A City in a Fog

In Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, dangers lurk in the long shadows of Nithari and Nirbhaya

Originally published in India Today.

Smog meanders through the pages of Deepa Anappara’s moving debut novel; an oppressive presence, like one of the malevolent djinns that nine-year-old Jai worries might be behind a series of child-snatchings in his basti—the last stop of a Metro line in the book’s nameless fictional analogue of Delhi. Smog and djinns are just part of a combustible mix of dangers, lurking in the long shadows of Nithari and Nirbhaya. Jai’s basti is filled with relentless poverty, child abuse, rape, murder, exploitation, extortion, corruption, religious ferment—in short, the smouldering stuff of our daily newspaper city pages that occasionally flares up into a lead headline.

It isn’t surprising that Anappara worked as a journalist, winning awards for her reporting on poverty, religious violence and education. But increasingly, gruesome crime is as inescapable in our urban fiction as it is in our cities; Djinn Patrol is just one of several novels in recent years that have fruitfully borrowed the tools of detective and speculative fiction to hammer stories out of the chaotic, systemic violence that defines urban life for so many.

If all this sounds a bit heavy, it is—and sometimes novels take up the mission of writing from behind the beautiful forevers only to find themselves unable to escape being pedantic, patronising or purple (Raj Kamal Jha’s The City and the Sea is a recent example). Djinn Patrol however transcends its burdens by being exceptionally well-written, thoughtfully structured, and above all, sensitive to the precise individuality and mental acuity of its characters. Its world is also beautifully described, from the alleys of Bhoot Bazaar to the big city’s main railway station, where Jai and his schoolfriend Pari travel in search of missing children.

That trip to the city—their first via metro—feels like an adventure that’s the inverse of the famous train scene in Pather Panchali. (The film’s archetypical sibling relationship is also echoed in Jai and his sister Runu.) But unlike Apu and Durga running to see the powerful symbol of modernity steaming through their pastoral fields of blooming kaash, Jai and Pari “stare out of the glass panels… We pass hi-fi buildings, gone before we can look into their windows, a clock tower, an amusement park with giant roller coasters… and the tops of trees going grey in the smog. Three streaks of green zoom close to the train and disappear. ‘Parakeets,’ Pari tells me. I feel like I’m in a dream.” It’s the landscape around them—full of places they will never enter— that is rapidly moving, and the commuters on the Metro only chasing its promises.

Jai’s ability to dream, to thrill to possibility, is one of the novel’s bright spots—a ray of sun momentarily cutting through the smog (or a good djinn, like those found in Ferozeshah Kotla). So is the loving relationship his parents share, or the equitable marriage of his neighbor Shanti Chachi. But Djinn Patrol is not a hopeful book, and that makes it a better one. Its readers will mostly be “hi-fi” people—us—and Anappara doesn’t pull punches when it comes to illustrating our constant complicity in perpetuating dehumanizing poverty. Djinn Patrol shames without being preachy, but also without mitigation.

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