Former journalist Deepa Anappara exposes the plight of India’s “missing” children in a story of abduction told from the viewpoint of a nine-year old boy, Jai. Despite the challenging subject matter, Anappara keeps the tone light-hearted by styling her tale as a Famous Five or Nancy Drew mystery where children play detective.
Sadly Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is no young adult novel. The gaps in the children’s innocent reasoning are quickly filled in by a world-wise, grown-up reader and rendered the more horrible for it.
The action begins in a basti, or slum, of an unnamed Indian city, where Jai lives with his parents and sports-mad sister, Runu. Their life is hard: there is little to eat, they wash in a communal and stinking toilet complex, and their environment is sullied by a permanent smog of pollution. The family does, however, have a television. Instead of helping around the house or doing homework, Jai avidly watches cop shows, dreaming of chasing criminals like his detective heroes. When the first child goes missing, he determines to solve the crime himself.
Enlisting two school friends, studious Pari and dutiful Faiz, Jai starts investigating what becomes a series of disappearances. Their theories range from assuming the children have been taken by a djinn, or ghost, to thinking the children have left home of their own volition. Having stolen money to buy train tickets for the Purple Line, Pari and Jai make a trip to the city to find their lost friends. The trail has gone cold and they narrowly avoid being snatched themselves by a stranger offering sweets.
Chastened, they return home but several more youngsters disappear from the basti. With no help from the police, even with bribery, the terrified slum-dwellers turn on each other. Divisions between Muslim and Hindu families widen and conservative attitudes harden. Jai’s parents, who always deemed their daughter’s athletic success to be inappropriate, forbid her to attend training. Seeing a future without running and chained to domesticity, Runu wanders away from home, with inevitable and tragic results.
Overshadowing the grim realities of the basti, which are viscerally described, are the shiny towers of modern apartment blocks where the “hi-fi” people live. Separated by a rubbish dump, the contrast between the two neighbourhoods is stark. Hi-fi people glide about in cars whereas few in the basti can afford a bicycle. Hi-fi ladies throw out their clothes after one wear while Jai is lucky to own a pair of shoes. Worse, the police will run to the assistance of VIPs yet ignore entirely legitimate complaints from the basti. And, of course, it is in the hi-fi towers that the perpetrator is ultimately uncovered.
Woven through the main narrative are three stories of supernatural beings. They head each section of the book with the title “This Story Will Save Your Life”. Each features a ghost who helps the unfortunate, such as a vengeful woman who protects girls from rapists and a crumbling abandoned palace full of djinns who heal the sick. These fairy stories reinforce the children’s perspective as well as promising a natural justice which is simply not present in their everyday lives. Unlike the cop shows he loves, there is no happy conclusion for Jai. His family is broken by the tragedy. The novel ends on intimations of a police cover-up with the real villain potentially still at large.
Although Djinn Patrol is a work of fiction, it is based on hard facts. In a footnote, Anappara explains that around 180 children in India are thought to go missing every day. She writes, “The idea for this novel was sparked by my anger and disappointment at a system that had failed the very people it was supposed to protect.”
Anappara offers no direct solution to the crisis she identifies, although most readers will infer that ending police corruption would be a start. Rather than lecture, she allows the characters to simply tell their stories which proves to be a far more effective method of delivering her message. If enough people hear it, then this story could very well save lives.
This article first appeared on Asian Review of Books.