FEBRUARY 12, 2020
“THIS STORY WILL save your life,” we’re told three times, once at the opening of each section, in Deepa Anappara’s debut novel, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. When we first encounter these words as chapter titles, the child disappearances in Jai’s basti (slum settlement) — in a sprawling, smog-filled, unnamed city (that may or may not be Delhi) — haven’t yet begun. Recited in a legend, they have a hold over the reader, and are laced with reassurance. This story will save your life. As we turn the 300-plus pages, bearing witness to these words again and again, we’re not so sure anymore: our diminishing faith is inversely proportional to the disappearing human bodies, and to the dangers lurking too close to home.
Djinn Patrol faced a “hard-fought UK auction” at Frankfurt Book Fair (2018) — eventually securing 21 international territories alongside simultaneous publications in India, the United States, and the United Kingdom, where it is Vintage’s lead fiction debut for 2020. For nascent parts of the novel, its author, all within months of each other, won a triad of prizes: the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, the Bridport/Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award, and the Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award.
This pre-publication frenzy aside, Anappara’s first full-length work of fiction also arrives hot on the heels of a year in Indian publishing where debut fiction works by women writers dominated the industry, as well as Indian and South Asian best-seller and prize lists. Following in the footsteps of Madhuri Vijay (The Far Field), Avni Doshi (Girl in White Cotton), and Rheea Mukherjee (The Body Myth), among other notable names and their brave, bold, stereotype-shattering, and space-clearing works, Anappara’s contribution to the canon of 21st-century Indian novels in English is, at once, in alignment with these aforementioned writers. In rooms of their own, as Somak Ghoshal said of them in Mint, Djinn Patrol holds its own.
Deepa Anappara, who grew up in Kerala, India, and then gravitated toward Essex, England, worked as a journalist in Mumbai and Delhi. Her research and reportage, on how poverty and religious violence has an effect on the education of children, has won the Developing Asia Journalism Awards, the Every Human has Rights Media Awards, and the Sanskriti-Prabha Dutt Fellowship in Journalism. “I didn’t want it to be a true-crime novel in any way; I didn’t want it to be too close to the events that had taken place, even though the spark came from real-life disappearances,” she told The Bookseller. Her foray into fiction was one way of giving herself “permission to write the story,” she added. Not naming the city was another.
Like its nine-year-old narrator, Jai, who “became a detective [and a tea-seller] not even a month ago,” but feels “old and wise like a baba from the Himalayas,” Djinn Patrol, too, shape-shifts, matures from genre to genre: a murder mystery, a high-stakes detective story, a coming-of-age story, crime fiction, political satire. The plot is simple and more or less progresses straightforwardly: following the first of the disappearances, Jai, who is fascinated by crime shows, particularly Police Patrol, and his school friends, Pari and Faiz, take it upon themselves to find their friends and fellow basti dwellers. Specters soak Anappara’s story, and spirits dance in its shadows — from soul-snatching djinns to those of famous, fictional detective duos (including Byomkesh Bakshi and Sherlock Holmes).
Things slowly, then very swiftly, take a turn for the worse. The alleys “Jasoos Jai, the Greatest Detective on Earth” snakes in and out of get shiftier and more sinister, and the alcoves he crouches in get creepier, as the story unfolds. “Do your parents know you’re here?” someone asks Jai at one point. “This is the biggest problem with being a child detective. I bet no one ever asks Byomkesh Bakshi or Sherlock-Watson about their parents,” he complains to the reader. Little does Jai know he has bigger problems, and that before long, they will have barged into his home.
While the storytelling is largely linear, it’s what Anappara does with language(s) that makes Djinn Patrol utterly and wholly distinctive, inventive, and immersive. Child narrators in fiction are notoriously difficult to create. In the same The Bookseller interview, Anappara says a huge challenge for her was: “How do you capture a [street] child’s voice in English when that’s not the language in which he is either thinking or speaking?” Hindi words are not just sprinkled or scattered in her story, they become the life-blood of her sentences; her prose pulses with the rhythms and cadences of two languages. Non-English words remain un-italicized, and oftentimes un-translated. Occasionally, the connecting or consecutive sentence will clarify or contextualize its meaning. More often than not, however, Anappara will leave it to the reader to connect the dots, to decipher, and draw out meaning. (The American edition, however, is accompanied by reading aids for audiences: an afterword and a glossary. While the UK edition features the former, the Indian one, naturally, has neither.)
As a bilingual speaker and reader of Hindi and English, this felt like a bonus: to “get” the cues, clues, and cultural references; to always nod along in recognition; enjoy plenty of “Aha!” moments; and, most considerately, to not have one’s culture explained to oneself. (With over a dozen translations in the works including the already-announced German title, Die Detektive vom Bhoot-Basar [or, The Detectives of Bhoot Bazaar], I wonder how this display of languages will further play out on the page.) In any case, Anappara is not interested in explaining, embellishing, refining, or simplifying her story — and certainly not for a white reading audience, or a “Global North” literary marketplace. Instead, she cracks the narrative open, critiques it, and tackles head-on the stereotypical “poverty porn” label lazily slapped onto works and writers from “Third-World countries” — cleverly, and through the creative use of a child narrator.
Anappara’s Jai is endearing, entertaining, and earnest; he keeps you on the edge of your seat. He is curious, courageous, cheeky, and unabashedly, unapologetically speaking his mind, and the truth: “The next India-Pakistan war the news says will happen any time now has started in our classroom.” Jai and Djinn Patrol are reminiscent of NoViolet Bulawayo’s 10-year-old protagonist, Darling (from We Need New Names), and her home, “Paradise,” the bitterly, ironically named shantytown, loosely based on Bulawayo’s Zimbabwean hometown. Both Anappara and Bulawayo stretch language successfully, and to similar artistic purposes. As for this author, she sits comfortably, and at ease, inside a child’s imagination — seeing as she does the world through his eyes. Djinn Patrol is a world of extremes and exaggerations. It is a world where inanimate objects come alive and a world of innocence, wit, and wonder. (“‘There’s nothing in this world I’m afraid of,’ I say, which is another lie. I’m scared of JCBs, exams, djinns that are probably real and Ma’s slaps.”) It’s also a world where spaces stretch and shrink, superimpose and segment (“The good and bad thing about living in a basti is that news flies into your ears whether you want it to or not”) and one which is described through a limited and limitless lexicon. Words twist and twirl, phrases trip over phrases, sentences play catch-up and turn cinematic. Zooming in and then out, Jai’s basti life bubbles, bustles, and bursts through Anappara’s figures of speech and punctuations — particularly personification and hyphens.
Like the lost children, like the legendary djinns, the smog is omnipresent throughout the text. The setting is such that spaces conveniently compress and bloat: there’s the basti versus the “hi-fi” flats which are close by, “but seem far because of the rubbish ground in between,” or the Purple Line metro, where “[t]he noise of the road outside streams into the station but the walls hush them” and where Jai says it feels “like we are in a foreign country.” Within the squashed-together, suffocating basti life, this makes eavesdropping on adult conversations, nagging neighbors, and stalking suspects easier. Anyone’s business is everyone’s business, and when a child goes missing, or the JCB bulldozers are a-coming, the community comes together in solidarity (before it is deeply divided, dangerously and violently, by rumors along religious lines).
The landscape has a lot of atmosphere and character — full of sights and sounds and smells — but the smog comes alive as a character in Anappara’s story. “The smog combs my hair with fingers that are smoky but also damp at the same time,” says Jai. At another time, it “proves useful for once” because it gives him “good cover.” On one occasion, we’re told that Omvir, one of the missing children, “caught sight of the smog that made faces at him through the glass windows.” Sometimes, the smog “keeps its coat zipped up and doesn’t let out even a sliver of light.” At other times, it’s out to kill, or worse, mock Jai: “The smog twists around my ears, whispering the same thing. Should have been you-you-you.”
Jai’s imagination is vast, at times inverted, and as the smog is personified, and rendered all too real, Pari’s hair begins to resemble strange objects. “Pari has pinned back her fringe at such a height that it looks like one-half of a mosque’s onion dome,” notes Jai. He later refers to it as a “minaret fringe,” a “hair dome.” As for himself, Jai says: “Then he catches me by my shoulders and shakes me back and forth as if I’m a soda bottle and he wants to make me fizz.”
Meanwhile, hyphens, in Anappara’s hands, serve as hinges bridging worlds, not just words. She employs them toward repetition (“boom-boom explosions,” “boom-booming out of video-game parlors”), exaggeration (“Faiz fast-walks,” “she’s ekdum-mad”), and emphasis (“okay-tata-bye,” “world-famous”), but also to equalize Hindi and English, and elevate the “spark” she first found on the streets. Like the generous doses of Hindi words, the reader eventually begins to expect them, even crave and delight in them. Almost staccato-like, these hyphenated words are never a hindrance; 300-odd pages later, they still surprise and amuse. It’s hard to describe its full effect on the reader — and the quirks Anappara brings to and through the body of Jai’s vocabulary — but I found myself reading large chunks of the story out loud.
In this coming-of-age story, sometimes children are mere children taking words too literally, words tinged with innocence, words as yet untainted with the evils of the world. Early on, when the first child vanishes, Jai confidently says, “Bahadur is our age. We aren’t old enough to die.” Later on, when that number rises, and the statistics and child-snatchers sneak their way into his own home, he asks: “What is a whole life? If you die when you’re still a child, is your life whole or half or zero?” Sometimes, children are wise beyond their years and have to grow up too soon. “I slide under Ma-Papa’s bed. I’m brave in the day, but my braveness doesn’t like to come out at night. It’s sleeping, I think,” says Jai, later on, as his courage crumbles under the cruelties of the world. Being a detective is “too-tough,” he confesses.
What a child narrator affords Anappara is the ability to write about institutional injustice and negligence, unimaginable atrocities and harsh lived-realities, Hindu-Muslim tensions — and to speak truth to power, through fiction, humor, and satire (a form often associated with political disillusionment). These sections, which are all the more resonant of the current political climate in India, are hard to read. Jai’s banter, tongue-in-cheek-ness, well-meaning deeds, and wild audacity easily entice the reader into his (mis)adventures in the dark, abandoned alleys of Bhoot Bazaar — but of course, Jai and his friends were never just playing detective. It’s easy to forget this.
In the second of the three living-saving stories, we’re told: “This story is a talisman. Hold it close to your hearts.” Toward the close of the novel, Jai, defeated and distraught, says, “I’ll never watch Police Patrol again […] A murder isn’t a story for me anymore; it’s not a mystery either.” Stories may not save lives, but they can tell of a truth. And for this, we can hold Deepa Anappara’s story close to our hearts.