watching a particular show and there’s a lot of excitement around it, that might be a good show for a writer to study. I find it interesting to think about what makes somebody want to binge-watch a show. There are lessons in TV for writers because dramas such as Mad Men and Succession have multiple characters and smaller narrative arcs within each episode.

But I’ll add the caveat that TV and books are different. Books can stay close to a character’s consciousness in a way that TV cannot. This is not a prescription for people to write books oriented to TV, but you can learn a lot about pace and structure from your favorite shows.