Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
Published by Chatto & Windus, 2020
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
When fellow children from his community begin to disappear, 9-year-old Jai resolves to use the skills learned from his beloved detective shows – and the aid of his two best friends – to figure out what’s going on. Anappara uses the naïve yet charming perspective of a child to dive into the underbelly of India’s slums, interlacing a gripping narrative full of intrigue with deft social commentary on class, gender, corruption, and religious division.
Pulling off a convincing child narrator can be tricky, but I felt Anappara handled it very well on the whole. She did a great job of reflecting just how perceptive and intuitive children can be, without having her young protagonists feel like mere mouthpieces for adult ideologies. Choosing to frame everything through the eyes of a 9-year-old was a clever move, in fact. It allowed her to touch on big and potentially upsetting subject matter with suitable reverence and realism, while always maintaining a lightness of touch, and successfully avoiding any trace of gratuity.
As the number of disappearances begins to grow, so too does the tension between Hindus and Muslims living within Jai’s basti; the former singling out the latter as potential suspects. The book thus comments on the societal structures that incite fear of the other, and the violence and segregation born from religious intolerance. With Jai and one of his closest friends being Hindus, and their other friend being a Muslim, Anappara is able to show just how observant children are of the prejudices around them, and how much more tolerant of difference they tend to be than adults.
I thought the commentary on education throughout the novel was interesting without ever feeling heavy-handed. Anappara shows both how an unreliable school system puts children at risk, and how applying yourself to education can grant you a ticket to a better future. I also really appreciated the commentary on gender that was woven into the story. By simply showing the different expectations placed on Jai and his male friend, Faiz, compared to his sister and his female friend, Pari, she manages to say a lot about ingrained societal roles. It’s also very interesting to note how differently the community reacts to the disappearance of younger, ‘innocent’ children in comparison to a 16-year-old girl rumoured to be somewhat promiscuous, and who favours a Westernized style of dress.
In terms of class divides, Anappara reflects how literal a sense of disconnect has become, with the rise of gated communities separating the rich from the poor. The latter struggle to get by in destitute slums that wallow in the shadows of the luxurious tower blocks that house the wealthy. By exploring the money that is to be made from preserving the suffering of the poor, the reasons behind the seeming disinterest of the police concerning missing children become frustratingly clear. It’s also true that the actions of certain characters may prove infuriating given the seriousness of their situation (like adults continuing to leave their children unattended for large chunks of time), but Anappara justifies this by showing the impossible reality they face; if they don’t work, their families don’t eat.
I can’t say the prose itself particularly wowed me, but anything too ornate would have felt unrealistic given the age of the narrator. In that sense, it served its purpose well, driving the narrative forward and painting vivid, immersive pictures of India’s claustrophobic, heady slums.
Without dipping into spoiler territory, I will say I thought the ending was pitched pretty well. It offered a sense of conclusion without falling into the trap of tying up every loose end in a neat bow. Having drawn inspiration from the many unsolved (and often undocumented) cases of missing children who disappear in India every day, it would have felt unjust to imply that every family is granted the happy ending and concrete answers they desperately crave.
There’s a real subtlety to Anappara’s execution that I greatly admired. She has crafted a story so readable and driven by intrigue that you fly through the pages. It’s only upon reaching the end that you realise just how extensively she has dissected modern Indian society and the many struggles faced by its poorest residents.
You can pick up a copy of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line from Book Depository by clicking here.
WOMEN’S PRIZE 2020 REVIEWS SO FAR: