Contemporary Literature · Mystery/Thriller

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

The title is what first caught my attention about this book. For real, what a great title! I feel like you can’t tell me that you wouldn’t at least be interested in reading a blurb to find out more about it. Which is exactly what happened to me. I held off for a minute after reading the blurb though, because to be honest I find that books written by adults from a child’s perspective can be hit or miss, at least for me. But as I followed reviews from other readers, it seemed that consensus was that Anappara handled that aspect well. So I decided to give it a go. 

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

“What is a whole life? If you die when you’re still a child, is your life whole or half or zero?”

Jai lives with his parents and sister (Runu) in a basti (basically, a slum) in an (unnamed) city in India. He spends his days in school, avoiding chores/homework and arguing with his sister and wandering the local market lanes. A “normal” kid. When a child from their basti disappears, Jai (who has spent many hours watching Police Patrol on tv), convinces his friends Pari and Faiz to help him as detective “assistants,” trying to investigate and track down their missing classmate. But things escalate when more children start disappearing, the police aren’t doing anything despite the pleas of the basti parents, and religious tensions grow dangerous as blame for the missing children starts getting thrown around. 

Let me just start by saying that I agree with all the readers who felt like Anappara wrote from a child’s perspective with authenticity. Jai’s voice is the exact right combination of innocent and earnest and oddly insightful, without veering into being too precocious so as to be unbelievable or too childish as to be annoying to read for a full-length novel. And in reading the Afterward, she talks about wanting to highlight, with the POV she chose to write from (and in light of the statistics of the “epidemic” of missing children in India), the “resilience, cheerfulness, and swagger” of the youth that she has spoken with through her time as a journalist. For what it’s worth, I feel like she did that, while still showing how deeply they were affected by the violence and loss around them.

As I talk about the writing, I also want to point out that Anappara can set a scene with the best of them. The portraits of the basti and the families and the realities of poverty and girlhood and the disappearing children, all of it really, was so fully rendered – this may be fiction but it was as tangible as reality. It’s clear that she really knew the spaces she was writing about. Lastly, as a stylistic writing choice, the little “ghost” stories that she began each section with did grow on me, by the end, but honestly they just never flowed, literarily, as well with the rest of the novel as I would have wanted; though they were on point topically. I did, however, love (in the sense that I loved what they added to the depth of the novel, not that I loved what they were telling/showing), the intermittent chapters from the point of views of the last moments of each of the disappeared children. Heartbreaking, but they really gave the novel an extra something that it needed. 

There was a well-balanced mix of “plot” and exposition in this book, that I think easily could have swayed too far one way, but never did. The mystery piece, as the basti residents (and of course our intrepid detectives Jai, Pari and Faiz) gather information and details and the number of missing children increases, was paced nicely and had enough info to satisfy us as readers while not being more than these characters might have known/had informational access to. Simultaneously, Anappara’s skill in setting the scene unfolded, giving the reader clear and unforgiving insight into the social/structural inequalities and dangers of poverty/religious minority in India’s slums. Addressing topics from homelessness/begging to sexual assault to general lack of political/administrative care to the details of the education system (and the way so many children of poor families have less access/must work instead of attending, etc.) to the limiting expectations/options for girls, the knowledge from her journalistic experience and background provided such a fullness. In addition, the way she wrote about how rumors/word spread, the way stories are trumped up with retellings (to the harm of innocents – the victims and minority groups and others without proof), was so compelling. Plus, the reality she portrays, with how communities are incited and react in the face of no support from police/policy makers (when any chance at justice falls to the hands of the masses) is a horrible and universal truth.  

Overall, this was quite a heavy story, especially the ending. It’s very literarily well done. The lack of clarity and conclusion is frustrating (for the reader) as well as difficult (in the heartbreaking way) to read, but also….very real. It’s in some ways softened by the child’s point of view that tells the story, and in some ways made worse by how aware the reader is of the loss of “innocence” as it happens, even if the child isn’t (at least not on the same level). I thought this novel was immersive and gripping as far as the writing, though not particularly lighthearted or easy-going topically, and with that caveat, I really “enjoyed” reading it.  

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