A review of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
Earlier this year (in January, to be precise) Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line was being hailed as one of the best debuts of the year. With the year not yet over and the vast majority of its debuts not yet on my shelves, I don’t feel entirely qualified to offer an opinion here, but I’d be more than happy to believe those who claim it to be true. As a novel, Djinn Patrol is dazzling; as a debut, approaching astonishing.
Set in an unnamed city in India, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is narrated largely by Jai, a precocious nine-year-old who lives in a slum with his mother, father and older sister, Runu. A big fan of cop shows like ‘Police Patrol’, Jai feels himself more than up to the task of a bit of ‘detectiving’ when children start going missing from the slum, and so it is that we are plunged headlong into a whip-smart narrative as he and his friends Pari and Faiz attempt to solve the unfolding mystery. I don’t want to give away any spoilers here – it is, after all, a mystery – but suffice it to say the novel took a turn towards the end that I wasn’t in any way expecting.
Unnamed it might be, but the city in which we readers find ourselves is vibrant and immediate, a rich confusion of colours, sounds, smells and often incongruous sights that bring India (the one of my experience, at least) to life on the pages. As well as having a keen eye for the smaller details that are essential for building up a picture of such an intricate setting, Anappara has chosen to pepper her writing with untranslated words in Hindi or Indian English. Even if not immediately obvious, the meaning of all these words becomes clear over the course of the novel, but they add a deft touch of authenticity and sharpen our minds to the realities of Jai’s world. In order to even start to understand a place, you have to try to appreciate how the people who live there see and relate to it.
A basti (slum) boy through and through, Jai is in many ways older than his years, but at the same time he remains a child in his utter lack of self-awareness and unique take on the world. Funny but fragile, sassy but somehow in need of a hug, Anappara has pitched Jai absolutely perfectly, creating what is without a doubt one of the most enjoyable narrative voices I’ve read this year. Almost too enjoyable, perhaps, as some of the intervening chapters which give a voice to other characters – largely the missing children or other characters from slums around the city, told in the third person – at times felt like too much of an interruption and I found myself wanting to get back to Jai and his captivating manner of telling a story.
That said, I could see that these interim chapters are of real importance, particularly the ones that offer us a female perspective. Boys’ and girls’ experiences of life are not equivalent – certainly not in India – and in actual fact Anappara does both her characters and readers a service by allowing us to see things through eyes other than Jai’s. The last such chapter I found particularly affecting, offering as it does a completely different take on things from a character I felt – mistakenly – I had already come to know.
Djinn Patrol is, on the whole, a novel far more moving than it likes to let on. On the surface it is light and absorbing, a childish romp through a big, colourful city that initially takes a slightly carefree approach to the mystery at hand. It is also funny, consistently and genuinely, both in its depiction of everyday ridiculousness and Jai’s wonderful way of explaining the world to himself. Some moments made me laugh out loud; others are so neatly observed they made me wish I’d thought of them myself – ‘my teeth are talking among themselves’, for example. But below the surface, concealed beyond its childlike innocence, the novel tackles topics of far greater import that hit home all the harder because they are being narrated by a child. Jai might think he understands most things, but he doesn’t. The reader, on the other hand, can’t help but be all too aware of what is really going on – whether it’s the disappearance of children or the growing violence between the Hindu and Muslim communities.
Anappara spent many years working as a journalist, visiting slums across India and reporting on a range of stories to do with education and social inequalities. In the Afterword, she writes that ‘as many as 180 children are said to go missing in India every day’, the vast majority simply disappearing without trace. It’s a sobering piece of background information, particularly so when taken along with a theme that develops gradually throughout the novel – that of taking someone else’s story and using it as entertainment. Jai could initially be said to be guilty of this, using the disappearance of neighbourhood children to entertain himself as he imagines starring in one of his beloved police shows, but soon things take a darker turn and he becomes an unwitting part of the real story. That’s when the media take over, not to mention locals who have nothing to do with the people involved but jump at the chance to claim ‘a story worth repeating at the tea shop’. And of course, by the time a woman shouts at a reporter, “‘This is our life you’re talking about as if it’s just some story’”, it’s already too late for us, the readers. Because what are we doing if not exactly the same thing?
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is a work of fiction, yes. But it is about a very real subject, which makes it all the more imperative that it should not be merely read, enjoyed and put aside. The phrase I have chosen for the title of this review, a sentence repeated on occasion throughout the novel, is all the more poignant because it cannot be true. A story is no talisman; it never saved anyone. And yet, in creating such an engaging and inspiring work of fiction, perhaps this is exactly what Anappara is trying to do. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is fiction at its best: a novel to read and enjoy – absolutely – but also to make us open our eyes a little bit wider to the world in which we live.