Megha Majumdar’s debut novel begins with an offhand act of recklessness. A “foolish thing” that comes at an unimaginable price. Jivan, a young Muslim woman living in a basti in Kolkata, witnesses a terrorist attack. A train at the nearby railway station is set on fire, killing more than a hundred people.

Later, at home, as she scrolls through Facebook, she comes across a video accusing policemen of doing nothing to save those who burned in the train. She shares it on her feed, adding the message, “If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist.” Within days, she is picked up by the police, accused of aiding terrorists in the deadly fire and jailed for sedition.

In those life-altering moments before she casually posts the message from her new smartphone – the first device she’s ever bought from her salary as a sales clerk at Pantaloons – Jivan is motivated by something beyond contempt for an allegedly complicit police force. “I admired these strangers on Facebook who said anything they wanted to. They were not afraid of making jokes. Whether it was about the police or the ministers, they had their fun,” she thinks to herself. “And wasn’t that freedom?”

About India and about Indians

The three protagonists of Majumdar’s A Burning lead dissimilar lives but all share a desire to be unfettered from their circumstances. Lovely, a hijra who lives in the same basti as Jivan yearns for stardom and an escape from the indignities of daily life, attending a local acting class where she holds nothing back in her performances. PT Sir, the sports teacher at Jivan’s old school, finds his latent ambitions electrified when he stumbles into a political career, after years of counting the annual school parade and fixing the microphone during morning assembly among his biggest achievements.

And then there’s Jivan who, over the course of her 22 years, has watched her parents evicted from their home, her father disabled by police violence and her mother harassed while trying to earn a living for their family, and is single-mindedly focused on moving up from their assigned station. “From an eater of cabbage, I was becoming an eater of chicken,” she asserts, before her life is turned upside down by accusations of crimes against the nation, forcing her to fight for her innocence.

In her book of reportage, Dreamers, journalist Snigdha Poonam writes of a new generation of young Indians who have desires of a scale that the country is unprepared for. “They reconcile themselves to the idea that they must build a world in which they can be what they want to be, where how well you do depends on how badly you want to do well. Once they have created this bubble of aspiration, they chase their dreams like their life depends on it.” But all dreams, like a country’s people, are not created equal.

A Burning is a novel that is as much about India as its three protagonists, a country riven by inequality and various forms of violence. Lynchings over suspicions of beef eating, the fickle winds of online fame, the opportunism of political parties, and a derelict justice and prison system all play a role, yet on this turbulent bedrock, Majumdar’s characters still attempt to chart a course for their lives.

In many ways, in the last few months, India has charged far ahead of the country in which A Burning is set – discriminatory citizen laws, a capital torn apart by deadly communal targeting and the widespread arrest of student activists and victims of violence. Yet, even as I read the novel, bereft over Jivan’s fate, news poured in of Safoora Zargar, a young Muslim woman with a high-risk pregnancy who has been detained under a widely-criticised law in connection with the Delhi riots, being denied bail. Over the last couple of weeks, two other activists, founders of the women’s student group Pinjra Tod, have been repeatedly arrested.

Injustice, as it mounts higher and higher, can be silencing – a choking caused by fear, hopelessness, confusion, and anger. In A Burning, Majumdar unspools the many layers of this injustice with clarity and precision, revealing that the casual callousness that most often guides it. “We are no more than grasshoppers whose wings are being plucked. We are no more than lizards whose tails are being pulled,” Lovely says.

Since she’s connected to both PT Sir and Lovely, the novel seems to indicate that Jivan’s fate lies in their hands, dependent on their support or their abandonment. But the choices and betrayals Majumdar seems most interested in are the ones that her characters inflict on themselves. In PT Sir, she creates one of the most outstanding portrayals in a recent novel of the allure of the right wing to a man of an all too familiar disposition. Not bad, not evil, but resentful of the smallness of his being, scared to let go of a moral core he once prided himself on, yet discarding it in pieces in the quest for a masculinity that is inextricable from power.

Fleet-footed and lithe

A Burning is a novel of weighty concerns yet it resists a ponderous pace, flitting between the points of view of Jivan, PT Sir and Lovely. Majumdar writes with instinctive ease. Her prose is fleet-footed, marked by lithe sentences that often twist away in unexpectedly charming directions. And in the sharpness of her observations – of place, the physicality of her characters, and the peculiarities of human behaviour – she delights. It’s a pace that is partly achieved by the closeness of the first person narration, rendered in an unrelenting present tense for Jivan.

But when Majumdar inhabits the perspective of Lovely, she falters. In stark contrast to the other characters, Lovely is given a peculiar voice and broken English for the entirety of the novel. “In this room I am having everything I’m needing,” she says, or “Jivan is one kindhearted child teaching the poors, like myself”. It’s a perplexing choice for a character whose story seems to have otherwise been crafted with care and thoughtfulness.

The effect, unfortunately, ends up being one of othering, of marking her as different, and often, infantilising her softness and tenderness. This isn’t helped by the tendency she is given to occasionally repeat words – her acting teacher “is blowing phoo phoo” or she’s walking down the road “fast fast”.

It reminded me of another novel published this year that holds injustice at its core (and has similarly been bestowed the title of the contemporary “India novel” by Western publishing) but possesses fewer strengths. In Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, the child protagonist displays a similar manner of talking in rhyming hyphenated words, although to a much more overwhelming degree.

The two novels also share a few peculiarities when it comes to the translation of Indian phrases to English. In A Burning, the names of some television shows are rendered awkwardly (“Why Won’t Mother-in-Law Love Me?”), food is sometimes described in stilted translations, and there are endearments (“my girl, my gold”) that can be jarring in otherwise seamless prose.

Majumdar is too talented a writer, however, for these to waylay her moving, extraordinary debut. Among the greatest achievements of A Burning is an understanding of the vast web of our interconnectedness, within which the ability to shape life is determined by the power you hold compared to the next person.

The novel is peppered with interludes, brief glimpses into the lives of character often fleetingly connected with its protagonists. In each lies a possible narrative path, the potential for the smallest act to alter the course of somebody else’s existence. You can definitely chase your dreams like your life depends on it, the novel seems to tell us, but it would be foolish to think that it is a guarantee of freedom. It’s a heartbreaking takeaway but one we can’t look away from.

A Burning, Megha Majumdar, Penguin Books.