A conversation with
Q: Was there a particular idea or event that was the genesis for A BURNING?
A: A Burning is about the rise of right-wing nationalism in India, and three characters who are chasing big dreams despite all the obstacles in their way. Lovely takes low-budget acting classes in order to fulfill her dream of being a movie star. PT Sir gets a taste of what it is like to have political power, and learns how far he will go to gain more. Jivan gets in trouble for a comment on Facebook, and watches her dream of ascending to middle class life crumble, though she keeps fighting for it to happen.
I started writing it from a place of alarm and anger—India has been changing in frightening ways, growing more intolerant of minority communities, more extremist, though, I have to note, there has been strong, often women-led activism in response, which has been incredible to see. But look at the resurgence of the far right worldwide—look at the UK, Brazil, the US. I wanted to look at individuals caught within those dangerous turns of a society, to explore how people in hard conditions still have ambitions, humor, intelligence, and how they go about pursuing their desires.
Q: So much of what has been happening in India since you finished the novel reflects back on what you write about in A BURNING. What do you think of the recent news coming out of India?
A: May I share a news story that you may not have heard of? As I’m jotting this down in February 2020, Trump is scheduled to visit Ahmedabad, India in a couple days. In preparation, a slum that will fall along his route from the airport has had a brick wall built in front of it so that Trump and his companions cannot see it—a news report I read featured a resident saying several mud huts had been demolished to make way for the wall. The people who lived there are now homeless. This is the kind of bewildering decision-making that reminds you that you live within a system which cares not a bit for you. It’s a system that serves those in power, and prioritizes their goals. What do you do when that’s your society?
You may have heard that in late 2019, the Indian government passed a bill, the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which essentially says that those fleeing persecution in several neighboring countries can be granted Indian citizenship—but only if they’re not Muslim. This is frightening, because it links citizenship to religion in a way which goes against the fundamental principles of India’s secular democracy. I’m sorry if this is a bit lecture-y, but what I want to highlight is this ambition of a populist political party to make India a country for Hindus goes against India’s pluralistic, secular history. We’re seeing the same kind of hatred of the other here in the US too. What has been hugely inspiring to see are the protests, especially protests led by women. Google ‘Shaheen Bagh.’ It’s the site, in Delhi, of a huge, ongoing, peaceful sit-in led by women protesting the Citizenship Amendment Bill. According to reporting I’ve read, in other cities too, women who haven’t seen themselves as activists before have come out to march, to chant, to speak up. It reminds us of the strength of the people, the will of the people. If you want to read more about this, The Caravan has great reporting by Chandni Doulatramani and Shuddhabrata Sengupta.
Q: Did you always set out to tell this story through three characters whose lives would intertwine or did that structure evolve?
A: Initially, I think I despaired that I could not tell the stories of more characters! Three felt like too few to me. But I realized that I could only do their stories justice, and try to tell them with complexity and nuance and surprise, if I restricted myself to three. That’s why I decided to have short interludes, to highlight that these are specific stories, and that immense numbers of such specific, rich stories exist.
A challenge that I set myself with the structure of the chapters was to build suspense, to keep the pace of the story up. I, like many of us, have watched plenty of TV and Netflix. One thing that struck me about Netflix shows was how they kept viewers coming back to them, episode to episode. I was fascinated by the way in which those shows generated that pull, how those shows moved. I wanted the structure in my novel, from chapter to chapter, to exert a similar pull, to invite a reader in, to give them room to be entertained.
Q: You grew up in India and much of A BURNING I suspect comes from your own history and experiences but did you also do any specific research for the novel?
A: I watched news clips and YouTube videos to know more about certain places, like what a kitchen in a women’s prison looks like, and I read ethnographic work by Vaibhav Saria and Gayatri Reddy to learn more about hijra communities. But a lot of the research was simply reading the news and being aware of what was going on. This book does feel very personal to me. I grew up in India, and only moved to the US—having never been here before—to go to college. So perhaps that distance allowed me some clarity, and sharpened what felt important to me. I wanted to write about the textures and scenes (the guava seller on the street corner, the vendors on the train, the treatment of VIPs vs ordinary people) and humor that I knew.
Q: Can you talk a little about the three people at the center of A BURNING — Jivan, PT Sir and Lovely how these characters came to you and and where you drew inspiration for each?
A: I wanted to explore specific realities through each character. There are some people who work extremely hard, do everything they can, and yet find themselves defeated over and over by institutions that do not serve them. That’s Jivan. In a society with huge power differentials, what might an ordinary person do if they get a small taste of political power? What might they sacrifice, how might their thinking and morals change? That’s PT Sir. Lovely is marginalized in complex ways, and I wanted to see how somebody at the margins of society—in terms of gender identity, in terms of class—might still dream of being at the very center of public attention, by becoming a movie star! What a wild dream, but I wanted to see this person chase it with joy and hope and see what happens.
Q: Your first language was Bengali and you have talked about what it was like to first learn and to then read and write in English. How have both languages shaped your work?
A: I’m so curious to chat about this with somebody writing in English whose first language is also not English. I’m still figuring out how to articulate what the two mean. I think each language allows access to different kinds of humor and sentiment, different worlds of metaphor and imagery. Bengali can hold a great deal of pathos, a great deal of tenderness. I hope that sometimes my English leans toward my Bengali, and calls something up that might otherwise not exist. I learned English—after a lot of struggle!—when I was a kid in India, and it has been the language that I’ve read and written in for a long time. I used to think that it was a language for little yellow-haired kids in my picture books, but then I learned that it could settle into the nooks of my life, into the world familiar to me, and that continues to be a revelation.
Q: In addition to being an author you are also an editor, at Catapult. Did being an editor help you as a writer or is it kind of a curse?
A: I see the big project of my life as bringing good books into the world. Some, I hope, will be mine, and some will be written by others. To be in a role where I can boost the work of others brings me great joy. That joy feels absolutely fundamental to being able to do both.
Being an editor has helped me in practical ways—from reading many manuscripts, I had a precise sense of what kind of surprise I wanted in my sentences, what kind of movement I wanted in my scenes and chapters. I knew I wanted a story that would invite a reader in, that would entertain them while also saying something about the world.
Now that the manuscript is all done and I’m moving into the next stages of the book’s life, I find it hugely reassuring and calming to know—and this might’ve remained a little bit opaque to me had I not been an editor—that there’s a whole team of brilliant people bringing their ideas and creativity to bear on this book. I know how hard and how thoughtfully people work in order to champion a book. That makes me feel incredibly lucky.
Q: You did your undergraduate and graduate work in social anthropology. How did that shape you as a writer and editor?
A: In undergrad, I studied abroad (well, I was already studying abroad in the US, but!) in Uganda and Rwanda, studying post-conflict development. As a graduate student, I did fieldwork in Senegal, following an aid project which was putting computers in public schools for the first time. In all of those places, a big part of my task was to listen to other people’s stories, be attentive to other perspectives, to listen for what was unexpected, what didn’t follow the expected narrative. Social anthropology is all about that. It taught me so much about complexity and nuance in storytelling. It taught me how to look inward and examine what I brought into a situation, too. Everything anthropology taught me, I think, can be transported into the toolkit of a fiction writer.
Q: What are some of the books that have been most formative for you?
A: I think we all have, and deserve to have, our own canons! I’m a big fan of Jhumpa Lahiri’s and Arundhati Roy’s. Amy Hempel’s stories. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. When I was a kid, I loved reading travelogues (Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar was a favorite) and mystery stories (Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories, Agatha Christie, the Nancy Drew novels), and I learned important lessons about velocity and suspense from them. I grew up reading Tagore’s short stories and poems, like all Bengalis; R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi stories; and books like Mulk Raj Anand’s Coolie, which helped me think about class and justice in literature.
I do feel like I learned to think much more deeply in college, after I was free of India’s education system, which emphasizes rote learning and exams. So I have great fondness for certain books I read in college, like E. E. Evans Pritchard’s 1937 text (yes, it’s a book of anthropology) Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande. If you’re reading this and you’ve read that book, I hope we get to chat about what we each felt about that book!
I learn so much from every book I read, and each book feels formative in its own way—it contributes to teaching me about scene or movement or lines or endings, or a certain topic. Lately I’ve been grateful for some extraordinary books: Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers, Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing, Helen Phillips’ The Need, Angie Cruz’s Dominicana. I’m reading a novel called The Long March, by Namita Waikar, and it’s teaching me about farmers’ movements.
I love reading longform journalism, and have to shout out The California Sunday Magazine and The Caravan for their outstanding work. I love Anjan Sundaram’s book Bad News, which is all about journalists in Rwanda. There are so many books and stories and writers I could chat with you about!