It’s rare that a novel, especially a first novel, transports the reader so completely and so persistently into another space. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara is set in a large but unspecified Indian city. Young children have started to disappear from a local basti, a slum. The eponymous Djinn Patrol is a small group of children led by nine year old Jai, a little boy who along with his friends lives in the basti. Obsessed with television cop programmes and keen to become a detective, Jai decides to investigate. He co-opts his friend Pari who is much brighter and much more diligent than Jai. Faiz has a job as well as going to school and is convinced that Djinns are to blame for the disappearances.
Jai’s story, and that of his world, is woven into the story of the team’s efforts to track down the killer. They look for clues, interview witnesses and catalogue their evidence. They don’t get very far but in their many journeys, including to the city centre on the purple train line, we are immersed in the world they inhabit. We learn bits of Hindi on the way, like basti and daru, which is some sort of booze. We also learn about Indian food, and about managing day to day living in extreme poverty. Jai, his family and those of his friends and neighbour live the same routines as everyone else: food, transportation, home, family. But they do it without much in the way of cash or mod cons. And they are at the sharp end of most peoples’ prejudices including those of their neighbours.
Through her characters, the author deftly reminds us of some basic truths people in general and about modern India in particular. At his job as a tea-shop boy, one Sunday Jai observes “If Pari were to see me now, she would say this is why India will never be world class like America or England. In those countries, it’s illegal to make children work.” There are many such uncomfortable reminders in this book.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line offers an original perspective on modern India, that of a low caste little boy, aspirational and ambitious but easily distracted. He and his friends and family take in stride the country’s casual racism and class divisions, evident pretty much everywhere. We see the aloof disregard the wealthy “hifi” people have for the poor people who serve them. We see the callousness and priviledge, and the complete lack of respect spoilt wealthy people can have for others beyond their social class, beneath their caste. We come to understand that these hifi types simply don’t see them as people. One would like to think the hifi types know better, because they should, but they mostly don’t. Their unfeeling disregard is shocking, anachronistic in people who pride themselves on the advances India has made over the last 70 years. That a mother daren’t ask for time off to searching for her missing child, because she could lose her job is as sobering as it is distressing.
The juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, between the hifis behind their high walls and the slum-dwellers with no running water and shared bathhouses is an ugly reminder of how easy it is for people to be blind to the world around them, to simply not notice. That applies not just to broken down buildings and running drains in Jai’s basti, but also to domestic violence, child abuse and kidnapping and corruption, especially in the police and local government. Too easily it can all become quotidien, and those priviledged enough to push for change, immune so they do nothing.
Anappara’s array of characters, savoury and not so savoury, are presented with sympathy and sensitivity. Main characters have back stories to help us understand how they are shaped, showing their multiple sides. Truly evil characters have no shape other than evilness. Anappara’s heroes and antiheroes are vulnerable and inconsistent, and as we learn to get to know them we are encouraged to want to know them more, even the unpleasant ones. Many are uncertain and changeable. Even Jai struggles with self-doubt, at one point telling Pari “we can’t be detectives anymore. What can we track? We done even know the Muslim children’s names”. Divisions between Hindus and Muslims in modern India clearly run deep, even amongst children.
Like India this story is one of contrasts, from the blend of kindness and cruelty of Mental towards his gang of child thieves, through to Jai’s assessment late in the book that “our basti has become famous and the opposite of famous”. The author keeps her various narrators’ voices clearly distinct, from Jai whose nine year old perspective remains that of a child throughout, to the young schoolboy thug, Quarter. He is one of Jai’s suspects but is really not so different from the younger boys he terrorises. But Quarter’s advantages are enough to give him power over other children, as Jai explains: “His father is the pradhan [leader] of our basti and a member of the Hindu Samaj, a shouty party that hates Muslims. We hardly ever see the pradhan anymore because he has bought a hifi flat and only meets hifi people.”
Jai makes many such observations throughout this book and the reader is right there with him. We share Jai’s life and his world: “For safekeeping his father wrapped the ironed clothes in clean but worn bedsheets.” Jai’s father is a press-wallah, anxious that changing times in his neighbourhood will soon make him redundant.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is witty, sensitively observed, a story of hideous crimes and of the ordinariness of innocence. Jai and his friends are aware of their world and its limitations but they are unconcerned. Their world is school, avoiding getting into trouble, exploring and having adventures. In this they are the same as children everywhere. Their difference is that they live in a world where child abduction and kidnapping, murder and police corruption are too readily ignored. But such darkness does not have to be ignored and that it is, should be India’s shame.