by Priyanka Mogul
‘We children are not just stories. We live. Come and see.’
This is the curious, imaginative - and sometimes terrifying - world of Deepa Anappara’s fabulous debut novel.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line transports us into the mind of Jai, a nine-year-old boy who lives in a slum on the outskirts of an unnamed Indian city. Forever inquisitive, and definitely overconfident, Jai is your typical meddlesome child. Only, his life is somewhat unremarkable. He lives in a one-roomed, tin-roofed hut with his parents and his studious and ambitious older sister.
Surrounded by the sights and sounds of bustling market lanes, which Anappara brings to life using all our senses, there’s little for Jai to do other than watch crime solving shows on TV (which he grows to become obsessed with). On the evenings when the black smog hasn’t taken over the skyline, Jai can look out and see the glistening lights of the city’s posh high-rise buildings. His slum is only at the end of the Purple metro line, but to Jai, the city lights feel like another world away.
But when one of Jai’s classmates goes missing, he finds himself presented with an opportunity to solve a real life crime, just like in the police shows he loves to watch. With a little help from his two best friends, logical Pari and cautious Faiz, Jai vows to uncover the mystery of his friend’s disappearance. Little does he know that his adventure is about to turn more sinister as more children begin to disappear around them, and what starts out as a fun game slowly brings the trio face-to-face with dodgy characters, frantic parents and a police force that (unlike his cop shows) don’t seem too concerned about these crimes. And of course, there’s the djinns that eat children’s souls. So that’s not good.
If you’re not already convinced, let me be emphatic in saying that this is one of 2020’s must read novels. Part mystery thriller and part coming-of-age contemporary fiction, Annapara’s debut does much more than what it promises. What struck me the most about this story was the authenticity of it, which begins with the descriptions of Indian slum life (never over explained or exaggerated, like it often is) and the words that have been so carefully chosen by the author. Anappara makes no excuses for throwing the odd Hindi word in there without explanation (or italics). You know from the beginning that this isn’t a story that is pandering to the Western reader. It’s unapologetically Indian, forcing you to do your research or make the obvious connections if you don’t understand something straight away.
The plot feels wholly authentic. The children’s disappearances are inspired by true life events and readers are given an insight into child trafficking that one can only get through spending extensive time looking into the issue -- which the author has done. Annapara reported on child disappearances in India during her time as a journalist, speaking with the families, as well as the children who have been affected. The novel also touches on a whole range of other topics that aren’t always easy to write about, including religious tensions, corruption and social disparities. Anappara not only succeeds in portraying these issues for what they are, but she does it in such a subtle — and often humorous — way that you almost don’t realise she’s holding a mirror up to society until you find yourself thinking about what you’ve read long after you’ve finished the novel.
The whole thing works so well primarily because of the narrator, Jai. Have you ever read about such complex issues through the innocence of a nine-year-old? There is something so powerful about reading through a child’s thought process, holding your breath as they slowly unpack the darker side of what they’re facing.
Jai’s persistent cheerfulness is one of the most fun aspects of the book. He is stubborn in his innocence, refusing to believe that the children have been taken by traffickers or murderers. Instead, he is insistent on finding the mythical djinn that he believes is behind the disappearances. But then the author juxtaposes these whimsical traits of his with a much more mature side of him -- one that is well aware of his position in the social hierarchy. Those paradoxes in Jai’s character is what draws the reader in, often making you ache for him, and the millions of other children just like him in India.
This novel helped me realise many things about the country I grew up in. But primarily, it showed me that perhaps us adults all need a cheeky, amusing nine-year-old to help us navigate through some of the more complex issues of our time. The unfairness of social inequality sticks with you a lot longer when you hear a child acknowledging that no one would care if his home went up in flames.