📖 🇮🇳 #34: An Indian coming-of-age novel

Deepa Anappara on life in the slums of an Indian city

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Before becoming an author, Deepa Anappara spent 11 years working as a journalist in Mumbai and Delhi, researching the widespread disappearance of children growing up in poverty. Part of her research process involved interviewing children, who were growing up in slums, about their education and aspirations. Years later, after moving to the UK and experiencing life as an “immigrant in Britain,” Anappara turned to fiction in an effort to tell these children’s stories as authentically as she could—which meant writing from a child’s perspective. And so Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line was born.

Anappara’s debut novel, which was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020, is mostly narrated in the first person by Jai, a cheeky nine-year-old boy who lives with his parents and older sister in a basti, a huge slum in the outskirts of an Indian city. When one of his classmates goes missing, Jai takes inspiration from his favourite crime shows Police Patrol and Live Crime and vows to find the missing boy. Along with his two best friends—Pari, a Hermione Granger-type swot, and Faiz, a boy who belongs to a minority Muslim family and sells flowers to support his parents—Jai sets off to investigate.

‘This whole poor-Bahadur-is-missing thing,’ I tell Pari and Faiz, ‘it’s like a bad Hindi picture, it’s been going on for too long.’

I have to speak up because the small children playing kabbadi-kabbadi-kabbadi are squealing too-loud, their fast-as-cheetahs feet kicking up dust from the ground in big, brown swirls.

‘I’m going to be detective, and I’m going to find Bahadur,’ I say, putting on my best grown-up voice. ‘And Faiz, you’ll be my assistant. Every detective has one. Like Byomkesh has Ajit and Deluda has Topshe.’

Once Pari sets the boys straight by insisting that girls can be detectives too, the trio set off on their mission, scouring their local bazaar for clues and raising enough money to board the purple line train to search for their missing classmate in the city centre. But as the weeks pass, more children and teenagers are snatched from the basti and their parents grow increasingly frustrated that the police aren’t doing enough to help, even when they’re bribed. Amid the oppressive smog, they begin to turn on each other with Muslims, like Faiz’s family, eventually forced out of the basti. Meanwhile Jai worries that the children are being snatched by djinns, supernatural genies made of smokeless fire.

Anappara does a great job at capturing the way Jai and his friends speak, with local slang scattered throughout the book and collections of words strung together with hyphens to give Jai’s narration a distinctly non-English cadence. And narrating the book from the perspective of Jai, an earnest and relentlessly optimistic child, allows Anappara to juxtapose the cruelty of life inside a basti with Jai’s childlike worries. “There’s nothing in this world I’m afraid of,” Jai at one point boasts, before admitting that actually “I’m scared of JCBs, exams, djinns that are probably real and Ma’s slaps.”

But amidst all of the humour—of which there’s a surprising amount—Anappara doesn’t let us forget the social inequalities that overshadow the realities of Jai’s life, just like the “hi-fi” luxury apartments that loom over his basti.

I really loved this book. Jai makes for an incredibly endearing narrator and Anappara resists presenting the reader with straight-forward solutions to any of the devastating problems she explores. A truly affecting read.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara (Chatto & Windus, 2020)

More books by Indian authors

Here’s a list of other recommendations I received this week:

  • Abandon by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, tr. Arunava Sinha

  • The Crooked Line by Ismat Chughtai, tr. Tahira Naqvi

  • The First Promise by Ashapurna Debi, tr. Indira Chowdhury

  • The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

  • Crowfall by Shanta Gokhale

  • Pages Stained With Blood by Indira Goswami, tr. by Pradip Acharya

  • When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

  • Hangwoman by K. R. Meera, tr. J. Devika

  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

  • Mai by Geetanjali Shree, tr. Nita Kumar

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thanks to Matt Allinson and Laura Kaposi for their recommendations for this issue. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!