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Furies and fates

A propulsive debut ponders life on the margins

For the vulnerable young woman at the center of “A Burning,” one wrong move is enough to spark catastrophe.

In her ambitious debut novel, Megha Majumdar tackles the sectarian divide in her native India, where Hindu nationalists have increasingly targeted their Muslim compatriots. Her protagonist, Jivan, is a member of this marginalized underclass: Muslim and desperately poor, she stumbled into a scholarship that gave her a shot at a better life and has parlayed her education into a position as a salesgirl in a clothing shop, the kind of job that allows her to own a phone and get on Facebook. As it would be for many 22-year-olds, the lure of peer approval is strong, and, as the book opens, in search of social media “likes,” she makes a rash comment about the government response to a terrorist attack — the bombing of a train that results in the burning of the title. What follows unfolds with a horrible inevitability.

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Many elements play into Jivan’s downfall. Her religion, in particular, has made her new economic security, and the accompanying class status, precarious. “The country needs someone to punish,” she tells her lawyer. “And I am that person.” What complicates this fundamentally simple tale, driven by its headlong rush toward tragedy, is how everyone around her is subverted or seduced into supporting this scapegoating — the second burning, if you will.

These are up-to-the-minute issues, and, while engaging, the book occasionally reads more like straightforward social commentary than a fully realized fictional world. What rescues it from polemicism are the detailed and personal voices of its narrators, particularly the women at its heart.

Told primarily in three voices, all either students or teachers, the novel relies heavily on dialect and colloquial phrasings. This approach, seemingly naïve, camouflages some beautiful and subtle imagery, as when Lovely, the least educated of the three main narrators, first appears. “With my hips swinging like this and like that, I am walking past the guava seller,” she says. When she asks him the time, “he is not wishing to share with me the fruits of his wristwatch.”

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Lovely, who was receiving free English lessons from Jivan, is a hijra, a third-gender or, as we would likely term her, transgender woman. Cast out by her family and thwarted in love, she desperately wants to be an actress and views film stardom as her way out of circumstances more desperate even than Jivan’s.

PT Sir, Jivan’s former physical therapy (i.e., gym) teacher, provides the novel’s third main voice in a third-person narration that reveals both his insecurities and pettiness. Although he clearly sees his scholarship student’s poverty, for example, he congratulates himself on how he “pardoned her soiled skirt. He forgave her old shoes,” as if they were slights against his authority.

While Jivan’s parents, among others, have brief airings and Jivan’s narrative remains central, Lovely’s is the most compelling, and it is in her first-person passages that Majumdar’s writing shines. “My chest is a man’s chest, and my breasts are made of rags,” the author has her say. “So what? Find me another woman in this whole city as truly woman as me.” After Jivan, she is also the most sympathetic character, having suffered horribly — including witnessing the mutilation of a friend, another hijra, during a botched gender-confirmation surgery. It helps that the acting skills she seeks to trade on are presented as believable and her dreams potentially within reach. While the choices she makes to attain them are despicable, they are ultimately comprehensible — even forgivable. “In this world, only one of us can be truly free. Jivan, or me,” she recalls being told. “Every day, I am making my choice.”

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These choices, small decisions by Lovely and PT Sir that collectively loom large, propel the book, and the novel’s breakneck pace stumbles when these narrators are absent, notably during a segment when Jivan manages to speak to a journalist. Hoping for understanding, she gives him — and us — her backstory, describing the privations and violence of her childhood in the Kolabagan slum in what reads like flat exposition, despite its gruesome detail. Likewise, the naivete of PT Sir, which develops into bald self-interest, quickly becomes cartoonish as he trades up — from a star-struck novice wowed by a free lunch (“a fresh hot box of biryani, with two pieces of mutton, arrives for PT Sir”) to an air-conditioned apartment — with barely a qualm.

Such simplicity is counterproductive. When it focuses on the struggles of Lovely and her peers, fellow underdogs, fighting for their own small piece of success, “A Burning” is heartbreaking, a damning indictment of a society depicted as utterly corrupt and racist. Even with its flaws, the book is an engaging and fast read. Along the way it introduces two compelling personalities, leaving open the question of whether either one is truly free.

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Clea Simon is the author of “An Incantation of Cats.” She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com.

A Burning

By Megha Majumdar

Knopf, 304 pp., $25.95