Author Deepa Anappara on the importance of putting children 'at the heart of the story' in Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line
Deepa Anappara has opened up about the inspiration behind her debut novel Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.
The journalist-turned-author's compelling debut novel Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line was published late last month - and has readers almost immediately hooked.
The novel tells the story of Jai, a nine-year-old boy who watches too many reality cop shows, thinks he’s smarter than his friend Pari (even though she always gets top marks) and considers himself to be a better boss than Faiz (even though Faiz is the one with a job).
When a boy at school goes missing, Jai decides to use the crime-solving skills he has picked up from episodes of Police Patrol to find him. With Pari and Faiz by his side, Jai ventures into some of the most dangerous parts of the sprawling Indian city; the bazaar at night, and even the railway station at the end of the Purple Line. But kids continue to vanish, and the trio must confront terrified parents, an indifferent police force and soul-snatching djinns in order to uncover the truth.
The author spoke to Her about the inspiration behind Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line - and why it was important to tell the novel from a child's perspective.
What made you want to be a writer? Was it something that you always wanted to do?
I was a voracious reader as a child and wanted to be a writer from as far back as I can remember. I chose to work as a print journalist because I could earn a livelihood while writing and also point to the inequities in my society. For me, writing has always been my way of engaging with the world.
How did you come up with the idea for Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line?
The spark for Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line came from real-life disappearances of children in India. I grew up there and later worked as a reporter, and I often visited neighbourhoods like the one in which Jai, the nine-year-old narrator of my novel, lives. During that time, I heard about neighbourhoods where twenty or thirty children had gone missing over the years; in fact, as many as 180 children are thought to disappear across India each day.
Because I used to interview children for my reports on the impact of poverty on their schooling, I was interested in finding out how they made sense of these disappearances, how they lived with the fear of being kidnapped. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is an attempt to answer those questions through fiction. The children in my novel are composites of the children I had met and interviewed as a reporter. In Jai and his friends, I have tried to recreate their swagger and humour.
What kind of research was involved while working on the book?
The work I had done as a journalist was integral to writing this novel; the only reason I could write it was because the people who lived in neighbourhoods like Jai’s were kind enough to welcome me into their houses, and generously shared their stories and lives with me.
Similarly, Jai and his friends were inspired by the children I had interviewed as a reporter; in my news reports, I couldn’t communicate that many of these children were cheeky and sarcastic, and I have tried to capture these traits in my fictional portrayal. While writing the novel, I read several non-fiction books to fill the gaps in my knowledge. I also spoke to charities in India working with children, particularly to find those who have gone missing.
How did you decide on making Jai the narrator? Did you always intend on making the narrator a child?
The reason I wanted to write this book was because children’s voices were missing from the mainstream discourse about disappearances – by the very nature of the story, if you are writing a news report about a missing child, the child’s voice is absent, and we can only construct who they are through interviews with their friends and family, photos and videos.
It was important to me that this story be narrated by a child so that we saw their viewpoint – how did they understand the horrors unfolding around them? What were their fears and hopes? What stories did they tell themselves about what was happening? Children seldom have any agency in these situations, and therefore, I wanted to put them at the heart of the story.
Jai’s chapters are intercut with stories of spiritual beings, as well as chapters focusing on each of the children who vanished. How important was it to give them a voice?
I wrote this novel so that children would be at the centre of a story about their disappearances, so it was important for me that they be present on the page, narrating their own stories for themselves. I think there is always a gap between who we think we are, and how the world sees us, and this gap is most evident in the chapters in which the missing children tell their own stories. We realise that even those closest to the children don’t really know them, or what they are up to.
With the stories of the supernatural, including ghosts, and djinns, which are spirits that many in India fear and worship, I hoped to reflect the larger belief-systems of the community to which Jai and his friends belong. They are going through a tough time, and the authorities who should help them are ignoring them, so they have nowhere else to turn but to these stories of ghosts and spirits who, they hope, will intervene on their behalf.
For a lot of the book, it seems to follow a detective/whodunnit kind of vibe. However, when it gets to the ending, things aren’t quite as clear-cut. Why did you decide to frame the book in the whodunnit narrative?
The story of the disappearances of children is mostly narrated from nine-year-old Jai’s perspective. He watches a lot of cop shows on TV and thinks he is a detective, so when children disappear in his neighbourhood, he believes he can find them with the help of his friends, Pari and Faiz. At that age, children can think they are indestructible, which Jai certainly does, and we follow him and his friends as they try to solve what they initially see as a mystery. But Jai is also aware at some level that he is in danger as a child, and being a detective is a story that he tells himself to feel that he is in control, and that he is invincible. I see this novel as both a detective story, and a coming-of-age story.
What are you reading at the moment? What books have you particularly enjoyed lately?
I only recently read We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo and I loved the specificity and wit in the main character Darling’s voice. Vikram Paralkar’s Night Theatre came out in the UK last year, and in the US recently, and I admired the rich blend of surrealism and gritty details in this story about a surgeon in a rundown clinic in rural India who has the impossible task of reviving the dead over the course of one night.
What book are you looking forward to in 2020?
I am hoping to read a few classics that I have only read in abridged versions before. Also high on my TBR list are Taran N Khan’s Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul and Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar.
What are you working on next, if there’s anything you can share about it?
I am working on a historical novel.
- Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara is published by Chatto & Windus, out now.