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A Terrorist Attack Sparks the Plot of Megha Majumdar’s Powerful Debut Novel

It’s a novel wary of narrative itself, the way a story can glibly ascribe cause and effect. In prison, Jivan is interviewed by a journalist and cannot say for certain where her story, and her troubles, began. Was it her decision to take that train that day? Or was it some earlier moment, when she dropped out of school to support her family, or even further back, perhaps, when her family was evicted from their village? This is the story of a terrorist attack but also of the violence of entrenched injustices — misogyny, police brutality, the lack of access to clean water, the enforced poverty of the hijra community.

Majumdar writes with a lanky, easy authority; the narrative stride is broken only by rare missteps. PT Sir and Lovely are linked by their connection to Jivan (who tutored Lovely in English). The plot hinges on whether they will choose to help her, but their emotional ties can feel tenuous, even a little contrived. They live parallel lives — individuals inhabiting the same city, but not always the same fictional world. It’s a feeling underscored by the curious decision to render Lovely’s voice in broken, ungrammatical English. Her sections are soliloquies; surely she would experience herself as fluently as anyone else does.

The publishers have framed the novel as a literary thriller, burdening it, I worry, with an unfair expectation. True suspense is in short supply; in fact, the story is marked by an undertow of bleak inevitability. As a girl, Jivan used to pass by a butcher shop on her way to school. “The goat must have had a life, much like me,” she would think, looking up at the row of skinned carcasses. “At the end of its life, maybe it had been led by a rope to the slaughterhouse, and maybe, from the smell of blood which emerged from that room, the goat knew where it was being taken.”

What we describe helplessly as our fate is, very often, other people’s choices acting upon us — choices that remain largely unknown or, at best, dimly perceived. The novel flays open these mysteries. Flooding rivers turn crooked, Majumdar has told us, and she traces the forces that render her characters vulnerable to corruption, and danger: PT Sir’s thirst for recognition, Lovely’s poverty, even the pleasure Jivan takes in social media, “a kind of leisure dressed up as agitation.” The interplay of choice and circumstance has always been the playing field of great fiction, and on this terrain, a powerful new writer stakes her claim.

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