Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line
Journalist and author, Deepa Anappara, spent over 10 years as a reporter in India and during this time found that if child disappearances made the news at all, the focus was always on the perpetrators of the crimes, rather than the victims. With around 180 children in India going missing every day, these young people have been rendered to a mere statistic, their lives seen as lesser because of their class background. Anappara uses this in representing a modern India that has huge inequalities with regards to wealth, class, sexism, abuse, religion and police corruption. While a fictional story, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (hereafter Djinn Patrol) draws on many of these themes. If you are planning to read this book, I would strongly recommend reading the author’s Afterword which explains the author’s intentions in more detail. Jai is a 9-year-old boy who is obsessed with TV crime drama shows. Following the disappearance of children in his area and the local police’s unwillingness to cooperate, he and his friends take it upon themselves to lead their own investigation. Set in a basti, or slum, in a major Indian metropolis, Jai’s investigation uncovers the harrowing realities for many slum children who grow up without safety or protection. The book is, at times, difficult to read and presents a harrowing portrayal of a contemporary India where there are rarely any happy endings. The story was immersed in culture and I believe Anappara was incredibly sensitive in this respect. The sights, sounds and smells of the basti (good and bad) enable the reader to experience how Jai and his family live in a way that was neither sensationalised nor sugar-coated. Descriptions of the bustling marketplace, with the alluring smells of street food and sweets, juxtapose putrid rubbish and sewage that run through the streets. Somewhat Dickensian in style, the smog hanging over the city acts as a constant, malign presence which clouds everyday life for people living in the basti. All of this is set against the backdrop of a rapidly developing India with skyscraper buildings and new technologies, serving as markers of the ever-increasing rich versus poor divide. Other devices adopted by Anappara include the use of Hindi phrases, references to Bollywood stars and popular practices such as skin bleaching. Interspersed within the narrative are references to folklore and superstition, such as the djinns, which are used to explain away the children’s disappearances. The title promises more supernatural influences than what features in the book. I think for this reason I expected the book to be much more of a magical realist novel, rather than ‘true crime’. Given Anappara’s background in journalism, I probably should have guessed this might be the case. Through being able to pass blame for the disappearances on a higher power such as the djinns, it takes responsibility away from those at fault, who are able to manipulate and take advantage of poorer members of society.
I have seen a few reviews which have disapproved of Anappara’s use of a child narrator, however I actually think it worked incredibly well within this story. Through Jai’s childlike analysis of events, the reader is forced to play an active role in the reading process to fully understand the context of the story. Anappara is clearly writing for an audience who may not know anything about religious and class tensions in India. By using a child narrator and drawing on Jai’s limited perspective, it automatically places the reader in a position of ignorance to go forth and initiate discussion of such ideas. I do agree that upon reading this book, you might be unprepared for how dark it becomes. That being said, the child narrator was useful in demonstrating how Jai and other children like him are forced into losing their innocence at such an early age. Jai is naive and sometimes ignorant but he soon learns that the systems designed to protect vulnerable people are so often corrupted to serve individual interests. While Jai and his friends are young, by seeing the world through their perspectives, we follow their curiosity and sense of adventure which are soon dampened by a danger that is made all too real. It takes a lot of skill to write from a child’s point of view without the book coming across like a YA and I believe Anappara has done an amazing job here at striking the right balance. Another structural element I admired was in how the chapters describing the children’s disappearances were narrated by the missing children themselves. That way, the reader is afforded multiple points of view and allows Anappara to address a whole host of issues. One story that I found particularly powerful was Aanchal’s, a Hindu teenage girl from Jai’s basti whose disappearance everyone dismisses as her having run off with a Muslim boyfriend. Feminist issues are also explored through Jai’s sister Runu, who is shamed for her ambitions of becoming a track athlete and Pari, Jai’s friend, who dreams of attending a private school to further her education. These I found to be beautiful touches in such a thought-provoking book. I believe this is an incredibly important text, revealing the underbelly of India’s Hindu Nationalist regime and the corrupt structures that enable the very poor to stay oppressed, whilst the rich and powerful can get away with murder - quite literally. Whilst providing social commentary on these rampant issues, the novel remains humorous and optimistic throughout, emphasising the strong community bonds of the people living there. Last year there weren’t any South Asian writers on the Women’s Prize longlist. My hope is that Djinn Patrol makes the shortlist so that more people will read this book and international attention can be brought to some of these issues. While at times the pace of the book can be slow, it’s worth sticking with it because the overall effect is extremely powerful. 8.5/10.