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The lost children of Bhoot Bazaar

Deepa Anappara’s daring debut novel depicts life inside an Indian slum from the point of view of a nine-year-old boy

Children playing in a slum in Topsia, Kolkata.
Children playing in a slum in Topsia, Kolkata. (Photo: Alamy)

Early on in Deepa Anappara’s dazzling debut novel, Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line, nine-year-old Jai, the protagonist, lets us into his world through typical childish acrobatics. He performs a headstand next to his older sister Runu, making this upside-down moment symbolic for more reasons than one. It sets the topsy-turvy tone of the novel poignantly, where young boys and girls take on the adult responsibility of solving a mystery (rather, a horrific tragedy, outside a child’s imagination) that plagues their community. But more crucially, it helps align the reader with the bizarre injustices of the microcosm the book vividly portrays: life inside an urban slum in an unnamed Indian city, which has grown pell-mell, like wild mushrooms, on the edges of “the purple line" subway, near an area called “Bhoot Bazaar".

Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line: By Deepa Anappara, Penguin Random House India, 356 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499.
Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line: By Deepa Anappara, Penguin Random House India, 356 pages, 499.

Setting a novel in an Indian slum is tempting fate. Good and bad examples abound. There is Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1995), where the precariousness of life in an Indian shanty town is explored with immense empathy. At the other end of the spectrum is Gregory David Roberts’ sensational Shantaram (2003), a thinly-veiled work of autobiographical fiction that made many hackles rise. The most successful attempt in this subgenre is, of course, Q&A (2005) by Vikas Swarup, which assumed an afterlife on the big screen in Danny Boyle’s 2008 adaptation, Slumdog Millionaire. This severely truncated list does not include classic non-fiction works like Katherine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers (2012), which gave readers a unique vantage point into the intricacies of life in a Mumbai slum.

Anappara claims her place within this tradition with confidence, perhaps because she was a journalist in another life, writing for Indian and international platforms about the impact of human rights and religious violence on the lives of children. Her experiences in the field probably form the bulwark of the narrative, giving it an unmistakable stamp of authenticity. The reality of Indian life is often all too clichéd, but the clichés are also all too real. The slightest misstep can make a writer tumble down the slippery slope of her own privilege, shorn of dignity. For this reason and her courage of conviction, Anappara deserves praise. It’s only fitting that such approbation for the book can be bolstered by the dignity and sensitivity with which she navigates treacherous sociological ground.

Instead of a third-person omniscient narrator, Anappara chooses two voices to tell her story, both as unlike her as could be. One is a choric commentary by children who subsist on the ecosystem of the Indian Railways: doing odd jobs, begging, foraging, and acting as carriers for dealers of shady substances. Toughened by brutal circumstances from their very first breath, these boys and girls hover on railway platforms and trains, their faces peer at us as we sit in air-conditioned vehicles, waiting for the lights to change. They accost us with wilted flowers and ballpoint pens, fill our ears with plaintive pleas for food and money. Although these children form but a sliver of Anappara’s narrative, they assert their presence with so much humanity that you will probably not be able to ignore them the next time you run into one of their kind on the streets.

Anappara’s other narrator is Jai, a boy with an overactive imagination, not as sharp as his friend Pari, though together they form a team, along with Faiz, their other comrade-in-trouble. While they can be childish pranksters at times, there isn’t a trace of naiveté in their demeanour. Jai is an expert at eavesdropping on adult gossip as he waits every morning in the queue to use the community lavatories. Between trying not to drop out of school and working several jobs to tide over the running of his large fatherless family, Faiz has time for little else. Bookish and far more tactful than the boys, Pari is perhaps the most useful member of the gang. Her quick thinking and innate rationality see the group through several sticky situations.

One day, as children from the slum begin to disappear, it is Pari who, with her astute skill at questioning adults, exhumes clues and hints. She sets the investigation rolling; imagining himself as Jasoos Jai—modelled on world-famous sleuths like Byomkesh Bakshi, Sherlock Holmes and detectives from the police procedurals on television—Jai tries to co-opt the mantle of the leader from the start. These tensions and dramas in the children’s games get amplified into uglier forms in the world of the grown-ups. Most men of the households in the slum appear useless and inadequate parents, compared to their hard-working wives, employed in the homes of the “hi-fi madams", who live in the high-rises on the fringes of the slum.

The choice of a child narrator, while notoriously hard to pull off convincingly, makes the novel a tour de force. Anappara inhabits the voice with disarming ease and swagger, she coins a vocabulary that’s not only idiosyncratic but also unapologetically Indian. Although the children she writes about are hardened by the vicissitudes of their grim existence, she reminds us, with a sly interjection every now and then, of their capacity to create happiness out of the smallest things, even out of thin air. Jai’s relationship with a stray dog he names Samosa is one of the several endearing moments when the reality of his childhood stabs the reader’s consciousness.

Djinn Patrol also depicts the reality of slum life in nuances that are seldom available to Indians living in India, let alone to readers outside the country. Poverty, as Anappara shows, is not a monolith, but a monster that is inflected by class, caste, religion and gender. The poor are not the faceless millions; rather, each of them comes armed with a personal history and distinctive story of their own. These might seem obvious, but are not always at the forefront of the English fiction-reading populace anywhere in the world.

Anappara’s prose is the strongest when she stays with Jai’s voice, though it falters just a little in the sections where she shifts to the third-person omniscient narrative. Or maybe that seems to be the case because of the freshness, urgency and bounding enthusiasm of little Jai’s infectious prattle. In spite of its garb of a detective story, the lost children remain the tragic core of the novel, their grieving families and their ultimate act of rebellion as memorable as the fun and games of Jai, Pari and Faiz.

If the emotional texture of the novel remains fixed in Jai’s consciousness, it doesn’t sieve out his awareness of brewing conflicts and corruption around the disappearing children. He is privy to a scene where the police extort a gold chain from a helpless mother whose boy has gone missing. Faiz’s brother is picked up by the police as a decoy to present as the potential, and easily credible, culprit to the slum dwellers, who, at this point in the story, are willing to believe anything about anyone. And a Muslim man is a sitting duck. The years of living in neighbourly harmony crumble under the pressure of suspicions and hearsay. Suddenly, the fact of religious identity supersedes all the big and small acts of kindness that have held the people of the slum together.

In her recent novel, Prelude To A Riot, Annie Zaidi writes about the smallest, often the most negligible, embers that can set off a conflagration within a close-knit community. In Anappara’s novel, too, a threat of violence spiralling out of control, annihilating all goodwill among individuals, looms large. For readers unfamiliar with India, this steady undercurrent of fear and loathing, of simmering resentments rather than open hostility, may be the nuance that Anappara’s novel drives home in a way few of her antecedents have done so far.

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