Megha Majumdar’s excellent debut novel begins with a pile-on, the kind of digital public shaming Jon Ronson has written about. A young Muslim woman named Jivan reads on her phone about a terrorist attack at a railway station near the slum in Kolkata where she lives. More than a hundred people were killed in the blaze. She posts a question – simple, pointed, instinctive: “If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean the government is also a terrorist?” Her question spreads across social media like forest fire. Monstrous accusations are hurled at her. She is alleged to have been spotted at the station carrying a bulky package and, worse, chatting online with someone the local police declare is a known terrorist recruiter. Charged with the heinous crime, she’s sent to jail to await trial.
A Burning isn’t just about Jivan. Her fate lies in the hands of two people who might be able to vouch for her character. One of them is Lovely, a young hijra (a long-established class of intersex and transgender people in India) to whom she has been giving English lessons. The other is a PE teacher, known as PT Sir, who sometimes fed her when she was one of his pupils. Both are set on changing their lives – Lovely is taking acting lessons to become a movie star; PT Sir, earnest and efficient, is courted by a political party that wants to be known for its law and order credentials. The novel is both a crime thriller in which Jivan battles to avoid execution, and a moral drama: will her old acquaintances risk their burgeoning careers to speak up for a vilified Muslim woman?
The world all three of them want to leave behind is corrupt and choking. In the good old days, which were slightly less rotten than the present, Jivan’s mother eked out a living by shovelling lumps of coal from a pit. Then a company bought the land and bulldozed the homes of protesting residents. They were resettled in government housing that had damp walls and open gutters. PT Sir knows that bribes and backhanders are the order of the day at many schools, where teachers complete their students’ exams for a few rupees and administrators pocket funds assigned for pupils’ meals. Lovely saw one of her friends die after undergoing gender reassignment surgery without anaesthetic at a dodgy dental clinic.
Lovely, a self-declared “half-half” who narrates her adventures in the first person, lives up to her name. She has never recovered from her lover, a businessman who sells “Tony Hilfiger” wristwatches, rejecting her in favour of a family-pleasing marriage. Slum dwellers laugh at her; but she exudes sass and social defiance. As for PT Sir, he could be a VS Naipaul invention – the middling apparatchik who is given one opportunity after another to climb the political ladder and sell his soul. He is at once strong and weak, self-knowing and blinkered.
Little escapes Majumdar’s roving eye for detail. Jivan takes her sick father to see a doctor who treats the pair of them with condescension; in his penholder, “a pen printed with the name of a pharmaceutical company shined”. The holy water into which Lovely dips flowers before blessing babies comes straight from a municipal pump. Every monsoon season, local schools get flooded, the rainwater drives cockroaches to the surface, and alarmed girls in “uniform and Hawaii slippers” stomp them dead. These small, apparently trivial details are noted with anthropological dispassion.
In their different ways, all Majumdar’s characters are drawn to gadgets and appliances that can help them transcend their surroundings. Their shiny phones offer textures of another life, one that’s modern and urban, at once connected and individualistic, zingy and fast paced rather than traditional. Is this other realm just a fantasy? When Lovely visits a new mall on the site of a former sewing machine factory, she’s aroused by the air conditioning and the smell of leather bags. Before she can enter, a security guard blocks the path and demands an entrance fee he doesn’t solicit from affluent women shoppers. “Do I make the rules?” he protests when challenged.
The more Kolkata changes, the more it stays the same. Rumours spread like viruses. Anti-Muslim hatred can be whipped up from nowhere. Villagers are tantalised by – and weaponised with – chimeric promises of reform. Caught in the middle is a young woman who dreams of being “not even rich, just middle class”. As a schoolgirl, Jivan once walked by a butcher and saw herself amid the skinned goats hanging from hooks – a vision, fleeting but potent, of existence stripped bare, and of how near to violence she and hundreds of millions of other Indians are forced to live their lives. Immaculately constructed, acidly observed and gripping from start to finish, A Burning is a brilliant debut.
• A Burning is published by Scribner (RRP £14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.