Random House, 368 pages, $27 (c2020)
“Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line” is a great book. It is also a heart-wrenching one. It has brief moments of humor and many more moments of warmth. But just be prepared for it to affect you emotionally.
Jai is a nine-year-old boy living in the slums of a big city in India. His family’s living conditions are inconceivable to most people in the United States. He lives with his mother, father and sister in a one-room shanty. There are lots of other similar shacks surrounding them. There’s a “toilet complex” they use as a restroom and as a place they can throw a bucket of water over themselves for a wash. There is electricity but it often goes out. There is no air-conditioning for them and the hundreds (thousands?) of others in shantytown, although the temperatures are unbearable. There is a constant haze of smog over the city, but of course no air filters for them. They cough, slog, and wend their way through trash, bad smells, and the press of the crowd to carry on with their lives.
One day one of Jai’s schoolmates, Bahadur, disappears. The boy had been talking about taking off for better prospects in the busier part of the city. Maybe he took the Purple Line, the train route that runs from their area of town towards the center. But maybe he hadn’t gone voluntarily. Jai wonders what Byomkesh Bakshi would do.
Bakshi is the TV detective hero upon whom Jai models his junior crime-fighting persona. Along with his friends Pari, a pretty good thinker and brave soul — for a girl — and Faiz, a Muslim in a world of Hindi, Jai begins his investigation. Jai has more enthusiasm than actual ability or critical skills, but the other two follow along. Pari provides the only genuine attempt to ask pertinent questions of witnesses.
The story is told mostly through Jai’s narrative. He is an average kid whose understanding of the world barely extends beyond the slum he lives in and the fictional world of television. But he has to have some basic survival skills to live in his basti (settlement). He and his nine-year-old friends walk home from school, wander the marketplace, and scour the rubbish ditch for sign of their missing classmate.
The trio ramps up their theorizing and bravely extends their investigation after another school friend disappears. Then another. And another.
The disappearances are so mysterious and without any clues that Jai wonders, Are bad djinns taking the children for rituals and reasons only djinns know? There is much wailing and anguish in the basti now. The police finally are called — a last resort, given their reputation for corruption and laziness — and if there is any activity on their part to locate the missing, no one really knows.
Author Deepa Anappara uses this storyline to bring us into the world of the basti. The picture of the physical surroundings is dire. Culturally, most of the people are Hindi, as is Jai’s family. Anappara describes some of their rituals and beliefs. But the bottom line is all the families in the slums are in the same degree of impoverishment. Work is hard to find, some people work at more than one job, children sometimes have to work. Life is hard.
Jai is lucky because he has a mother and father taking care of him and his sister. His father is not a drunk and his sister is old enough to cook, clean, gather water, and chaperone Jai while their mother is at work as a cleaner in one of the high rises at the edge of the basti. Jai has no real chores except to be a good student, a chore he fails at.
Jai and his friends provide the color and humor of being children at the beginning of the book. Jai and his sister, Runu-Didi, are typical siblings. They argue and tease. Runu is a teenager with a passion for track. Jai is an indifferent student who doesn’t like that his parents love Runu more, or so Jai thinks.
The story turns darker as it goes along, as more children go missing. There can’t be a happy ending it seems. It is Anappara’s great gift that she shows us a culture without glamor, with very little hope, with only dreams, and she does it with tact and compassion. (That’s why Runu is so involved in track; it is a means to continue her education.)
“Djinn Patrol” isn’t a cute kid’s book or a laundering of cultural problems. It’s a thoughtful, open look at a real problem that is taking place in countries with enormous problems of poverty and population.
Although the mystery is non-traditional, this gets an MBTB star!