When a boy suddenly vanishes in a slum in India, 9-year-old Jai, who likes to watch police shows on TV, decides to solve the case with the help of his friends Pari and Faiz. While they try to look for clues over the next few weeks, more children go missing which causes the already existing tension between Muslims and Hindus to increase dangerously.
A corrupt and indifferent police, extreme poverty, religious and ethnic conflicts, the constant threat of the neighbourhood being demolished, child labour, and incessant smog are only some of the problems making up the children’s normalcy. Despite all these hardships, the beginning is written in such a charming way that it actually made me a little wary because the relation of such dark topics in the optimistic and hopeful voice of a young boy has the potential to veer into romanticizing these bad conditions, but I am glad to say it does not. It manages to walk the line expertly by presenting the situation as it is, even if it is softened somewhat by the children’s naiveté. The characterisation is outstanding, and not only of Jai and his friends, who are supremely likeable, but also of the adults and minor characters in general. On the other hand, the plot and the pacing is not quite on the same level because at some points, there is so little of consequence going on and so much meandering that the story almost seems to come to a standstill, while feeling repetitive at other times.
Towards the end, the mood turns progressively darker, and the ending is gut-wrenching but fitting. Despite some talk about djinns and tales about protective spirits, the story is firmly rooted in reality, and people living in squalor in slums seldom experience happy ends, no matter how much they, and we as readers, hope for one. Children going missing is an everyday occurrence in India, which Anappara intends to highlight with this book, and she succeeds spectacularly. I also appreciate her emphasizing one other important fact: As hard as life in India is for children in general, it is immeasurably harder for girls. They are not as important as the boys, their needs and wants are seen as inconsequential, and worst of all, they are aware of this from an early age on, and they know that there is practically no chance of escape.
The young detectives don’t yet care about these inherent dividing lines between genders or religions: Jai is a Hindu boy, Pari a Hindu girl, and Faiz a Muslim boy. They are best friends, but it is obvious that it can’t stay like this, and that life will separate them. This is an intriguing book and an impressive debut, and while it is concerned with a very heavy subject, it is such an engaging read that it is not easily put down, even when the inevitable heartbreak begins to loom large.
CBR12 Bingo: Violet