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In 'Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line,' A Mystery In India


Deepa Anappara is a journalist who spent more than a decade covering India, a lot of that time in poor neighborhoods. Picture tin shacks, tarps on the roof, electricity from a tangle of wires.

DEEPA ANAPPARA: Initially, it might just seem like a temporary home, but people lived there for many years - you know, 20 or 30 years - with no sort of permanence. And there's always the danger that bulldozers might arrive and demolish these homes.

SHAPIRO: There was one story she never felt able to write - about children who go missing from these poor neighborhoods. So Deepa Anappara decided to tackle it in fiction. Her debut novel is a mystery called "Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line." And her narrator is a 9-year-old self-appointed investigator named Jai.

ANAPPARA: He's actually a composite of many of the children that I had met while working as a reporter in India. And at that time, I met many children there who were, you know, really funny and sarcastic and had a bit of a swagger. And these were the kind of traits that I couldn't really communicate in my news reports, you know because of tight word counts.


ANAPPARA: And I tried to bring that out in my fiction.

SHAPIRO: Well, it also provides a really kind of emotional counterweight to the severity of the problem of children who go missing to have a central character and narrator who has such a kind of zest for life.

ANAPPARA: Yeah, absolutely. I'm glad you felt that way because 180 children are thought to disappear in India each day.

SHAPIRO: A hundred eighty each day?

ANAPPARA: Yeah, across the country - this figure could be higher or lower because we don't have proper data. And I was aware of these stories because by working as a reporter, I would go into these neighborhoods and hear about, you know, 20 or 30 children going missing over a span of two or three years, and nothing had been done to find them because they didn't have any money, and the police weren't interested in investigating these cases. That was one of the main reasons why I wanted to write this story - to tell it from, you know, a child's perspective about what it was like for them to live through that time when abductions are really frequent.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, why did you approach this story as fiction - as a novel - when you have written so much nonfiction as a journalist?

ANAPPARA: Writing it as fiction, I could really bring in sort of a unique viewpoint of this world. And also, just as a - as you were saying, it would have been really difficult, I think, because the book goes to such dark places. Jai's voice counters some of that darkness and provides some levity, which I felt was really necessary to tell this story.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us about why so many children go missing in India? I'm sure there's not one single reason, but what is this epidemic?

ANAPPARA: Most of the children who are abducted are forced into domestic work or they're forced to work as laborers, essentially made to work, like, manual positions. And especially with girls, they're typically forced into prostitution. There's some form of sexual exploitation involved as well.

SHAPIRO: In the novel, you make it really clear that the police are totally uninterested in investigating these crimes. And I understand that's true in real life as well.

ANAPPARA: Yeah, absolutely. It seems quite unbelievable. How can 20 or 30 children go missing and nothing be done about that? But there is, you know, a significant amount of corruption. It's very easy for the police to turn away those who are poor, those who can't exert any kind of influence over them. And this is what typically happens. There is a general lack of accountability in the system.

SHAPIRO: Part of the challenge, part of the mystery is that nobody knows whether these children have been abducted or run away. The kids who are investigating think maybe it was supernatural forces - djinns, evil spirits...


SHAPIRO: ...That took them.

ANAPPARA: Yeah, absolutely. So the belief in the supernatural is quite common in different parts of India. And djinns are meant to be spirits that can be good or bad and can appear as humans or animals. It is the original version of the genie as was made quite popular in the States. The children do wonder if it is a djinn that is snatching their friends, and it reflects a sort of a belief that's there in that community. So they're turning to the supernatural because they're not getting answers from elsewhere.

SHAPIRO: Late in the novel, your narrator says, a murder isn't a story for me anymore. It's not a mystery, either. Why put this line at the end of a book that is both a story and a mystery?

ANAPPARA: OK, so I think in many ways, Jai is making sense of his world through the story that he tells himself. And part of what happens through the novel is he is understanding the realities of this world. It is a coming-of-age story as well. It's not just a detective story. And this is the coming-of-age aspect for him.

SHAPIRO: Deepa Anappara - her new novel is "Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line."

Thank you so much for talking with us.

ANAPPARA: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF NABIHAH IQBAL'S "EDEN PIECE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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