DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. You probably wouldn't expect humor to be a key element in a story about child kidnapping and human trafficking in India. But our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says Deepa Anappara's debut novel, "Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line," doesn't play to conventional expectations. Here's her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Deepa Anappara began her writing career as a journalist in her native India, focusing on children growing up in poverty. In an afterword to her debut novel, "Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line," Anappara says she was disturbed by lurid media accounts of the disappearances of children in India; by some estimates, as many as 180 children each day. Anappara turned to fiction because she wanted to return the focus to the children themselves, as well as to their resilience, cheerfulness and swagger. Noble motives don't always produce memorable fiction. In fact, fiction can be strangled by its own self-righteousness. But this is most definitely not the case with "Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line." Unpredictable, cheeky and moving, Anappara's debut is filled with the lost light of all those children who vanished. The idiosyncratic narrator of "Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line" is a 9-year-old boy named Jai. Jai lives in a basti, a sprawling slum located within an unnamed city in India. The home he shares with his parents and older sister consists of one room. It's situated in the shadows of what he calls hi-fi luxury apartment buildings with names like Palm Springs and Mayfair, where his mother and other women from the basti work as nannies and housecleaners. The most expensive possession in Jai's home is a TV, which he prizes because he's an avid fan of reality police shows. As Jai tells us in his cocky, gullible and altogether distinctive voice, my favorite shows are the ones that Ma says I'm not old enough to watch, like "Police Patrol" and "Live Crime." Sometimes Ma switches off the TV right in the middle of a murder because she says it's too sick-making. But sometimes she leaves it on because she likes guessing who the evil people are and telling me how the policemen are sons-of-owls for never spotting criminals as fast as she can. When the novel opens, Jai is presented with an opportunity to practice what he calls his detectiving skills when a classmate vanishes. Rallying to Jai's side are a pair of juvenile Dr. Watsons - Pari, a Hermione Granger-type smarty pants, and Faiz, who hails from a minority Muslim family and is especially fearful of djinns, spirits made of smokeless fire.
Week by week, more children and teenagers are snatched from the basti. Panicked residents, frustrated that the police are doing little because the victims come from poor families, begin to turn on each other. Muslims like Faiz and his family become targets of violence. It's up to Jai and his friends, or so he thinks, to find the evildoers. To do so, the trio scour the crowded bazaar and explore narrow alleys where goats clothed in old sweaters against the winter chill have covered the ground with their droppings. Jai even steals the ticket fare for Pari and himself to board the purple line train to search for their missing classmate in the city's center. Shrouding all these expeditions is an urban smog that, in the manner of Sherlock Holmes' London fog, obscures the truth.
The vivid, unruly novel Anappara wrote defies easy classification. Given the sometimes capricious exploits of its young investigators, "Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line" could conceivably be shelved in the YA mystery section. Yet Anappara also plays in a self-aware manner with the narrative; for instance, interspersing victims' first-person accounts of their disappearances within the main story. By novel's end, the tale darkens into urban noir. Even so, Jai's pliant voice retains a stubborn cheerfulness, a will to believe in the possibility of deliverance in this fallen world.
Anappara turned to fiction, and particularly crime fiction, because she wanted this difficult subject to reach readers who might be drawn in and come to empathize imaginatively with her characters. Empathy is a response to fiction that's being called into question these days, derided as too easy, mere pearl clutching. But the power of even popular literature to shake up readers shouldn't be underestimated. Over time, the novel as a form can reduce cruelty because, as the philosopher Richard Rorty argued, it expands the possibility of a democratic community imagining others as us and not them. This is a kind of moral progress, a chance for readers to get to take the purple line themselves and one stop at a time imagine and then sometimes construct a different world.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line" by Deepa Anappara. On tomorrow's show, we'll talk about how Jeff Bezos built his Amazon empire and issues relating to competition, regulation and privacy now that Amazon has expanded into so many parts of American commerce, culture, law enforcement and national security. Our guest will be James Jacoby, the director of and correspondent for the new FRONTLINE documentary "Amazon Empire," which premieres Tuesday on PBS. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.