Book Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

Djinn Patrol
DJINN PATROL ON THE PURPLE LINE by Deepa Anappara (Published by Random House in 2020)

My Rating: ★★★★

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line follows the point of view of nine-year-old Jai in the basti (slums) of India and his two best friends, Pari and Faiz, as they investigate the disappearances of their peers. They form a Golden Trio of sorts, with Jai as the instigator of their ‘adventures’, Pari as the whip-smart Hermione figure, and Faiz as the reluctant sidekick (though reluctant only because he has work). Inspired by crime shows like Police Patrol and Live Crime, they travel around their basti to list down suspects and interrogate the people who last saw the missing children.

Naturally, being children, they’re not very successful in their investigation—for most of the book, Jai still secretly thinks that djinns are the real culprits behind the snatchings—but this playful ‘detectiving’ plotline was never the point of the novel anyway; rather, its real agenda is to explore the complex web of political, religious, and economic problems that plague modern India, and how these problems compound to exacerbate the suffering of the poor. We see, for example, how the corrupt local police take bribes from the poor while still refusing to do what they were bribed for; how the well-connected rich are exempted from the justice system; and how the Muslims, a marginalized group in India, are made the scapegoat for society’s ills. This structure of nesting incisive social commentary within another genre reminds me of F.H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles, which appeared to be a crime novel but was really a portrait of the layers of corruption in Philippine society.

All these structural inequalities are grim enough in themselves, but what makes Djinn Patrol truly heartbreaking is the children’s loss of innocence at realizing their helplessness in the face of such inequalities. (There are some minor spoilers in this paragraph.) In the end, the culprit may have been captured, but nothing is truly solved—the missing children remain missing, their fates remain unknown, and their families have to live with the unbearable uncertainty for the rest of their lives. In this way, the novel also functions as a commentary on murder mystery genre: traditionally, the reveal of the murderer is comforting because this assures the readers of closure for the victims’ loved ones and that the crime will no longer be committed because the murderer is behind bars. In the case of the disappearing children, however, the poor families obtain neither closure nor certainty—in part because they cannot afford it. Additionally, murder mysteries are only possible in countries with strong criminal justice systems in the first place; in countries with weak criminal justice systems, one can barely even count on the police to investigate a crime, let alone solve it. As Jai says:

I’ll never watch Police Patrol again. When they act out real stories of people getting snatched or killed, it will feel as if someone is trying to strangle me, I just know it. A murder isn’t a story for me anymore; it’s not a mystery either.

The capture of the suspect even worsens the family’s situations, since their stories are preyed upon by the media and ruthlessly converted into soundbites for public entertainment and consumption:

EXCLUSIVE! Inside the Penthouse of Horrors!

Slumdog Killer Reveals Gruesome Details of Murders [. . .]

Confessions of the Man-Eater of Golden Gate!

These ‘juicy’ and ‘gory’ stories only serve to further traumatize each family by making them imagine, in gruesome detail, the torture inflicted on their missing children. In effect, the convicted snatcher is not the only criminal in the story; the unethical media, the negligent police, and the slick politicians are all complicit in the disappearances and deaths of these children.

Overall, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is a grim and heartbreaking novel. I find that one of its strengths is how it illustrates being poor as painful not only because of a lack of material means, but also because they are unseen and unheard (after all, who would care if a poor child disappears?). Despite this, I appreciated the tender and affectionate portrayal of its protagonists, and how, at least in the beginning, the children are not portrayed as victims; rather, they maintain a buoyant sense of agency and adventure in their ‘detectiving’. The preface to each of the three parts (which also happen to be my favorite parts), titled “This Story Will Save Your Life”, also conveys a desperate sort of hopefulness, a talismanic belief in stories and the unlikeliest of patron-saints:

Our gods are too busy to hear our prayers, but ghosts—ghosts have nothing to do but wait and wander, wander and wait, and they are always listening to our words because they are bored and that’s one way to pass the time.

In sum, while I didn’t think this work was especially innovative, I still think that it handled its important subject matter with a deft and compassionate touch. I wouldn’t be opposed to this making the shortlist. 4 out of 5 stars.

Reviews for the Women’s Prize 2020 Longlist

  1. Weather by Jenny Offill – ★★★★
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – ★★★★
  3. Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – ★★★★
  4. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ★★★★
  5. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – ★★★★
  6. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – ★★★
  7. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – ★★½
  8. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – ★★
  9. Dominicana by Angie Cruz – ★★
  10. Girl by Edna O’Brien – Will not read; no rating
  11. The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel – Will not read; no rating

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!

Find me on Goodreads! | Read from April 15-17, 2020

20 thoughts on “Book Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

  1. Great review! I’m so glad you enjoyed this book; it looks like we felt pretty similarly about it 🙂 And I’ll have to check out Smaller & Smaller Circles soon, it sounds fascinating!

  2. Gil, do you feel like this book balances hope or joy in with the poverty and trauma? I am wary of books that don’t acknowledge the way people in dire situations still live these loving experiences together, even as they wade through the sewage that can be existence most of the time.

    1. We have the same concern – my biggest worry going into this was that it would read like ‘poverty porn’, but I was surprised that it didn’t. I think it could be the choice of narrator, since it was the children’s joy, recklessness, and sense of humor and adventure that really leavened the utter grimness of the novel. But, to be honest, I still wasn’t a fan of how it was saturated with sensory detail of the slums – it made it feel somehow that it was deliberately written for a Western audience. It’s not a bad read, though.

      1. Poverty porn! Yes! I keep forgetting that term, though it’s constantly cropping up and making me more aware of it. I also hear “trauma porn,” which is not something I want to read or watch.

      2. I actually read a really interesting article from Anappara about how she was worried that this might read like ‘poverty porn’ (unfortunately, it’s behind the Times paywall, so I can’t link to it). I think her awareness of the issue meant that she avoided the trap.

  3. Great review! I wasn’t drawn in by this one when it was announced with the longlist but I’ve seen some really positive reviews that are making me want to get my hands on it.

  4. Great review! I am in a reading slump, so my longlist reading has slowed down quite a bit, but Djinn Patrol is one of the few on the longlist I am still excited to read (the list overall is not working for me)! I really hope it makes the shortlist.

    1. Thanks! Reading this was definitely a relief compared to the ones I recently read from the longlist, so I hope you’ll get along with it too! And I hope you get out of your slump soon; they’re inevitable but it doesn’t feel any better every time it hits.

  5. Pingback: Reading the Women’s Prize Longlist | Wrap Up, Wish list & Shortlist Predictions | Callum McLaughlin

  6. Literary Elephant

    Great review! I felt much the same about this one. Jai really brings the story together even though, as you note, it’s not the most innovative as far as storytelling goes. The hazy ending also helped it to leave an impact and was one of the aspects of the book that impressed me most- without that grim uncertainty, I’m afraid the rest would have fallen apart. I’m so glad you enjoyed this one, and I would also be happy to see it on the shortlist!

    1. Thanks! And yes, super agree on the ending. It would have been a very different book overall if the author gave us the satisfaction of a resolution, whether happy or tragic. Somehow, this uncertainty is even worse.

  7. Pingback: Would You Rather Book Tag – Stephen Writes

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