A debut novel by an Indian journalist tells a story full of humor, warmth, and heartbreak about children growing up in a Delhi shantytown.
The narrator of most of this entrancing novel is 9-year-old Jai, who lives with his parents and older sister, Runu-Didi, in a basti, or slum, near the terminus of Delhi’s Purple Line train tracks. When a school friend, a shy boy named Bahadur, disappears, Jai, an avid fan of TV crime shows, goes into action. He and his two best friends, a bright girl named Pari and a hardworking boy called Faiz, investigate. Young as they are, they know all too well how little regard the police have for people like them. Their basti is reminiscent of the Mumbai neighborhood depicted in Katherine Boo’s Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: riven with grinding poverty yet bursting with life and always under threat of being bulldozed if the powers that be are unhappy. Jai has loving parents who work tirelessly to support their two kids, but he also knows how to chew a twig “to fool my tummy into thinking more food is on its way” when his next meal is uncertain. There’s an almost Harry Potter–ish vibe to the relationship among the three intrepid kids, and Jai’s voice is irresistible: funny, vivid, smart, and yet always believably a child’s point of view. Anappara paints all of her characters, even the lost ones, with deep empathy, and her prose is winningly exuberant. But she also brings a journalist’s eye to her story, one that is based on the shocking numbers of children who disappear from Indian cities every day. Jai wants to believe that Faiz is right when he says Bahadur was spirited away by a mythical djinn because the reality of his fate, and those of other children even closer to Jai, is too dreadful.
Engaging characters, bright wit, and compelling storytelling make a tale that's bleak at its core and profoundly moving.