Ethnographic Fictions: Talking with Megha Majumdar

Anthropology’s attention to the granular texture of someone’s life is a beautiful training for being a fiction writer.
Megha Majumdar

What can fiction teach us about the surge of reactionary nationalism in so many democracies around the world? Betrayal is a critical aspect of this moment. People are moved to turn against kin and long-standing friends and neighbors, with the idea in mind of a nation that is no more than a certain kind of story, an exclusionary vision of community and belonging that grows more fearsome and powerful with every retelling. Unraveling the force of this politics requires us to heed the circulation of these fictions: to focus our attention on the way that they gradually seize hold of the imagination, frame the boundaries of a possible community, and preclude other ways to narrate that collectivity. Slip into the space of such a story, and you can begin to see how it works to confine everything else it manages to corrode.

These problems come into sharp and unsettling focus in Megha Majumdar’s widely praised debut novel, A Burning. The book brings an anthropological sensibility to bear on the problem of nationalist temptation, tracing the intertwined lives of three ordinary individuals in contemporary Kolkata: a shop clerk, a physical-education teacher, and an aspiring actor. The novel outlines, in excruciating detail, the texture of those moments when opportunity can turn people against each other to deadly effect, ruining certain lives as a condition of national progress. Majumdar lends an ethnographer’s eye to these dynamics, capturing both the stories that people may tell themselves to rationalize their choices and the social and political stakes of learning how to narrate these circumstances otherwise. The plot begins, as stories do so often these days, with a throwaway comment on social media.

Megha Majumdar is a writer and senior editor for Catapult Books in New York City. She spoke recently with Anand Pandian, a professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, where Majumdar completed a master’s degree in anthropology in 2015.

Anand Pandian (AP): Your debut novel, A Burning, has been a phenomenon, one of the most important works of fiction published last year. It was a year of pandemic, a year of profound electoral chaos, a year of racial violence and belated reckoning, and a year of wildfires and hurricanes here in the US, with unprecedented forms of political violence in India and elsewhere. In the midst of all this trouble and uncertainty, your book about these few people in one corner of India seems to have struck such a deep and unexpected chord. Why do you think this happened, under these circumstances?


Megha Majumdar (MM): I started working on this book from a place of reading the news, watching what was happening in India, and arriving at this question: How do individuals move forward when this extreme, hatred-filled ideology of right-wing nationalism is ascendant around them? So I was very much thinking about home, which for me is India, where I’m from and where my parents live. And it’s been really illuminating to see those same questions resonate here in the US—how do we live within systems and institutions that do not work for us and, in fact, may be actively undermining the meaningful lives that we want to lead? Those questions were so much at the forefront thanks to the collision between the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, where people were thinking, How are there so many brown and Black lives being essentially sacrificed by this administration, and what are the systems that we are living with?

At the same time, it was so powerful to see a lot of mutual-aid societies pop up, with neighbors helping neighbors in those early months of the pandemic, figuring out who needs groceries, what we can do. People were turning away from institutions and wondering, Well, what can we do to help the people we know?


AP: We’ve certainly seen the development of new forms of neighborliness in these different social and collective responses to the challenges of this period. At the same time, in A Burning, you give us a situation where neighbors can in fact become mortal enemies. You tell us a story in which the will of the people can be absolutely terrifying.


MM: Yes.


AP: What did you want readers to understand about nationalism, by issuing these warnings about the potential toxicity of collective life?


MM: I’m not sure that I was trying to issue any particular warning. But the big question—How do individuals move forward?—was broken down for me in these three characters: Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir. The central character, Jivan, is a young woman who gets in trouble for a politically risky comment on Facebook. With her I wanted to see how somebody can have a narrative imposed on them by the state that is not the narrative they would claim for themselves. But because of certain elements of her identity and certain events in her background, it is very easy for the state to come up with this logic for who she is. And then her battle is to try to put forward a different narrative. I was interested in not having any illusions about the might of the state.


AP: The book is framed around the story of three outsiders. In fact, you even use that term, outsider, to describe the way that Jivan sees herself and also PT Sir, a reason she hopes he might rally to her defense. These three outsiders don’t band together, however, and in fact, something very different happens: possible lines of loyalty or affinity turn instead into betrayal. Why is trust such a problem in the book?


MM: One of the greatest injustices that I was thinking about was how, in such a society, opportunity is so scarce. The opening to move up in life and to make a more comfortable life for your parents, or for your wife or whomever, that opportunity is not available to everybody. So when you do have a shot at moving up, I wanted to see, what will you do? What will you sacrifice? Will you remain the moral self that perhaps in your fantasies you are, or will you give it up for a chance at practical betterment for yourself, even if that means stepping on somebody else’s life and freedom? People are pushed into such corners, and I think that is one of the great tragedies of such a society: you feel there isn’t enough opportunity for everyone.

AP: The book begins with the temptation of “likes,” with that very simple ambition to get more “likes” for a comment on Facebook, and everything unfolds very quickly and unexpectedly from there. The novel becomes a chronicle of ambitions spiraling out of control. I think, for example, of the way that the book ends, with PT Sir in the special elevator in that government building, moving up. It’s such a beautiful but also harrowing image. Does the book gesture toward a certain kind of pathology of progress, in giving us this dark picture of ambitions and their capricious outcomes?


MM: Wow, a pathology of progress. I don’t think anyone has put that to me before. I was very interested in, as you pointed out, the metric of “likes” on Facebook, and how much social media is this space for performing leisure and performing agitation, but the ability to engage in that performance is still coming from a place of comfort and leisure. Phones have changed the landscape in India so much, and you have very affordable phone plans and people coming online for the first time, getting social media for the first time, and navigating that space, which tends to generate a performance of class and accomplishment and ambition. I think that is why the character of Jivan is so interested in what freedoms people have on social media, who gets to post something and get a ton of “likes.” Who gets to post a joke that is provocative, and who knows that even if they say something provocative they are cushioned from the worst consequences. Who knows that they have opportunities for rescue.


AP: What you’re saying reminds me also that this is a world awash in phones; it’s a world awash in media forms of so many kinds, and yet the character at the heart of the story, Jivan, has this basic faith in storytelling. She has the basic faith that if her story is told, and if people retell the story of what happened to her, then she will be freed from the fate toward which she is careening. That faith, of course, proves misplaced in the end. I wonder what this might tell us about the way that stories, imaginative possibilities, and accounts of other lives circulate now. What kind of work do they do? Or is there a fundamental mismatch between Jivan’s faith in storytelling and what winds up happening in the very, very dark conclusion of the book?


MM: That is such a powerful question, Anand, and you’re really helping me to think through this. The court battle that occurs is, for Jivan as for others who are charged with crimes, very much a battle of narratives. In other words, what is the story that the public finds most persuasive? And even now, during the week following the 2020 US presidential election, people talk about how they’re having trouble reconciling what they know about the past year and the kinds of voting results they’re seeing (specifically, that 46.8 percent of US voters voted for Trump, despite the various catastrophes that have occurred during his term). And for many, the story doesn’t make sense. That is part of what has been so frustrating: to see how sometimes we live with this wild incoherence, and we’re always trying to find a story that makes sense, that moves us in the right ways. You’re someone who has written across academic and general-readership lines. What are your thoughts on story?


AP: I believe sincerely that there is something profoundly transformative about the experience of being put in the place of someone else who is different from you in the world. I believe that reading such a story can potentially change your sense of what you take for granted as necessary, as desirable in the world, for your life or for your society. But clearly stories of this kind fail to move all the time. How many times have we foundered this last year when something that to some of us felt so compelling and so profoundly disturbing somehow failed to do that work for others?


MM: You’re making me think of the news about how lawyers couldn’t find the parents of 666 kids who had been in ICE custody after being detained at the border. And the US government couldn’t find the parents because they had been deported, and the kids were still in detention. I’m thinking about the horror of that, and how we as a society kind of moved past it, and the story wasn’t enough to really change anything, you know?

AP: I think there’s actually a crucial pragmatic question at stake in a novel like yours. In circumstances of tremendous distraction, in circumstances of tremendous unease, in circumstances in which our attention is very much inclined to flit so quickly from one thing to another, many, many people actually did stop to read your book. They actually stayed with Jivan’s story till the end, and were moved by it. And there’s a pragmatic question as to how you pulled that off. Why did the book work so well, given the great challenge of making any such thing work at holding people’s attention?


MM: Oh, [laughs] this becomes a craft question for me, but even as I say that I’m also keeping in mind the many ways a book speaks to some people and doesn’t speak to other people. So there is an equal amount of care, thought, and experience being brought to the book by anybody who reads it and really stays with it. My part was thinking about all these craft questions. Part of that, for me, was writing characters who are able to hold contradictions. And then part of it was thinking about how the story moves and the pace of the narrative. I wanted it to be a really swift book. And so I spent time really interrogating each sentence, each paragraph, and asking what kind of movement does it perform? How does it serve the book, so either it moves us forward or it punches us down so that we get to see a different dimension of the story?


AP: I’ve done some ethnographic work with filmmakers in India, and they might describe A Burning as “pacey.” In fact, to me as a reader, the book feels almost cinematic in structure, insofar as it cuts so quickly and sometimes even abruptly between different points of view. Certain scenes, like the riot in the village and the murder of that Muslim family, have almost a documentary quality about them. Were you thinking about the intermingling between literature and cinema when you wrote it?


MM: When I write, there is a cinema in my head that I’m trying to describe. I was definitely thinking about how movies and TV work. I don’t think I had specific movies in mind, but I was considering how a scene is constructed onscreen: Where does it open, where does it close, and what happens in the blank space between one scene and the next? And I think that there are craft lessons in how TV shows and movies work—how people are binge-watching this show or that show—and the creators are holding someone’s attention for an hour and a half. That is no small thing. Of course, in a movie, you might have no time between one scene and another, but then in a book you have this beautiful white space between one chapter and the next. What can you allow that white space to hold? When you end a chapter, what kind of subversion or surprise or reflection is allowed in that ending?

AP: You were trained as an anthropologist. You completed a master’s in anthropology at Johns Hopkins, where I teach, before turning to publishing and writing full time. How has that shaped the way that you think and work as a writer?


MM: Anand, you’re being so modest. You were an incredibly valuable advisor for me; you helped me see paths forward when I was starting to realize that academia would not be for me, much as I loved anthropology. Part of my excitement for anthropology, which I still hold very close, comes from teachers like you showing me that there are so many ways to engage with this discipline, so many ways to do ethnography and read ethnography and sit with the lessons. So I have to say thank you for all of the many doors that you opened for me.


AP: That’s very kind of you, and I cherish what you said. Having spent a fair amount of time reading anthropology and ethnography, do you think that training carries over into the craft of fiction writing as you practice it?


MM: Absolutely. Something that anthropology taught me to do is to look for surprise and complexity. Ethnographies are constantly pushing back against a simplistic understanding of anything; they are resisting the first, most easily available answer. They’re pushing back and saying that you have to be immersed in a place, and you have to listen to the people and you have to see what they are saying or not saying. What they’re doing or not doing.

That long immersion, I think, shows such deep respect for the perspectives of other people and for the ways an ethnographer can recognize the confinement of their own perspective, while at the same time attempting to approach the truth of someone else’s life. It’s absolutely a valuable recognition for any fiction writer to be aware of. Additionally, ethnography is so much about the texture of life: What does life look like for a certain person in a certain place? That attention to the granular texture of someone’s life is such a beautiful training for being a fiction writer, where so much of what you are doing on the page is building a world.


Anthropologists and Novelists

By Richard Handler

AP: I’m reminded very much of the lifeworld of your character Lovely, the really detailed texturing you give us of her spaces, where she lives, who she lives with, where she takes her lessons, the streets that she walks through. But I’m also reminded of the difference in her English. I was reminded, for example, of the Black vernacular that Zora Neale Hurston was so emphatic about using in her writing. Would you say that the difference in Lovely’s English was a matter of faithfulness to a vernacular culture? I’m still thinking about the question of your fiction in relation to your anthropology.


MM: Lovely’s English sounds like it had to come out of her character, and she is somebody who is learning English. There is an element of struggle and aspiration in that, because English is of course the language of the elite, the language of privilege in India. I think Lovely is trying to get to that place. And so I wanted her English to be nonstandard and to hold this spirit of struggle and aspiration within it. I also hoped that, as the reader stays with the book and stays with Lovely, they might find her language to be a magnificent hybrid: Lovely’s own English. She has a realization that I also experienced when I was a kid and struggled to learn English. I was told that I needed to learn English, and we were punished in school for speaking Bengali or Hindi. At the same time, it was really powerful to realize that English could belong to my life even though the picture books I was reading had blond kids making sandcastles on the beach. English could belong to my life when I went with my mother to the fish market. So that realization of where English can settle into was one that I wanted to bring to the book.


AP: This reminds me of the loyalty that we often feel, in anthropology and as ethnographers, to those we know and work with and write about. And I wonder how that might relate to the fidelity that one feels for the characters one creates as a writer. How do we think about the difference between these forms of responsibility: to individuals in the real world and to fictional characters?


MM: That is such a beautiful question. Of course the huge difference is that I made these people up. But I never wanted to put forward these characters as representatives of an Indian story. I wanted to be very conscious that these are specific individuals in this fictional world. The specificity of their experience felt really important to me, because it is only through that kind of specific attention that we have any hope of understanding how people actually live and dream and have humor. And the specificity that real people hold as they are written about in ethnography—it feels quite similar. It was really important, for instance, that Lovely not be this stereotypically tragic figure, but rather somebody who is intimately acquainted with suffering and at the same time manages to exceed it with this mix of teasing, joking, and self-preserving behavior. She’s able to turn the shame of the society back on itself. Characters are always these heightened humans-but-not-quite-humans.


AP: Given the narrative arc of the book and where we ultimately wind up, what you say about characters that are human and not quite human is actually rather chilling. The book ends with the sense that someone must die for the nation to be satisfied. And it so happens that it will be Jivan. It reminded me of a story by Ursula K. Le Guin called The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. It’s essentially an allegory. There is a land of great happiness and joy and festivity, but all of that is predicated on the miserable suffering of one child, hidden away, who must be neglected and abused for everyone else’s happiness to be possible. Did you intend Jivan’s fate as a kind of parable? Why is it that she has to suffer this way?


MM: First, it was really important that Jivan be a person who is more than her suffering. And it was important to have her engage in this really determined struggle to move up, to get a scholarship so that she goes to school and, once in prison, to try to find a way to reach this journalist and get her story out. What was really important for me was to show her willpower. But it would be a false triumph to give her a happy ending, when the book’s concern is with how the state is extremely dangerous, and certain people are considered to not belong to this country, or there are concerns about the purity of the population. I wanted the book to have no illusions about the violence that such a state can enact. You can have success within the society for sure, but even that success is polluted.


Le Guin’s Anarchist Aesthetics

By John Plotz

AP: Everything you’re saying strikes me as profoundly relevant and essential to what we see unfolding now not only in India but also in the US, and in so many other parts of the world that have been possessed by a toxic and exclusionary nationalism.

I want to ask you one more question of a different kind before we close. You read so much. You have so many kind things to say about new books that you’ve found and picked up and somehow finished in spite of everything that is happening in the world. You have kept that habit up despite the press of these times. Tell us something about how one cultivates that habit. How do you make space in your life for so many books?


MM: A very practical thing I’ll say is that I do a lot of my reading at bedtime. Bedtime is only for pleasure reading. I never read manuscripts for work. I don’t read anything where there’s an obligation to read it. There have been times in my life where I felt like I was too busy to read for pleasure, and I was absolutely miserable. So I’m never getting caught in that trap again. No matter how immersed I am in the news or in the work or in urgent matters of the day, reading is how I think about things—just the pure pleasure of learning something from a nonfiction book or encountering a beautiful sentence in a work of fiction. I think the value of that is always undiminished for me, and it’s a good reminder to myself every day.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

Featured image: Megha Majumdar. Photograph by Elena Seibert