Deepa Anappara, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line: A Novel (New York: Random, 2020), 347pp.
During her eleven years as a reporter in Mumbai and Delhi (1997–2008), Deepa Anappara won numerous awards for her work on how poverty and religious violence impact the education of children in India. In this her debut novel, she writes the story that eluded her as a reporter: the 180 children who go missing every day in India. She lets the children speak for themselves, too, by having a nine-year-old protagonist named Jai narrate the story.
In Jai's slum in an unnamed city, at the end of the subway's Purple Line, children have disappeared—first Bahadur, then Omvir and Aanchal, and then still others. Have they been taken to a hospital, or even the morgue, after some accident? Did they run away to escape domestic violence? Were they kidnapped into forced labor, child pornography, prostitution, or the organ trade business? Some people scapegoat their Muslim neighbors, whereas others argue that "you can't blame good people for evil things?" Or maybe the djinn snatched them—those supernatural good and bad spirits that can appear as humans or animals, and that may or may not exist.
Jai appoints himself and two buddies as "detectives" to solve this community crisis. After all, he has watched hundreds of programs on TV like Police Patrol and Live Crime. They even have their "secret signal." Through this tragedy, Anappara introduces us to all the sights, sounds, and smells of an Indian urban basti, and what the plight of the poor is really like. The police and politicians are corrupt and indifferent. There's the constant fear that their neighborhood will "get a visit from the bulldozer." Incompetent school teachers, chronic hunger, filthy sanitation, little electricity or running water, a tarp for a roof, and a thick smog that blocks the sun, all these define the lives of the poor. Looming over their neighborhood are the glittery gated communities of the super rich.
Anappara raises questions beyond those of the missing children, in particular the lack of agency on the part of the poor. They have very little control over their lives. "Who knows anything for sure?" asks Jai's Ma. One of the missing children "wanted to believe there was a reason for everything." At the end of the story, one character sums up the novel: "Believe me, today or tomorrow, everyone of us will lose someone close to us, someone we love. The lucky ones are those who can grow old pretending they have some control over their lives, but even they will realize at some point that everything is uncertain, bound to disappear forever. We are just specks of dust in this world, glimmering for a moment in the sunlight, and then disappearing into nothing. You have to learn to make your peace with that."
Dan Clendenin: firstname.lastname@example.org