Deepa Anappara spent over a decade as a journalist in India where she reported on poverty, religion, and education. Her work resulted in multiple awards and recognitions. Her novel, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, builds on those themes she wrote about.
The book is about a group of friends in the twisting and crammed streets of an Indian city trying to figure out what happened to a missing classmate. The book uses the mystery to propel ideas forward about the dangers that go unnoticed in major Indian cities.
I corresponded with the author about her time as a journalist, crafting her debut novel, and examining Indian cities.
You have a background in journalism. What drew you to writing as a career?
I loved reading as a child, and I wanted to be a writer from the time I was six (I think!). I also felt I was the most articulate while writing – I was a quiet child, and it seemed to me that the best way to engage with the world around me was through writing. When the time came for me to choose my career, it therefore felt natural to become a journalist. As I saw it then, I could earn a livelihood by writing. Journalism guaranteed an income, which fiction writing couldn’t.
As a journalist, what stories catch your eye that you like to explore and write?
I should clarify that I’m no longer a journalist. But I became one so that I could write about the inequities I saw in the society around me, and it is the same political imperative that drives my fiction. While working for newspapers, I couldn’t always write what I wanted to – editors and newspaper owners have a say in what subjects ultimately appear in the next day’s pages. But my interest was always in writing about those left behind by India’s progress stories, including the children living in poverty, and this is what I tried to do.
When did you start thinking about writing fiction?
I have always wanted to write. In my teenage years, I began but didn’t finish several novels. After I moved to the UK towards the end of 2008, I joined an evening writing course; I didn’t have a formal grounding in literature or creative writing, so it was through this course and others that I learnt to read fiction closely, to parse the page for the writer’s technique, as it were.
I talk to a lot of debut authors about nerves before their first book, so I was curious if all of the praise and awards your book has already received help calm the nerves or amp them up at all?
The awards were encouraging, but I am an extremely neurotic person, so they could only quieten the self-critical voices in my head for a little while before those voices reared up again. I am working towards reaching a place where both praise and criticism won’t matter as long as I know I did the best I could.
Part of what drew me to the novel was how it felt very real. From top to bottom, nothing felt like a stretch you often find in storytelling. Do you feel this novel benefitted or was hindered by your knowledge of journalistic writing and having to switch modes?
As I was writing the novel, I felt a great responsibility towards those I was writing about – Jai, his friends, the people in his community, they were all more than just characters to me. Their circumstances reflect the very real circumstances of many children, and adults, in India, and I wanted my portrayal to be honest without being sentimental or patronizing. Most importantly, I wanted the novel to have a strong emotional core.
It is difficult to find that balance between the demands of storytelling, and the ethics of writing about the lived experiences of tragedy and trauma, as is the case with the disappearance of a child, which is unfortunately what thousands of families in India have to deal with. And having been a journalist, having interviewed parents whose children had died, for instance, in religious violence, I believe that even fiction has to be nuanced, be honest in conveying the complexities of those difficult situations.
I could not undermine, for the sake of a fast-paced story, the experience of loss, of uncertainty, of what it is like not to know where your child, friend, or sibling is. This is, of course, my personal view of the subject, but I hope that the narrative arc in my novel, the characterization you’ll encounter in its pages, does reflect that lived experience.
At its core, there is a mystery of a missing classmate, but this novel is so much more than a mystery. How did the idea for Djinn Patrol unfold?
About 180 children are thought to disappear across India each day; this number, put out by a charity in India that works with children, may be higher or lower. We don’t have reliable statistics, but we know it is a high number. When I was working as a reporter, I heard about neighborhoods where 20 or 30 children had disappeared over several years, and the police had made no effort to find them as they were from poor families without money and political power. I was writing on children’s education at that time, and interviewing them about their aspirations, so naturally I wondered what it was like for them to live in an area where disappearances were frequent. How did they make sense of this horror? What stories did they tell themselves for consolation? Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is an attempt to answer those questions through fiction. Nine-year-old Jai thinks he is a detective, and that he can find those missing, with the help of his friends Pari and Faiz. But this is also a story that Jai has created – at some level, I imagine he is aware that he is in grave danger himself; by thinking of himself as a detective, he is convincing himself that he is invincible, and exerting control over a situation in which he, really, has none.
Again, these young children feel oh so real. Did writing this age group come easy for you? What were parts of writing these characters that challenged you?
Jai and his friends, and the other children in the novel, are composites of the children I had interviewed as a reporter. They were cheeky and sarcastic, and I have tried to recreate their humor and swagger in the children in my novel. I also stole a number of verbal tics from the children I know in my life, nephews and nieces included.
I enjoyed writing their point of view – the trick is, of course, not to slip into adult sensibility at any point, and stay true to their perspective, and I can only hope I have achieved that.
This book took me to areas and locations I am wildly unfamiliar with, but by the end, I felt I really understood the world these characters inhabit. Were there parts of your research that you found interesting but they weren’t worked into the novel for one reason or another?
I had to stay true to the perspective of Jai and the other children in the novel – this meant excluding what I as an adult would have commented on (for instance, the deep inequity in Indian society, police negligence or political corruption, and a manufactured fear of the ‘other’). All that is present, of course, because it is an integral part of Jai’s world, but Jai himself is more interested in TV shows, in food, because he’s always hungry and a bit greedy, so those are the things he notices most. I had to stay at his eye-level, which is vertically a different perspective from that of an adult, and exclude what wouldn’t register in his mind.
I had submitted an extract from this novel, then in manuscript form, as my dissertation when I was doing my masters in creative writing, and a comment I received was that the rich people in the novel (or the ‘hi-fi people’ as Jai calls them) weren’t portrayed with the same complexity as those in Jai’s impoverished neighbourhood. I thought about this, but ultimately, I couldn’t find a way around it — this is how Jai perceives them, and I had to stay true to his point of view. The ‘hi-fi’ world is something he doesn’t have access to, and how he understands them is constrained by that fact, and by his distance from them. To him, they are unidimensional, represented only by their wealth, by their access to facilities and services that he and his family can’t even imagine.
Your website lists works you consulted as research, but I was curious what other works of fiction from India you’d recommend to readers?
Many books I love are published in India but not in the West, so this makes it difficult to put a list together. Of the novels available in the US, I highly recommend The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash, translated by Jason Grunebaum; Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra; An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy; Swami and Friends by RK Narayan; any of Amitav Ghosh’s novels – The Calcutta Chromosome and The Hungry Tide are particular favourites; and Vikram Paralkar’s Night Theater.
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