In a 2017 op-ed titled “Why Do So Many Indian Children Go Missing?”, reporter Sonia Faleiro wrote, “Several factors account for the disappearances, but perhaps none more so than destitution. At least half of India’s minors are said to live in acute poverty. Looking for a missing child requires time, manpower and resources, and the police force in India is short on all of those.” There are varied estimates about the number of children who go missing in India every year, but any figure in the range is astounding.

As Bala Chauhan reported in 2018, “The truth behind missing children and childhood in India is buried in child trafficking, child sex tourism, pornography, child labour intensive industries such as bangle making, beedi rolling, brick kiln, which largely employs bonded child labour.”

This reality forms the premise of Deepa Anappara’s debut novel, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. Children begin to disappear from a Delhi slum, and the police have few leads. As his classmates and neighbours vanish, one child named Jai believes his time watching crime shows on television has prepared him to solve a case the police can’t. The novel alternates between Jai’s narration, the final moments of the missing children before they vanish, and a chorus of voices from the local community attempting to make sense of the situation.

The UK-based Anappara spoke to about her years reporting in India on these issues, which led her to writing this novel, the glaring absence of missing children in news reports, how time and distance allowed the idea to percolate, what she relied on to tell a complicated story and more. Excerpts from the interview.

There’s an extensive bibliography for the novel available on your website. What prompted you to provide a list of all that helped shape the novel?
In one sense, I just wanted to acknowledge that I used these books and journals to fill gaps in my understanding. Especially in the West, there isn’t much sense of the disappearance of children in India, what life is like [in this context]. I used to get all these questions about the themes of the book, and this was my way of saying: these are the books and articles you can read if you want to understand more – in terms of non-fiction, what the reality is. Because Djinn Patrol is fiction, and part of it comes from my imagination. Because I live in the West right now, people may not have that kind of understanding of the situation.

Did it help to write this novel from far away, when you weren’t actively covering these stories every day, when you weren’t close to them so to speak?
Yes, in terms of distance from the idea of the story itself. I first thought of it when I was working as a reporter. Soon after that, I moved to the UK. It was something I thought about for a long time before writing it – almost seven or eight years. So, there was distance from this idea of wanting to write a story about missing children from a child’s point of view.

Due to various personal circumstances, I ended up being in India quite a lot during the time I was writing the book. Around 70 per cent of the first draft I wrote while I was in India. So, I didn’t feel that kind of distance from the country itself. But certainly there was that distance from the subject matter due to the seven or eight years it took me to figure out how to write this story.

In the seven or eight years you mention, was this merely a subject that interested you, or did you know you wanted to write a novel about it?
I mean it was something that I wanted to write about – I think perhaps if I had stayed on in India and worked as a reporter, I might have approached it as a news story. Much of my journalism in the last few years involved writing about children, their education, the right to education bill, people who had been children who’d been displaced by religious violence and what impact that had had on their education. Because of that, I was naturally interested in the children’s stories.

Whenever you’re writing news coverage of a child’s disappearance, the child’s voice is necessarily absent. “Who” the child is is created through interviews, photographs and videos – you don’t really see who they are. Much later, while listening to true crime podcasts, it would come up – in the sense that they would discuss why someone had disappeared or been murdered and they would talk about not knowing who the person really was. So, I was interested in writing from the child’s point of view.

I moved and I stopped being a journalist essentially, but I still had those questions in my head about how a child makes sense of a disappearance, how do you live in a neighbourhood where kids go missing, what’s the story that you tell yourself when you have to confront that kind of horror kind of everyday. Those were the kinds of questions I had in my head.

I wasn’t really sure that I could write it – that’s partly why it took me such a long time to actually getting down to write it. I wrote other stuff in between – two novels that never went anywhere, several short stories, some of which were published. Essentially, I wrote three books before I started writing this – three books that didn’t go anywhere, to clarify.

What were those books about, if I can ask?
(Laughs) There’s nothing much to say. The first two were novels – my fiction definitely comes from the work that I had done as a journalist. When you’re working as a journalist, especially for a newspaper, you don’t have too much say in what you can write about. You essentially have to cover certain stories that you’re told to do or there are certain limitations. When I was working as a freelancer, I had much more freedom to write the kind of stories that I wanted to. And I see my fiction as an extension of the political imperative that drove my journalism.

The chapter titles are sentences that are actually the beginning of the chapter. I was wondering why you chose that particular format?
It really happened quite organically. It wasn’t that I was sitting down and took a decision that this is how it should it be done. When I was writing his voice, it was quite clear that this is how the chapters should start. For me, it was a way to set Jai’s voice apart from the other voices in the book, the voices of children who have disappeared and the larger framework of what people in the community believe in. I can’t really give you an explanation in terms of craft because it wasn’t something that I worked out, it happened naturally.

Why did you choose the structure of a detective story for this narrative?
Again, I’m not somebody who plots out stuff. For me, it is very much character driven. I found out who Jai was through writing in his voice – writing the first chapter was how I learnt more about him. For instance, when I was writing the first paragraph, he references a djinn on the roof possibly looking down at him. That’s how I realised that this is a kid who believes in all that – which I didn’t know before I started to write.

I know that this is not the process for many writers, but for me really, I come to understand who the character is by writing it. As I was writing, I also realised he is someone who watches these shows on TV – reality TV cop shows. It seemed natural to me that he would (when confronted with the disappearance of a classmate) try to solve the case because for him, initially, it is both a game and a way to assert agency in a situation where he doesn’t have any.

When he thinks that he can solve the case, I think it contributes to his feeling indestructible as a child. I think the book’s about how he’s challenged on certain ideas that he has about himself. So, I see being a detective as a story he’s telling himself – it gives him a feeling of control. If he thinks he can find this person or solve this situation in some way, it gives him some sort of agency which he really doesn’t have in reality.

Where did you get the idea of writing some chapters in a community voice? Was it challenging to pull off a composite voice versus an individual’s voice?
I wrote Jai’s voice first. As I was telling you, he believes in all sorts of things – the supernatural, spirits. It really came from trying to figure out what were the kinds of stories he would have heard around him. That’s where these other stories came from. I also wanted to reflect the belief system of the community as a whole through these stories. Particularly because this is a really difficult situation for the community where the children are disappearing and they’re not getting answers from anywhere.

It’s something that I felt people would turn to, especially because they’ve been abandoned by all the institutions that should be accountable to them, that are responsible for their well-being. They’re turning towards these stories for some comfort. In some way, it’s something that many people do. I see this in my own family where you don’t have answers and you want to believe that something supernatural will help you. It’s a kind of magical thinking.

When you were covering disappearances, was it obvious to you that people tell themselves stories in situations like these?
No, that’s something that really came from my imagination. Of course, you hear these stories. I’ve lived in multiple Indian cities, and there are ghost stories and stories about spirits everywhere. I grew up with those kinds of stories. For instance, in my village in Kerala, people used to tell me stories about yakshis – in the stories I heard, they were female spirits who lived on palm trees and would come down and feed on young men.

There were books and movies with those kinds of stories too when I was growing up. I should add that it’s obviously coming from a fear of women. Pretty much wherever you grow up, you hear these stories of particular places where ghosts are supposed to reside. It’s pretty common. When I was writing, I was trying to stay true to what I had seen and experienced both as a reporter and someone living in different cities.

You’ve said elsewhere that you were nervous about writing about poverty (amongst other themes). What did you do to overcome that nervousness and avoids traps like stereotypes?
I think Jai’s voice was really key to that, to being able to write this story. For me, it was portraying things the way this boy would see it. It meant occupying a different vertical and perspective because he’s much shorter than an adult and noticing what he would be noticing.

He’s driven by specific interests. He notices animals or he notices food because he’s hungry or he’s interested in these sorts of trashy shows on TV – those are his interests and what he notices is dictated by what he is interested in. Writing the story for me was about inhabiting his character fully and just stick to that. For instance, as a reporter, I may comment on the lack of infrastructure or poor sanitation or lack of water, but he isn’t interested in those things. For me, writing this story was occupying this character and seeing the world through his eyes. That was my way into this story.