Nine-year-old Jai lives in a slum on the outskirts of an unnamed Indian city with his parents and older sister. In many ways he is an unremarkable boy: he watches reality cop shows on TV, attends the overcrowded government school, and tries to stay out of trouble. But when one of his classmates goes missing, Jai – taking inspiration from the television programmes he devours – turns amateur detective and vows to uncover the mystery of the disappearance. With the help of his two best friends – sensible swot Pari and diligent Faiz – they form a comically hapless trio and set off on the city metro’s purple line to investigate.
Anappara’s debut novel is part detective story, part coming-of-age tale, with a powerful undercurrent of social commentary. The “basti” where Jai lives is a place of oppressive streets and ramshackle houses: “I look at our house with upside-down eyes and count five holes in our tin roof. There might be more but I can’t see them because the black smog outside has wiped the stars off the sky.” Anappara seduces us with tastes and smells, reminding us that even within this environment, where pollution weighs heavy in the air and scavenging from the local landfill is commonplace, there is still beauty and enjoyment in food: “Ma gathers ginger and garlic slivers and throws them into the pan, followed by a pinch of turmeric and coriander and cumin powder.”
Overlooking the slum is a gated community, populated by those at the other end of the economic spectrum, where Jai’s mother works for a demanding and domineering boss. The juxtaposition is nicely conceived and Anappara creates a sense of claustrophobia.
What really sets Djinn Patrol apart, though, is the authenticity of Jai’s voice. Narrating in the first person, Anappara immerses us not only in Jai’s world of deep social inequities, but also in his internal world. Precocious experiences are juxtaposed with childlike sensibilities. Jai gets a job as a teashop boy, the work heartbreakingly severe for a nine-year-old child: “It takes ages to clean just one of the Duttaram’s pans. Their bottoms are sticky with burnt tea and spices and sugar. I have to scrub and scrub, and my fingertips turn blue from the icy waters and my legs hurt from squatting to wash vessels.” Unwilling – or perhaps unable – to accept that the children’s disappearances might be due to kidnappers, child traffickers or murderers, Jai finds comfort in the idea that they have been abducted by a mythical djinn. And yet, at times, he also displays a preternatural maturity in his observations: “Our basti could go up in flames and we still won’t be on TV.”
In channelling complex social and political realities through Jai’s voice, Anappara creates an endearing and highly engaging narrator to navigate us through the dark underbelly of modern India.
• Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara is published by Chatto & Windus (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15