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
- Weather by Jenny Offill – ★★★★
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – ★★★★
- Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – ★★★★
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – ★★★★
- Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – ★★★★
- Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams – ★★★
- The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – ★★½
- The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – ★★
- Dominicana by Angie Cruz – ★★
- Girl by Edna O’Brien – Will not read; no rating
- 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