Deepa Anappara: ‘Writing about poverty in India is such a risky enterprise’
10 min read.Updated: 08 Feb 2020, 09:00 AM ISTSana Goyal
Set in an Indian slum, Deepa Anappara’s debut novel ‘Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line’ has put her at the centre of a global publishing storm. Lounge caught up with her in London to speak about charges of poverty porn and how she’s dealing with sudden celebrity
When we first meet Jai, the nine-year-old narrator of journalist-turned-novelist Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol On The Purple Line, he’s looking at his house, in an urban Indian slum, with upside-down eyes. He counts five holes in the tin roof. Though almost all of Anappara’s fiction is news stories she didn’t or couldn’t write, this is not a typical Indian tale about the impoverished. So leave your preconceptions, your “poverty porn" charges, and your myopia at the door. Djinn Patrol wants you to see India differently.
I meet Anappara at her UK publisher Vintage’s office in London, not far from Tate Britain, the iconic museum of art, on a foggy January afternoon. Her novel is their lead fiction debut of 2020. Apart from India, it has been published in the US and Canada this week. Her agent, Peter Straus, says, via email, he had six pre-emptive offers from publishers within four days of sending out the manuscript. “This is extremely rare."
Since a “hard-fought UK auction" at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2018, as The Bookseller, a trade magazine, described it, the book has sold in 21 territories (at the time of going to press) across Europe, Asia and the Americas. Film rights were recently optioned by FilmWave. Anappara was on the cover of The Bookseller last October, and Djinn Patrol was featured on the cover of The New York Times Book Review last week. While the exact advance for the novel remains confidential, it’s not hard to surmise that the amount is impressive.
Anappara grew up in Palakkad, Kerala, and worked as a journalist in Mumbai and Delhi for 11 years, reporting on the effects of poverty and religious violence on children for various Indian print publications and websites, including India Together and The Hindu. About a decade ago, she travelled to the UK with her husband for what was supposed to be a one-year stint. But they ended up staying longer, and she enrolled for a part-time master’s degree in creative writing in 2015 at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, where she’s currently completing a PhD.
Djinn Patrol is a coming-of-age story, a mystery, following a series of child disappearances in an urban slum. The protagonist Jai is playing detective with his friends—out to find the lost children. But when life-threatening dangers inch closer home, and rumours of soul-snatching djinns run amok, it’s no longer child’s play. While Jai and Djinn Patrol are highly reminiscent of Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut, We Need New Names, Anappara’s voice is singular in many ways. It’s delightful to read a child narrator crafted so well, and a difficult story told with such deftness, humour and heart.
The novel also comes at a phase in Indian publishing when debut female writers are at the forefront, though, for Anappara, this is not an unqualified blessing. She has reservations about the hype that surrounds debuts. “Sometimes I feel worried about all this focus on debut fiction. I think as a writer you have to be supported for your career, not just for one book." Although the book has yet to enter the annual awards cycle of the likes of the Booker, it is not premature to compare this early fame to that of Arundhati Roy or Kiran Desai. Anappara’s assured and unsentimental storytelling, the way she works wonders with language, announces the arrival of a new novelist who’s here to stay.
A part of her 356-page first novel was written, chronologically, towards her MA dissertation. Shortly afterwards, in 2017, she submitted parts of the novel-in-progress to the Bridport Peggy Chapman Andrews First Novel Award, which she won. “At the time, I thought even if it has a chance to be on the long list of the prize, it’s something I can mention on my CV later." This was just the start.
Within a year, Anappara would go on to win two more manuscript prizes: the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize and the £10,000 (around ₹9.4 lakh now) Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award (run by the London-based literary agency, Rogers, Coleridge & White, or RCW, which now represents her). “The deadlines were good motivators to complete and polish it. Otherwise, as a writer of fiction especially, nobody is waiting for your novel. You can tell yourself that you can take as long as you like, especially if you are full of self-doubt, as I was at that point—and still constantly am," says Anappara.
Although the interest of other agents grew after the triad of prizes, Anappara had begun writing the book in 2016 with zero expectations. “I was writing about these children in India, thinking nobody would be interested in them. So few writers of colour get published abroad, and I had written three books already which didn’t go even as far as agent interest (two novels, one collection of short stories)," she says. Some of these stories have since been published in anthologies, and won short-fiction prizes, “but it’s not like anybody wanted them put together", she adds.
IN THE BEGINNING
Anappara had first attempted writing what was to become Djinn Patrol around 2009, but abandoned it because she didn’t feel she had the authority to tell this story. Instead, she wrote short fiction with child narrators, revisited her interviews from her time as a journalist, where she covered education and human rights for the most part and spent time with children who had survived on the streets—children who were out of school and working. R.K. Narayan’s Swami And Friends aside, she couldn’t consult an expansive library of Indian works of adult literary fiction featuring child narrators and told in the first person because she found there weren’t that many. Instead, she relied on an alternative reading list, including Roddy Doyle (Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha), Tayari Jones (Leaving Atlanta) and Esther Freud (Hideous Kinky)—all told through the points-of-view of children. At one point, she was only reading child narrators (a bibliography for Djinn Patrol is available on her website).
Anappara also admits to a “gap in her knowledge". She didn’t have a background in literature (a degree in commerce; a diploma in journalism) or any formal training in creative writing. She didn’t have the tools, didn’t know how to look for technique or craft, she says. “My thinking was like a journalist; you stick to facts. So I really had to teach myself, it’s fine, you can write something that’s not true, and rely on your imagination. That took me a long time." Doyle and Jones would become her guiding lights. UEA was her first time at a foreign university. “I have gone to schools that people can’t even pronounce the names of and won’t know where in the world they are." This was only the beginning of her anxieties.
Anappara didn’t always see people like herself on the larger, international literary landscape. She felt “at a disadvantage as a person of colour, as well as someone who was much older when making her debut, and from a completely different background". She also feels a huge sense of expectation, especially as a person of colour. “Part of the reason I am trying to protect myself is because this book is not just my book: It’s a book by an Indian writer, it’s a book about a different country, different culture," she says. “The response to (a much-hyped debut such as hers) may determine how publishers look at other books by someone like me, by another writer of colour, and that’s a huge burden." It’s not a burden you want, she says. “You are either explaining or defending your culture; you are constantly in a bind".
Through the course of our conversation, she tells me, time and again, that she was trying to protect herself. I wasn’t sure what she meant. At one point, a character in Djinn Patrol says: “This story is a talisman. Hold it close to your hearts." Anappara wasn’t trying to protect herself, only the stories close to her heart. When asked about disentangling fact from fiction and the ethics of representing real lives—the “spark" for Djinn Patrol was a spate of child disappearances in India while she was working as a reporter—she says “it’s a big ethical question when you are writing a book like this. There’s no way to not be aware of it. It’s not something you can do justice to, and I am sure there will be people who will say I haven’t."
She had anticipated the “poverty porn" label that could accompany a story such as this, and, from the very beginning, was actively trying to push back against this “single story" of poverty: “Writing about poverty in India, even within India, is such a risky enterprise. And writing about poverty is so difficult because ultimately people end up seeing only those circumstances: how poor someone is." This is not the response she hoped for for her characters. Manasi Subramaniam, Anappara’s editor at Penguin Random House India, who describes Djinn Patrol as (Charles Dickens’) Oliver Twist meets (Katherine Boo’s) Behind The Beautiful Forevers, adds: “Indian fiction has tended to romanticize poverty, while non-fiction has reduced it to data. The pathos of a book like Djinn Patrol comes from its very refusal to be pathetic."
Anappara agrees that it’s “part of the human response to look at those conditions", but also believes that the characters have to be “strong and be able to stand up for themselves as real people". The only way for her to achieve this, to “balance the requirements of narrative and fiction, and the ethical", was through children, “who are interested in other things", not just their day-to-day financial circumstances, she says. She persisted with this line of writing despite the naysayers in her writing courses who don’t read anything by child narrators because “it’s so artificial, or too simplistic".
During her years as a journalist, Anappara had observed, first-hand, how resilient street children could be (“not to say everybody is resilient", she quickly adds). “They can really stand up to you, give it back, be quite sarcastic, and negotiate that world. And they do it with so much humour." She wanted to bring this out in Jai, who is naughty and cheeky. “It was also necessary because the book goes to such dark places—and I needed a narrator who had a view of the world that’s different from adults. He had to see things topsy-turvy as we first meet him in the first paragraph," Anappara adds.
Writing a child narrator came with its challenges. One of the biggest was “translating his voice into English and still remaining true to the child’s phrases, verbal ticks, idioms, and new words that they make up", she says. Djinn Patrol gifts the reader a generous dose of Hindi words—unitalicized and untranslated—at least in the English-language editions. Anappara refuses to explain herself, or meet Western audiences’ expectations of literature from the global south. She also does not compromise when it comes to her characters. “I met with various editors at Vintage, and I knew the things I wouldn’t do, the changes I wouldn’t make. Everyone wants a happy ending tied up in a bow. I was very clear that these are things I can’t provide. The responsibility of a writer is towards the people, the characters." This, and retaining the Hindi words, were “my two things", she says.
But it really wasn’t so conscious, this bilingualism on the page. “This is how I write. Even the English I speak is sprinkled with all the Indian languages I speak, including Malayalam, Hindi, even Tamil." Growing up in India, “we read books from everywhere…we are aware of various cultures, various styles of storytelling, in a way perhaps a Western reader often isn’t." North American writers never explain what they are writing about; they are not thinking about a reader such as her, somewhere in a small village in Kerala, when they write specific details about New York, she clarifies. She’s just returning the favour.
There’s a power difference at play, Anappara says, “an unwillingness on the part of the Western reader to do that work—especially when it comes to books by Asian writers. It surprises me that fans of Game Of Thrones are willing to learn Dothraki, have nerd groups, sit together and speak in it. But if you see a Hindi word, you think, this book is not for me." Besides, not everyone in India speaks Hindi (no Indian-language translations of Djinn Parol are scheduled yet). But she’s hoping that meaning can come from the context, or if you are really interested, you could google it.
At this point, Anappara admits that the American edition of the novel will, however, be accompanied by a glossary. The UK edition will carry an afterword, as will the American one. The Indian version has neither. “I don’t want to explain India to Indians," she adds.
Sana Goyal is pursuing a PhD in literary prizes at SOAS, London.