In India, children keep disappearing; but as is so often true, a missing child from a poor family doesn’t excite a great deal of interest on the part of authorities. But never fear; Jai has been watching Police Patrol, so although he’s just nine years old, he can take care of this business. He’s already got a key advantage over the government and its police force: Jai actually cares.
I read this novel free and early, though my review is disgracefully late. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House. This book is for sale now.
Anaparra immerses us in the culture of urban India and incorporates two aspects of social justice that cry out to be recognized. By using the voices of children, she tells the story naturally and without preaching. Hundreds of children disappear daily in India. Daily. That’s a lot of milk cartons. Most of these children are never found. So when Jai’s classmate goes missing, there’s consternation, because everyone knows how unlikely it is that he’ll be brought home. There’s discussion among the adults. The boy’s mother wants to hound the authorities, not let up until they find her son; but the neighbors don’t want her to do it, because everyone knows that when you irritate the police, bulldozers will appear and demolish everyone’s house. So if their neighborhood is razed without warning, they figure it will be her fault.
So kids, we’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s a sobering wakeup call, looking at life from the viewpoint of the lower castes of India.
Jai is just nine, though, and when you’re nine, all things are possible. He is sure he can find his friend, if he can just afford the train fare to get further into the city, where his pal was last seen. His family never has much money, but his mother keeps what spare change she has in a kitchen pot, and as it adds up, it is reserved for emergencies—such as bulldozers. She knows that they could lose everything in a heartbeat, and she does what little she can to mitigate such a disaster. And bless his heart, little Jai sneaks into the kitchen and steals his mother’s bug-out fund so that he can take the Purple Line into town to play detective. He figures he can pay her back when he collects the reward money.
This story is a meal. There are a lot of unfamiliar terms, and they aren’t explained to us. We have to figure them out through context. This keeps the plot from bogging down, and that’s good, because it’s not moving terribly fast to begin with. But for those that like a nice whodunit to read as they drowse off to sleep in the evening, this isn’t that book. This is literature. Don’t try to absorb it after you’ve had a few beers or taken your sleeping pill. You need your full brain.
The other social justice topic, secondary to the missing children yet also important, is that of how India treats its girls and women, and once again, those in the lower castes are slammed by poverty and class bias as well as sexism. Jai’s sister Didi is gifted academically and athletically. She holds far more promise than her squirrely little brother, who is just your average kid, but her needs are always subordinate to his. Didi wants to run track and go to university, but her parents want her home, watching over Jai while they’re at work. They’re afraid (and not needlessly) that he’ll get into trouble. They are so concerned about what might happen to their darling boy that they don’t think twice about Didi. She’s sick of being leered at by the horny old men that sell vegetables, and she’s sick of the contemptuous gazes of shop women. And now, she, the star of the track team, must miss a critical meet so she can babysit:
“It was as if she existed solely to care for her brother, and the house. Afterward, she would similarly look after her husband, her hands smelling of cow-dung cakes. Her own dreams were inconsequential. It seemed to her that no one could see the ambition that thrummed in her; no one imagined her becoming someone.”
I used a combination of the digital galley on my Kindle and the audio book I checked out from Seattle Bibliocommons to get through this book. Sometimes I used them simultaneously. The voice actors have Indian accents that add authenticity; at the same time, I sometimes missed that we had shifted from a male character’s inner narrative to that of a female, and I became confused and had to go back. Again, this story is not for wusses. And yet, it’s worth it. It’s a helluva debut, and if you’ve read this whole review, you’re the type of person that can get through this book, and I recommend it to you. You won’t find anything else like it.