A conversation with Deepa Anappara

A conversation with Deepa Anappara

Deepa Anappara's debut novel Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line shines a light on a number of serious and urgent issues. A story that shows us the world through the eyes of children belonging to marginalised and vulnerable groups, the book draws our attention to the alarming number of child disappearances in India and gives the victims a voice.

While child disappearance takes center stage, the novel brings several other social issues to the fore and raises our awareness in a number of ways. Distinct for the endearing voice of its inquisitive child narrator and the richness of its sensory details, this is a novel that you'll find to be equally delightful and heartbreaking.

Deepa Anappara joined us for an Ask Me Anything during which our book club asked her questions about the plot and characters of Djinn Patrol, the switch from journalism to fiction, her publishing journey, her next book, writing advice, and more.

"We don’t know much about the children who disappear other than their names, and I wanted them to be able to represent themselves at least in this fictional version of their stories. I wanted them to be present on the page, speaking for themselves."

— Deepa Anappara

Q: Question by a community member

C: Comment by a community member

Q: Was it challenging to write from the perspective of nine-year-old Jai?

Deepa Anappara: I wanted to tell the story of disappearances from the perspectives of children as those voices were missing from the mainstream discourse, so the child narrator was integral to the story. There were many false starts but once I had Jai’s voice, it was easier to write. I read a lot of books with child narrators and watched films with child protagonists. Primarily I relied on my memories of the interviews that I had done as a reporter with children, and tried to recreate their traits in the characters in my novel.

Q: I read your bio and learned you were born in Kerala. I have never been there, but I’ve read a novel set in Ayemenem called The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy which described the place beautifully! Have you read it, and I would love to know your perspective of Kerela?

Deepa Anappara: The God of Small Things describes Kerala evocatively. It is one of my favorite novels as well.

Q: This was such a heartfelt book for me. I would like to ask how you managed to write the details of the slum network? Was it method writing or imagination?

Deepa Anappara: I worked as a reporter in India for over a decade and spent most of that time interviewing children as I was writing about issues pertaining to them. I often visited neighbourhoods like the one in the novel, and I am grateful that the people who lived there invited me into their homes and shared their stories with me. If I hadn’t done that work, I couldn’t have recreated the setting in the novel.

Q: Where do you stand on the plotter-pantser spectrum?

Deepa Anappara: I am not a plotter — I usually discover who the characters are by writing. So in the early drafts, it is about finding my way around the story, and learning who my characters are. It is during revisions and edits that I consider plot, but I am more interested in narration that shows life as it unfolds, and not one that fits into certain assumptions about how stories should be told.

Q: While reading the book, I was very emotionally invested. Did it affect you mentally and emotionally, writing about all those scenarios, experiencing it through their eyes?

Deepa Anappara: There are various levels at which writing works — one is that you have to think at the level of the sentence, if you are being precise in your descriptions. Then you have to inhabit the character’s point of view fully. I have written elsewhere about the difficult time during which I wrote this novel — in many ways, Jai helped me grapple with some of the grief and loss that I was experiencing in my own life.

Q: Smog makes a frequent appearance in the scenes in Djinn Patrol. I wanted to know if you used the smog as an intentional metaphor for something deeper and darker? 

Deepa Anappara: Smog is very much part of winter in Northern India now, but beyond that, it also became part of the story because no one knows the truth about the disappearances. The novel takes place over winter and ends around spring — the lifting of the smog wasn’t intentional but reflects the weather during those seasons.

Q: While writing Dijinn Patrol, were you mentored or particularly encouraged by anyone?

Deepa Anappara: I don’t know about encouragement but I share my work with a few friends and we do encourage each other. A writing community is important because writing essentially happens in solitude and it is good to have a few people in your life who understand the difficulties and joys of wrestling with the blank page each day.

Q: Of the organizations working for child welfare mentioned at the end of your novel, is there one you particularly recommend?

Deepa Anappara: All of them do excellent work!

Q: What can you tell us about your next book?

Deepa Anappara: I am trying to write another novel, but it is in early stages yet and I am still finding out more about it!

Q: Djinn Patrol is unique in terms of point of view. It switches between first-person where we see the world from Jai’s eyes to several other characters’ POVs written in third-person. What inspired you to tell the story in this unique way?

Deepa Anappara: I wanted the novel to reflect the community where the story unfolds; in Western fiction there is a tendency to focus on the individual but it is not representative of how lives unfold in India. I wanted the book to have a sense of lives lived in the collective. Hence more than one voice.

The novel has chapters written from the perspectives of the children who have disappeared because I wanted them to be present on the page, speaking for themselves, as this is not something we see in real life/in the mainstream discourse. We don’t know much about the children who disappear other than their names, and I wanted them to be able to represent themselves at least in this fictional version of their stories.

Q: What do you do when you aren't writing?

Deepa Anappara: I imagine the same as what everyone else does! But I do think about my writing most of the time.

Q: As a debut author, I would love to know a little bit about your publishing journey. How was your experience and what trends or improvements would you like to see in the publishing world?

Deepa Anappara: It took me a long time to get published, but that was primarily because I was teaching myself how to write fiction. I had worked as a journalist and couldn’t easily make the switch to fiction. With Djinn Patrol, I had submitted early parts of the manuscript to contests for novels-in-progress, and winning these made it easier for me to find an agent and I also believe a publisher. But that happened after three books that remain on my computer and almost a decade.

Q: What made you intersperse the novel with folk stories and urban myths such as 'Junction ki Raani'?

Deepa Anappara: I wanted to create a sense of the community that Jai and the other children are part of, and their belief systems. In this novel, the community is going through a difficult time and they don’t find comfort or help from the agencies that should have been supporting them, such as the police or politicians. So they turn to stories about spirits and good djinns in the hope of a supernatural intervention.

These stories are also very much part of real life; especially for children living on the street, who don’t have the support of parents, who don’t have homes, they turn to ghosts and other invisible spirits for help.

Q: I’ve heard a lot of readers compare Pari to Hermoine because she’s levelheaded, book-smart, and logical. Was this intentional and is this a fair comparison?

Deepa Anappara: I wasn’t thinking of Harry Potter at all when I created these characters. They came from my real-life interactions with children, and my experience was that girls were much more level-headed than boys. This might be because they live in a very patriarchal society and, from an early age, they are aware of the danger that girls and women face. So they have to be smart. Jai can wander freely but Pari is aware that she cannot. She can’t afford to be naive—while he can get away with a lot. I wanted the dynamic to reflect what life is like for girls and women in Indian society.

Q: How did you name your characters in Djinn Patrol and what about the title of the novel?

Deepa Anappara: The names of characters came organically — I chose names that seemed appropriate for kids like them who live in the non-fictional world. The novel’s title came from the children’s belief in djinns, and their concerns that a bad djinn might be spiriting away the children.

The Purple Line is literal in that they live near the metro, but I also wanted it to indicate the two faces of India, one that represents progress and growth etc, and the other that has left behind Jai and others like him. Jai’s father worked as a labourer to construct the metro line, but he can’t afford the fare.

Q: What motivated you to write fiction as someone who has dedicated a long time to journalism? How did you change your mindset to write fiction?

Deepa Anappara: The initial idea was to write a long-form essay on the children’s experiences of disappearances. As I have mentioned in the novel, as many as 180 children are thought to disappear each day in India, but their experiences, how they perceive the disappearances, and the danger that they are in—none of these have been subjects of reportage. So that was my original idea. But due to a change in personal circumstances, I ended up moving away from India, and could therefore not work on such a story.

I thought of exploring the same themes through fiction. I had always wanted to write fiction—but couldn’t do that while I was working as a journalist. Once I stopped being a reporter, I tried to learn more about writing fiction; I took a few classes in creative writing; I read books on the craft. So it was a slow process and took several years to make that switch.

Q: Djinn Patrol was long-listed for the Women's Prize for Fiction, one of the most prestigious writing awards in the UK. Do you think being long-listed for this prize put you on the map and helped a lot of readers discover the book?

Deepa Anappara: Being longlisted for awards, reviews, etc do bring books in front of more readers. I imagine a few more readers were prompted to pick up the book because of that.

Q: Are you currently reading any book? 

Deepa Anappara: I am always reading more than one book at any time! A lot of it is for my research as a PhD student, so I have less opportunity to read fiction than I used to before.

Q: What's your Ph.D. in?

Deepa Anappara: Creative-Critical Writing.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of the creative process for you? 

Deepa Anappara: Negotiating the blank page is always difficult for me. In the initial days, I had trouble trusting my imagination because I had been a journalist for so long, and I was wedded to facts. Sometimes I had trouble moving away from what was factual even if that best served the interests of the story. I think I am getting better at it (fingers crossed).

Q: Was it hard for you to figure out an ending for Djinn Patrol?

Deepa Anappara: Because I am not a plotter, the ending came organically—as I was writing, I knew what had to happen. I did see my first responsibility as being towards those I was writing about, not anyone else. Often when people write about those who are marginalised or vulnerable, they put fiction first; satisfying the demands of the reader or of certain storytelling traditions. I couldn’t do that — maybe because I had been a reporter and I had met people whose children had gone missing. I couldn’t trivialise or make their experiences palatable for the sake of — at the time I was writing — an imagined reader.

Q: Was there something you edited out of the book?

Deepa Anappara: There was one more story about the supernatural, which served as the last chapter. That ended up on the cutting floor.

Q: Has there been any meaningful change or improvement in the issue of child disappearances since you left India for the UK  in 2008?

Deepa Anappara: Very recently, the government has introduced a few initiatives to encourage the police to find missing children, such as using facial recognition through CCTV cameras, and offering promotions and other rewards to police personnel if they find children. I read a news story the other day saying it has made the police force a bit more responsive. The truth, however, remains that the problems at the core of the disappearances, the poverty and inequity endemic in Indian society, the corruption across various government bodies, the lack of prosecution of human traffickers etc continue, and still need to be fixed.

Q: What’s your favorite Bollywood movie and what’s your favorite Indian food?

Deepa Anappara: Excellent question! The novel is very much inspired by Indian pop culture, especially Hindi films. It is very hard to pick one film but while I was writing the novel, I used to listen to the soundtrack of a film called Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, which for some reason conjured up North India more evocatively for me than anything else! Regarding food, I am a South Indian, so nothing can beat dosas and chutney.

Q: Is your next book also based on a social Issue like this one?

Deepa Anappara: I am still working out what I am writing, so we will see. I do have a strong political impulse, and my journalism and fiction have been motivated by that impulse.

Q: Can you recommend books/websites/anything for me to learn more about Indian society?

Deepa Anappara: Great list here. I will add Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants, and the writer Meena Kandasamy’s works.

Q: What piece of advice would you offer aspiring writers—especially the ones working on a debut novel?

Deepa Anappara: It helps to have a writing community and a few people whose opinions you trust regarding your work (this doesn’t mean only people who say good things about your work — but people who offer objective, constructive feedback). It also helps to read a lot, in all genres. And finally, I think there is something to be said for persistence as well. Not that it always pays off, but it does help make you a better writer.

You can buy Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line here

Join the What Should I Read Next Community to be part of future events with authors here

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