Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is a story about three children – Jai, Pari and Faiz – that’s deeply cracking under the ills of hate, pollution and society. Even when it reads like fantasy, woven with vivid images, a hugely disturbing India looms for us to reckon with.
In her debut fiction, Deepa Anappapra gives the voice of the book to the voice of children, who live in a world of confusion. It is a confusion seeped in a world of masks and smog, it is a confusion of seeing friends move, of feeling a future missing, of seeing abuses hurled at each other. It is the confusion of losing the familiar and coming face-to-face with ‘presence of precarity’.
When Jai’s friends go missing, he, along with his two friends, Pari and Faiz, chalk out multiple theories and travel ‘prohibited’ places all in order to find out about the missing children of his basti. In their mission, they travel to Purple Line Metro and get to know of a man named Mental who employs ragpicker boys and continues to look after them even after his death.
Snatches continue. The kids are forced to work in tea stalls, sell roses on highways, see the insides of police stations, study at reading centres, dream of becoming athletes, and finally go missing – not just literally, but also metaphorically, because for the children who aren’t missing, multiple things change: they shift homes, they become witness to bribes, they miss mid-day meals, they skip exams, they miss their classmates; they become detectives.
This isn’t your typical suspense. No one is killed. Nobody is reformed. These are kids who are copying sleuths while doing homework and seeing Police Patrol on T.V. Pari has read of Sherlock Holmes, Jai has heard stories of Byombkesh Bakshi, and Faiz is just, well, busy! They have so much going in their internal life and even then, these are also kids who see their losses through the lens of others.
But this isn’t your typical sad story either. Sadness, I think, is a terrain of adults. So is melancholy. So is grief. In this regard, this is a missing story – it will make you miss so many names, places, animals, things, that you might even chant with Jai’s mother, “Please don’t get snatched. Please don’t get snatched. Please don’t get snatched…”, nine times.
In her fiction, Anappara, never reveals the exact name of the place or the year the book is set in. We know that the basti is near Mumbai and the Purple Line connects to the city of Mumbai. Omniscient Smog is the one revealing time and days in the story. In one way, this Smog is a timeline. Initially, it felt like I was in alternate universe. It felt like it was a story post the years of lockdown, post the pollution of many Diwalis after 2020. But then, once I had met Mental’s kids and become a witness to Jai’s world, it became clear – it is the story of right now, this exact moment that you and I are present in, putting the very urgency being demanded in tackling climate emergency bare for the readers.
“The smog looked like a devil’s own breath. It hid the street lights and made the darkness darker…”
With this precarious environment and the possibility of a riot looming everywhere, how are we growing up when we are seeing hate, injustice, threatened skies, treeless, forestless exteriors all around us? The danger isn’t just for society, it is to the very core of our existence: These are children in the story. They are not really detectives. They are never meant to uncover the ‘truth’ of missing children or lead us to how the children get lost or show the future of posterity or find out who the snatcher is.
On coming out of the metro station, Jai notices:
“We come out into the smog that has wiggled into every corner of the city & coats our tongues with ash…People are wearing black mask with white skulls to stop good nose from breathing the bad air. The masks in the city are hi-fi, pink with black buttons, red & green with mesh strips, and white with yellow snouts & straps. They make people look like giant two-legged insects…We pass hi-fi buildings, gone before we can look into windows….and the tops of trees going grey in smog. Three streaks of green zoom close to the train and disappear. ‘Parakeets’, Pari tells me. I feel like I’m in a dream…From the chatter in compartment, I know the trains are late because of the smog, but I can’t tell how late.”
There is a climatic crisis understanding between weather, season and animal behaviour in the story. Even though the children see others in mask, they themselves are not wearing any mask. Why? Where is the tension of climate crisis in the book? How are people not getting sick of smog? How are they still able to go on with daily business when the sky is being continuously torn apart? The sky one encounters is part of one’s community, and one has obligations to them.
“I gaze up at the sky. Today the smog of curtain thin enough for me to spot the Twinkle of a star behind it. I can’t even remember when I last saw a star…”
In Djinn Patrol, Jai faintly hints at imagining a nonhuman perception as well.
“The Basti is losing its shape in the smog when we get out of school the next day. Shadows sprawl across the roof of houses where punctured cycle tyres, bricks & broken pipes weigh down tarpaulin sheets.”
“All winter the smog has been stealing the colours of our basti and now everything has turned grey-white, even the faces of Ma and Papa as a newswoman pushes a mike into their faces.”
All chapters are either from children’s, or supernatural Djinn’s point of view, making us listen to individual voices. Anappara’s prose does not concentrate on solving the cases of missing children, but on showing the ‘mysteries’ of such cases. She reveals how there is nothing mysterious about missing children in India. This is because we know such stories. We may even know the ‘whodunit’ scenario. The real mystery is the reality – a gap revealed when her prose highlights the world of child just before they are ‘snatched’.
“Runnu stood now in the empty classroom, its walls darkened by cobwebs and inky fingers, the black board cracked at the edges and whitened by years of chalk. Curls of smog crept in like unruly tendrils through the windows that wouldn’t shut fully. She saw for herself a life that would be a series of misunderstandings, and hated herself – the world – for it.”
Climate fiction cannot substitute for a firm enactment and caring policy towards environment, but climate fiction provides a stage of basic reconfiguration that may induce wonder, helplessness, openness and perplexity needed to make impact on our nature-consciousness.
Shreyasi Sharma is a postgraduate in literary art creative writing from Ambedkar University, Delhi.
Featured image credit: Amazon/Editing: LiveWire