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...

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