- A Burning, by Megha Majumdar. Scribner. $29.99.
Freedom is the sweet air which the characters in A Burning are all gasping for, and it will prove illusory for most of the cast and crowd of extras in this taut, exceptionally paced debut.
When the novel opens, Jivan, a young Muslim sales assistant, hankers after the freedom to trade barbs in the seamless world of social media.
Jivan, who lives with her parents in the Kolabagan slums, is paying off her first smartphone.
For her the device represents a small step towards being middle class, having opinions and the sass to share them in a heartbeat.
But freedom of expression is not for the poor it seems.
After a terrorist attack at the nearby Kolabagan railway station, Jivan makes a rash comment on Facebook.
From there, her world unravels.
She becomes a scapegoat and is quickly charged with aiding the terrorists.
For PT Sir, Jivan's avuncular former sports teacher, freedom is the ability to dance and shout at a rally for the opportunistic Jana Kalyan Party.
After stumbling upon the rally one afternoon, he becomes more and more entwined in the murky world of politics.
Politics gives him the charge which is sorely lacking in his dreary teaching job.
Lovely, a hirja, or one of India's community of intersex and trans people, craves the freedom to be taken seriously as a performer.
Lovely also lives in the Kolabagan slum, and Jivan had been teaching her English.
Once the jaws of the justice system have snapped shut on Jivan, Lovely is her sole ally, the only person willing to testify to her good character.
But Lovely too has a fight on her hands to survive.
When she finally gets a role in a blockbuster drama, she turns her back on Jivan.
Lovely's character is written with such verve that she is a joy to follow.
She alone retains a modicum of dignity, even after her lucky break.
Ironically, in her debut film role, she is cast as a hirja mother who adopts a child.
In the hyperbolic words of the film's producer, Lovely will smash social norms in a feel-good film about the triumph of one of India's underclass.
When Jivan, however, presents a real story of survival and triumph to a journalist who visits her in prison, she is thoroughly trounced by the tabloid.
A Burning is packed with both exceptionally fine writing, and the dizzying breadth of human experience in a contemporary Indian megacity like Kolkata.
- Christine Kearney is a writer who lives and works in Canberra.