Deepa Anappara on the wonders of childhood friendships and the challenges of writing about young detectives


Deepa Anappara on the wonders of childhood friendships and the challenges of writing about young detectives

Take a trip down memory lane

By Deepa Anappara  February 25th, 2020

In A Study in Scarlet, much to the surprise of his flatmate John H Watson, Sherlock Holmes summons a bunch of street children to their Baker Street apartment. ‘Six little scoundrels,’ an unimpressed Watson notes, ‘stood in a line like so many disreputable statuettes.’ Holmes entrusts the children with a task that will ultimately lead to the resolution of the mystery at the heart of the novel. But at this moment, we are several pages away from the grand unmasking of the criminal. Right now, Watson can’t conceal his distaste of the children as he likens them to rats. Holmes knows better, of course. These children, he says, are more efficient than a dozen policemen because they can “go everywhere and hear everything”. 

Children, Arthur Conan Doyle seems to suggest as he introduces us to the Baker Street Irregulars, make for excellent detectives. In their owns environments, they can move around unobserved, and be as inconspicuous as they choose to be, their perspective altered not merely by their shorter stature but also by their gaze that can fall on objects adults fail to notice. The mystery series that I had loved as a child, be it the Famous Five, the Three Investigators, or the Secret Seven, were constructed around a similar premise. But when I started writing my novel Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, about three children looking for their missing friends, I didn’t revisit any of these old favourites. With time, just as their pages had yellowed, my interest in them had diminished. 

Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton

As I revised my own novel, however, there came a day when the knots in my head wouldn’t unravel, and I found myself browsing the shelves lined with children’s books in my local library, searching for a spark, a secret, contained on a well-thumbed page that would allow me to return to the world I had built in my early drafts, and from which I had now been implausibly banished. This was how I discovered, among others, Erich Kastner’s Emil and the Detectives, Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions and Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery. In many of the books I read, hidden beneath the clever personas of the child detectives were the traumas of a deeply felt absence, or the loss, of a parent or a loved one, or the unbelonging that followed the big and small changes in their lives. 

Children’s detective novels, I understood then, are not just about deduction, or the gathering and organising of clues, so that the final image can be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. A child’s understanding, and interpretation, of the world, may be constrained by the limits of their knowledge. But even within those limits, detective stories offer the scope for events to be ordered such that the world makes more sense than before, even if the child emerges from the process less innocent. 

Author Deepa Anappara

‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ Joan Didion writes in her essay The White Album. My nine-year-old narrator, Jai, lives in an impoverished neighbourhood where children disappear with shocking frequency. Casting himself as a detective isn’t merely an act of naivety or confidence on his part; through this story, he grants himself the agency that his circumstances deny him. But even a self-assured boy with a touch of delusion is vulnerable in a society that can, and does, erase or exploit children. Like the Baker Street Irregulars, and the protagonists of Stranger Things and Super 8, it is only by banding together with his friends that Jai can navigate a world where the odds are stacked against him. 

deepa anappara

A still from Stranger Things

Writers and critics who dislike child narrators in fiction written for adults say such protagonists can come across as either too cute or too knowing, or worse, both. The narrators’ vocabulary may be simplistic, their neologisms and phrases trying. But perhaps I love child narrators for all the same reasons. They notice everything, unaware of the magnitude of what they are witnessing or hearing, requiring the reader to participate in the process of creating meaning. Besides, I felt certain that a novel about the children’s disappearances, bearing witness to their experiences, couldn’t be written from any other point of view. Their eyes tempered the harsh edges of the impoverishment that marked their lives. Their observations, even if artless, weren’t weighed down by cynicism or exhaustion. I knew that to write about characters living in poverty was to invite questions about my intentions, my social class, and my motivations. I can’t claim these burdens dissipated entirely by adhering to a child’s point of view, but they certainly eased. For me the question moved away from the extent of the sensory or other details I should weave into each scene to what a child would notice. 

There were other challenges. My characters spoke and thought in Hindi, which I rendered in English. What was being lost from the child’s voice in the process of translation? I retained a few of the original Hindi and Urdu words and phrases in the text, to convey the rhythm of Jai’s voice, and hoped the reader unfamiliar with these languages would gather the meaning from the context. I hadn’t known what ginger ale or scones were when I read Enid Blyton, but that hadn’t stopped me from believing Julian or Anne when they exclaimed these were delicious. Perhaps it is foolish to assume the West grants writers of colour a similar courtesy, but I couldn’t bring myself to describe the gulab jamuns that Jai eyes as deep-fried, sweet dumplings in his narration. 

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

The self-critical voices in my head have already told me all the ways in which I may have failed my characters. I constructed them from my memories of the children I had interviewed as a reporter, and by drawing from the children I know in my own life. When I was writing Jai and his friends, they were real to me, and this is the only claim to authenticity that I can make. I am aware this isn’t enough, but I am learning to accept that there may always be a gap between my imagination and the words on paper. Still, I can’t help but hope that the reader who encounters my child protagonists will see them through the lens with which Sherlock Holmes instructs Watson to consider the Baker Street Irregulars: the heroes of their own stories, which is just as it should be. 

Deepa Anappara is the author of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (Penguin Random House) 

Photographs (Deepa Anappara): Liz Seabrook; (Stranger things, Book): Instagram