When children start to go missing from a basti (slum) near Mumbai, three nine-year-olds from the basti decide to investigate. Jai watches crime shows on TV and fancies himself as Sherlock Holmes or Byomkesh Bakshi, a fictional Bengali detective. Pari is a bright girl, and although Jai designates her as his assistant, she tends to take over, asking the right questions and knowing how to coax answers out of people. Faiz thinks that the children have been stolen by evil djinns, so tends to be sceptical about their investigations.
When the first two children, Bahadur and Omvir, go missing, most people think that they have run away to the big city. This is a convenient explanation for the police, who can’t really be bothered. Jai’s teacher warns his pupils that the dangers out there far outweigh whatever they face back home. But the thought that one of them might actually make it to stardom is alluring. “‘The next time we see him, he’ll be on TV. Eight-thirty, Saturday night,’ a boy says breathlessly. ‘He’ll be wearing a silver shirt,’ another boy cuts in, ‘and gold-coloured trousers.’”
Jai and Pari decide to follow the trail to Mumbai, and Jai steals from his mother’s “what-if” money to buy tickets on the Purple Line going into the city. There they meet Guru, a leader of street kids around the station area, and are almost lured away by a woman offering them oranges, but there is no sign of their friends.
To replace the money, Jai works in Duttaram’s tea-shop without his parents knowing. It’s a useful job because he can listen to gossip and pick up information. But it is also hard work, scrubbing pans “sticky with burnt tea and spices and sugar” until his fingers turn blue from the icy water. Duttaram’s shop “is only a table on wheels in an alley in Bhoot Bazaar, but his tea has a scent so strong it calls out to the tailor who stitches blouses for the headmaster’s wife, the shoppers haggling over the price of fenugreek leaves, and the butchers at the other end of the bazaar who always have blood spatters on their eyelid and pink animal flesh under their fingernails.”
When five-year-old Chandni disappears, there is no doubt that she has been taken. The Pradhan (the local leader) gets involved and stirs up communal tension. He says that since all the missing children were Hindus, the kidnapper must be a Muslim. Until two more children, Muslims this time, go missing. There are no evil djinns behind this: when children disappear, the evil is always very human.
Deepa Anappara worked as a journalist for 10 years and reported on Indian slums. She has an eye for detail, and her writing conveys a real sense of what life is like for people who live in the bastis: the politicians who use them for their own ends; the police who care more about their own work situation than about actually doing their job; and the huge social and economic gap between the rich or even just the well-off (the “hi-fi” people) and those in the slums who work for them. The basti-dwellers don’t seem to matter to anyone outside: the children’s disappearance is not even mentioned in the local papers, but “Police Commissioner Reunited with his Cat” makes headlines.
This is not really a whodunit in the traditional sense—it is also a coming-of-age novel and one that tells the story behind the statistics. According to Deepa Anappara, on average, 180 children disappear in India every day. In her afterword, she writes about her work and the children she got to know. “In Jai and his friends, I tried to capture the traits that my news articles had ignored: the children’s resilience, cheerfulness, and swagger.” She succeeds—Jai, who narrates the story, feels completely authentic, as do the other children. Their humour lightens the book, but the story is utterly devastating, especially because it is rooted in reality.
My only gripe: Anappara peppers the dialogue with Hindi words, which makes the characters more believable. But a glossary at the end would have been useful for non-Hindi speakers.