When his classmate goes missing, nine-year-old Jai, who lives with his family in the basti (slum) on the outskirts of an unnamed Indian city, decides to search for him and the fearless Djinn Patrol is formed. Then another child goes missing, and another. Jai is an utterly convincing voice, a lively, cheerful, cheeky boy yet through his eyes Anappara skilfully reveals the harsh reality beneath; the police corruption and stark inequality in a country where 180 children are said to go missing each day. An outstanding debut—Vintage's lead for 2020—and not to be missed.
Overlooking the slum is a gated community, populated by those at the other end of the economic spectrum, where Jai’s mother works for a demanding and domineering boss. The juxtaposition is nicely conceived and Anappara creates a sense of claustrophobia. What really sets Djinn Patrol apart, though, is the authenticity of Jai’s voice. Narrating in the first person, Anappara immerses us not only in Jai’s world of deep social inequities, but also in his internal world. Precocious experiences are juxtaposed with childlike sensibilities.
As many as 180 children go missing in India every day. This fact prompted Anappara to write the novel. An admirable notion. But there’s a sense of writing from the outside, looking in, rather than starting from the centre: the kid and his obsession with cop shows, and how an intense need to investigate might grow out of that obsession. Nevertheless, great language throughout, colourful, sparkling, packed with images. But man, I’d love to read about djinn patrols on the purple line.
This is a first novel, and it has some of the clumsiness that goes with that. The bad characters can feel like caricatures; at moments, Jai’s voice isn’t convincing as that of a child. Sometimes, too, the political message can be a little heavy-handed. But in the end Anappara, a journalist with a background in reporting on poverty and religious violence, delivers something more powerful and complex than the vast majority of more highly crafted novels. The narrative goes beyond portraying how the poor of India have been betrayed by their government, and suggests they might also be betrayed by the stories we like to tell about them. Jai has to grow up overnight: this book asks that the reader does, too.
With her vibrant rendering of an unequal, corrupt Indian society, there are echoes of Preti Taneja’s debut We That Are Young and the Booker-winning The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, though the latter gives a more satisfactory closeness to one person’s character and perspective. In Djinn, while the stories are always interesting, they can appear fleeting, leaving us wanting to know more, which of course is a reflection of the subject matter and the thousands of families across India who are left in the dark about their loved ones.
Book-industry hype can be difficult to fathom. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is a perfectly adequate novel, competently crafted but nothing special. One can’t help but wonder if other factors — commercial rather than literary — are at play.
It could, at a stretch, make for a serviceable television drama — a well-meaning but slightly mawkish affair with luridly shot bazaar scenes, evocative smog-ridden vistas and plucky young scamps being adorable in inauspicious circumstances. Alternatively, a truly awful cynic might note that the novel is being jointly published with Penguin Random House India, and that India has 125 million English speakers, some of whom like to read fiction.
It’s not hard to see why Djinn Patrol is one of the most eagerly awaited debut novels for this spring. It feels like a reckoning with modern India and its many complex problems: the government and police corruption, the rising hatred towards Muslims, the extraordinary concentrations of wealth and a broadcast media that both sensationalises and trivialises current affairs. Anappara cleverly filters a uniquely Indian horror story through a chirpy, Famous Five-esque narrative and the voice of a witty, young, have-a-go hero. There’s an innocent exuberance to the tone, but underneath lurks a creeping fury about a deeply unequal society where “everyone’s mad after the money”.
There’s also a resemblance to The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time as nine-year-old Jai decides to investigate the disappearance of another child from his shantytown...
Anappara doesn’t pull her punches as events build to a desperately tense final act and a conclusion that, while distressing, is fully earned.