Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line begins with a warm, persuasive little story where rays of hope briefly cut through the blackness of despair: a man named Mental, who employed and was kind to rag-picker boys when he was alive, continues to look out for them after his death. Quietly haunting, this tale – if taken at face value – suggests that the novel will have supernatural elements in it.

This question will also be raised during the main narrative, told in the voice of nine-year-old Jai, living in a basti with his impoverished parents (who work for rich, “hi-fi” people) and his elder sister Runu-didi, who wants to be a champion runner.

Right at the beginning, Jai tells us he imagines a djinn crouching on the tin roof of their little house, looking at the family through a hole. “Djinns aren’t real,” he then quickly adds, but throughout Djinn Patrol we are invited to think about the possibility of otherworldly beings: good ones like Mental’s ghost (“We need ghosts more than anyone else maybe, because we are railway-station boys without parents and homes,” muses one of his wards), as well as malevolent ones who might be kidnapping and doing unthinkable things to children.

Because that is what the book’s plot-mover is: the vanishing of youngsters from the basti. It begins unobtrusively, with the disappearance of a boy who might have run away from a bad home situation – something that is commonplace here – but then escalates. When it becomes obvious that a crime wave is on, Jai, a fan of TV shows like Police Patrol, decides to play detective. Joining him on various legs of his investigations are his friends: Faiz, the precocious Pari, and occasionally a dog named Samosa.

They wander the basti and its marketplace, conjecturing, asking the questions they think should be asked. They visit the forbidden brothel area where one of the vanished girls is said to have worked. In what for them is a very big journey, Jai and Pari even take the Purple Line metro to the city’s main railway station to make enquiries.

All this feels like a grand adventure at first, but there are also weeping parents, corrupt cops, the glowering son of a local Pradhan, a rising paranoia in the air. And Jai must deal with personal demons: guilt-stricken about having pilfered some money that his mother had saved, he tries to earn it back by working at a tea-shop before she finds out.

Intersecting dangers

This is classic coming-of-age material where extraordinary events heighten a child’s senses, lead him to engage more closely with the world immediately around him, to try and interpret – with a few inevitable missteps – what he is seeing and hearing. The surface similarities between Djinn Patrol and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird become clearer when a local Hindu-chauvinist group starts blaming the basti’s Muslims for the disappearances: like Lee’s book, this one involves a child’s realisation that what a prejudiced or narrow-minded society teaches one to fear or hate is not necessarily where the real threat lies.

But this novel is also of its place and time. It is about the many intersecting dangers facing poor people in India, and how those dangers are inseparable from the circumstances of their lives: fear of the Other, stoked by self-serving politicians; the bullying police, taking haftas in exchange for very conditional protection; the terrifying bulldozers that are always on the periphery of their world, threatening to raze it – and always, in the distance, the predatory or the apathetic rich, including employers who can’t be supportive even when the mother of a missing child needs to take a couple of days’ leave. Life here can often seem like a horror film where a variety of monsters must be ducked, or like an obstacle race full of potholes.

There is at least a degree of emotional security in the life of the main family: Jai and Runu’s parents have an affectionate relationship; the father, unlike many other fathers, is caring and responsible. And this means Jai is well-placed to observe and comment on the troubles of others. At the same time, the novel’s structure gives us occasional, welcoming breaks from his perspective. Apart from the three main interludes – the stories that “will save your life”, the slivers of hope for poor people in different situations – Anappara also includes a chapter about each of the missing children, where we learn about their inner lives and the circumstances that made them vulnerable to djinns or earthly villains.

Fluid and well-paced

I had a few minor issues with the main narrative voice. One understands, of course, that there is a filter between what Jai is thinking or describing and what we Anglophone readers are receiving; that the author is “translating” for us. But there were times where I felt a disconnect between prose and setting, where the writing felt a bit too polished, even precious.

This is not to demand a broken or pidgin form of English to convey a basti boy’s speech, but to ask for tonal consistency. On the one hand, Jai’s voice contains elegant, fully formed sentences like: “The dangly bulb above me hums with hot current, and its shadow swishes over the shelves, the cracks on the wall, and the watermarks from monsoon floods.” Or, “Now the farmers sit at home, boredom curling out of their mouths and noses in clouds of hookah smoke”.

But every now and again, there is childlike slang – words like “detectiving”, the use of “third of all, fourth of all” (in a list of points that begins “first of all”) – or the sudden appearance of street Hindi. His ma, he tells us, “only bak-baks about her bad boss-lady”. Elsewhere, “Omvir’s brother is susu-ing into the drain”. In one place, Jai refers to “pots and jerrycans” but in another we get “plastic chairs and charpais”.

That’s a limited criticism, though, and certainly not a deal-breaker, because on the whole I enjoyed this novel very much. Here is the main reason: it is fluid and well-paced, and despite the fact that it isn’t made up of cliffhangers (some chapters are almost like self-contained vignettes), each time I finished a chapter, I looked forward to sinking into the next one.

These are not trivial achievements, given that so much of Indian English fiction these days is self-consciously turgid at a sentence-by-sentence level – even when one appreciates the quality of thought and intention, or gets what the author is aiming for. (A few days before reading Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, I finished a Big Book that was chock full of admirable themes and a capacious worldview, but turned into a slog midway through.)

Big and small

Djinn Patrol deals with Big Picture things: the crippling, self-cannibalising nature of poverty, how divide-and-rule communalism can take a very specific form when poor people are oppressed by a spectrum of more powerful people, working in collusion. But it is also a depiction of the day-to-day lives of children navigating a world, how a community helps each other in little ways and isn’t so helpful at other times, the challenges faced by independent-minded people in an environment that isn’t conducive to such ambitions. The toilet-queue politics of the basti. School life in a milieu where teachers might have reason to be scared of unruly older children even as some of the younger kids try to concentrate on their lessons.

At one point, mentioning a poem that he has to learn by heart, Jai says: “The poem wants to know why the moon is sliced in half on some days and why it’s a circle on other days. The worst thing about the poem is that it doesn’t answer its own question.” Understandably, like most other children his age – and perhaps most adults too – he expects clear-cut answers to life’s many questions.

Without giving away spoilers, as the book reaches its climax there is a deliberate, deflating sense that such answers might not come easily, that there might not be Police Patrol-like dénouements and neatly wrapped-up endings. A story, it turns out, might not be enough to save your life – though it can provide temporary refuge, and sometimes that’s good enough.

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line, Deepa Anappara, Hamish Hamilton.