Jai is nine years old and lives with his family in the slums of New Delhi. He loves watching reality cop shows, especially Police Patrol (presumably a fictionalised version of Crime Patrol), waits hungrily for his mother to bring back special food from her job as a maid in one of the ‘hi-fi’ flats of the city, and is watched over by his older sister, Runu, who dreams of becoming a successful runner and winning a sports scholarship that will allow her to escape. When children start disappearing from Jai’s basti, he forms a detective gang with his two best friends, Pari and Faiz, and they determine to find out what is happening. Their investigations take them onto the Metro’s Purple Line, into a part of the city they have never been before. Jai is convinced that there may be something supernatural at work, and that the children may have been snatched by the hungry djinns that are said to hunt at night. Framed by the fact that around 180 children in India go missing every day (although this article explains that the reasons behind this statistic are complex, and not all of these children are abducted), this debut novel is unafraid to highlight the limited interest from the Indian media in the fate of poor kids and to go to some very dark places. Indeed, I found this one of the most upsetting things I have read for some time.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line draws from Deepa Anappara’s own origins in Kerala and her experience of working as a journalist in India for eleven years, and, as expected, is rich in detail. Anappara slips seamlessly between English and Hindi in such a way that the language of the novel is never difficult to follow, and Jai’s basti is vividly brought to life. Anappara has written thoughtfully about the difficulties of inhabiting the voice of a poor urban child, even given her own background and experience, in the Times [paywalled], an article that feels even more salient given the recent reviews of Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt. ‘I had been concerned that any representation of a marginalised, vulnerable community in India risked stereotyping or romanticising their difficult circumstances’, she writes, recounting that ‘I had witnessed how children’s voices had been absent from the news reports about their disappearances, and I wanted to reframe the narrative so they would be at the heart of it.’ Ultimately, she writes, it was only after her sibling was diagnosed with incurable cancer that she really felt at one with Jai, and his need to tell stories about the world to make sense of the horrors he witnesses.
Although I can’t comment on how accurate Anappara’s depiction of the New Delhi slums actually is, I do think that she has successfully achieved her aim of not writing ‘poverty porn’. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line presents a diverse cast of characters not defined by their personal circumstances, and also pays close attention to the social and economic hierarchies within the basti, rather than presenting a mass of human misery. When Jai visits the home of the first boy who disappears, Bahadur, he notes that Bahadur’s family must be better off than his because they have ‘more of everything: more clothes hanging from the clothes lines above us, more upturned pots and pans… more framed photos of gods on the walls, the glass turning sooty because of the joss sticks stuck into the corners of the frames, a bigger TV, and even a fridge’. The novel is also attentive to anti-Muslim feeling among the predominantly Hindu population.
If there was something about this novel that made me feel a bit uncertain, it was Jai’s voice, which feels too much like the kind of chirpy, cliched child narrator I’ve read in many other novels set in wildly different times and places. A brief segment of narration from his older sister Runu sets this into context somewhat, giving us a very necessary external viewpoint on Jai. After a family argument where she is slapped by her father, she sees her brother ‘gleefully narrating the events of last night’ to his friends and reflects that ‘Since he had been born, she had considered Jai with a blend of loathing and admiration; it seemed to her that he had a way of softening the imperfections of life with his daydreams and the self-confidence that the world granted boys’. The first two-thirds of this novel are overlong, with Jai’s rambling narration becoming a bit frustrating, but the interspersed sections from other narrators are much stronger, especially those that relate urban legends from the basti – I was especially gripped by the tale of Junction-ki-Rani, who is said to stand guard at highway junctions to protect women who are threatened by men. And to be fair, the harrowing ending justifies much of the build-up, even if this could still probably have been achieved in a shorter page count. I’ve rarely read a final chapter that stayed with me so long, and that’s probably the great achievement of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on January 30th.