Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line by Deepa Anappara (2020)
Jai is a nine-year-old boy living in a slum in India. His city is chaotic, as is his life. He goes to school with his best friends Pari and Faiz, and his older sister Runu, where he struggles to maintain an interest in his studies. When not being educated, he explores his environment and the Bhoot Bazaar, a place of drama, danger and intrigue. It’s not an east life. Jai’s family are low in the caste system. Marginalised, ostracised and delegitimised, they have to contend with constant hunger and fear of eviction from their meagre surroundings. But it’s a life and the only one he knows.
It all changes drastically when the first one disappears. Bahadur is in Jai’s class at school. He stutter and lacks friends but seems nice enough to Jai even if they’re not friends. Bahadur’s father is a drunk and no-good, who beats both wife and child. The authorities are reluctant to send any time looking for a boy who has disappeared in a land where about 180 children go missing every day. They require bribes to do anything and the slum-dwellers are poor. Nothing gets done.
But Jai is a fan of detective stories and crime shows on TV (their most valuable possession). Pari is a good student and tells him about Sherlock Holmes. Together, with occasional assistance from Faiz, they set out to find Bahadur and solve the mystery as they see it. Unfortunately, detective work is not as easy as it seems and the possibilities are many. So is the list of suspects for those who might have abducted Bahadur. Jai and his little Scooby Gang go round and round and achieve little but upsetting their neighbours.
Then Omvir disappears too. He was also at Jai’s school but in a different class. He was also as friend of Bahadur. The neighbourhood begins to panic a little. Two young boys gone with no sign of where. It’s not good. In an area troubled by religious divisions, any upset can divide the people further, and missing children can be used as an excuse to foment sectarian abuse. Jai’s family, and Pari’s, are Hindu, but not religious fanatics. Faiz’ family are Muslim and peaceful. But emotions are running high, and a local populist Hindu politician is intent on using the opportunity to further his influence and career. All Muslims in this majority Hindu population are in danger.
Jai and Pari search high and low for the two boys, even as a 3-year-old girl is taken. Then a 16 year-old girl is gone. The tension increases and religious troubles explode as Hindu extremists blame Muslims for the abduction of the Hindu young. Faiz’ brother is arrested for no reason and the corrupt police refuse to engage properly with the family. Faiz has to drop out of school to help pay the legal bills and to put food on the table. It’s a sign of just how precarious life is when you’re poor anywhere, but especially in a nation like India, and more particularly when you are Muslim in a time of increasing Hindu extremism led by a right-wing government.
The problems for the Muslim population of the slum don’t go away even after two Muslim children are taken. Thankfully, Jai was raised in a family where such bitterness doesn’t exist. So was Pari. They continue their search with a renewed sense of urgency in a slum wracked with doubt, suspicion, resentment and poverty. It makes for a grim adventure, though it’s one you might enjoy.
The Djinn Patrol is an unusual book. Rebel Voice has long been a fan of stories set in more unusual locations. It can get tiring when tales are constantly based in LA, or New York or small-town Murica. This novel certainly cures that malaise. The setting and its depiction is fantastic. The story really takes you into the slum and bazaar of Jai’s life. It recreates the humble existence of those who are born into unfortunate circumstances. It also breaks the heart as the reader realises just how tough children have it in India. This book will burst bubbles.
Deepa Anappara is new to the world of literature. This is her first novel. It won’t be her last. She writes with great confidence. There are quirky little chapters that appear to have little relevance to the main story, or their link is tenuous at best. But it works in setting the scene. The characters are many and varied. They’re also consistent and believable. From the children to the criminals, the author has managed to hold firm to reality. It makes the story all the more heart-breaking as the reader realises that the pages may be fiction, but they are based on fact, hard, ugly fact.
As Jai’s investigation continues, the strain on his family becomes immense as the fabric of their tenuous existence becomes further frayed. Nothing is going as he planned. Everyone is freaking out and children are being essentially imprisoned ‘for their own good.’ It doesn’t work. Abductions continue and Jai’s life is turned upside down. But he relentless and innocent and beautifully upbeat, if fearful for what the disappearances mean for those gone. Have some run away? Are they victims of traffickers? Cannibals? Or, as Jai thinks at times, djinn?
If there is one criticism of this book that Rebel Voice feels obliged to make, it’s the ending. OK, child abductions are one of the most horrible occurrences there can be. And yes, life in a slum is awful. But Christ, give us something to cling to. Give us some ray of hope here. There are authors who seem to think that a story has to end with heartache, with depressive thoughts, with emptiness and loneliness and grave sadness. But surely a novel, even one about an emotive topic such as child abductions and murder, can offer a glimmer of optimism for our future. Portraying a pessimistic conclusion with a terrible grief is not he way to end a book such as this. What does it achieve?
Rebel Voice believes that Deepa Anappara will write a sequel to this story. We hope she will. Perhaps, in that, she might address the ending to this one. If so, then all will be forgiven. If, however, Anappara is hell-bent on presenting nothing but unending mawkish and disconsolate emotions as some form of Oprah narrative, then Rebel Voice will shy away from reading or reviewing her books. After all, who needs no hope?
In conclusion, this book is worth reading. It deals with a topic that deserves to be broached in a serious fashion. Djinn Patrol is not an in-depth analysis by any means. But it does open the door on a world of need, a struggle to survive, a desire by good parents to give their children a chance. It will open your eyes (further) to how it is for too many. It may also allow you to smile in places as you remember what it was like to be Jai and Pari and Faiz. You might just come to understand that the children of India are like the children of Ireland, and England, and the USA, and France and Algeria. They’re just children.
Sult scale rating: 7 out of 10. This novel would have scored much higher if not for the fortunate and gut-wrenching ending that seems to have been added for no reason beyond impact. OK, real life doesn’t always have happy endings, but a novelist can change that, if just a little, to give us some chance at hope. Maybe, hopefully, any sequel will remedy this. But it doesn’t seem possible and won’t likely be plausible. The author made a mistake on this account. It’s still a very well-written book though, and is recommended by Rebel Voice.