A young Muslim woman in Kolkata is accused of a terrorist outrage, in a thriller about poverty and social aspiration that is also a moral drama
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?