Jivan, a young store clerk who lives in India’s Kolabagan slum with her parents, finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time when terrorists throw flaming torches into stationary train cars at a nearby station. After witnessing the deaths of more than a hundred passengers, Jivan goes on Facebook to eviscerate the police’s inaction. “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?”

A few days later, Jivan is arrested for the terrorist attack, forced to sign a confession and charged with crimes against the nation and sedition. Megha Majumdar’s blistering debut novel, “A Burning,” unleashes her plight like a series of small explosions. As a Muslim woman living in poverty, Jivan must reckon with classism and Islamophobia, social media’s mob mentality, traditional media’s unquenchable thirst for clickbait and profit over fact-finding and the truth, and the sharp rise of a populist political party whose leaders manipulate the plight of the poor to boost their power.

The evidence in Jivan’s case, though thin, is nonetheless damning. A friend Jivan had been chatting with online turns out to be a terrorist recruiter, investigators discover kerosene-soaked rags at her home and witnesses claim she carried a suspicious package near the station shortly before the attack. The press pounces on this narrative like a pack of wild dogs. Jivan, with few connections, no money and no one to protect her except an overworked court-appointed attorney named Govind, is largely on her own.

Jivan’s fate ultimately lies in the hands of two indelible characters, Lovely and PT Sir. Lovely is a hijra (trans woman) whom Jivan tutors in English in her free time. Not even a former lover’s marriage or the daily indignities she endures because of her gender identity dampen her dreams of becoming a film star.

PT Sir is Jivan’s former gym teacher, who used to regularly share his lunch with his hungry student. Yet his own hunger for money and status threatens to eclipse the grace he once afforded her.

“A Burning” is a penetrating exposé about how the possibilities of fame and fortune gradually erode one’s integrity. The book’s title may represent, on a literal level, the violent act in its opening pages, but it also evokes a dynamic metaphor for greed and the dark side of ambition. That Majumdar has chosen to illustrate this with Lovely and PT Sir, two seemingly well-meaning characters who hail from humble circumstances not too far from Jivan’s own, makes the book’s execution all the more unsparing.

What’s more, “A Burning” keenly illuminates the unfortunate reality that justice has limited reserves and a rigid expiration date. In a predicament that echoes Darwinism, someone must take the fall so that others may survive and thrive, regardless of innocence or guilt. Lovely sums this up best. “In this world, only one of us can be truly free.”

Anjali Enjeti’s reviews have appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Washington Post and elsewhere. She’s a former board member of the National Book Critics Circle.

A Burning
By: Megha Majumdar.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pages, $25.95.