Another book review for you – don’t worry, we’ll get back to writing about what we’ve been up to in the next blog…

“This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead is entirely coincidental.” This is one of those standard disclaimers that stops people from suing the author. As is often the case, it isn’t really true when it comes to Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People.

Animal’s People is written as though transcribed from real tapes recorded by its narrator. Its ‘Editor’s Note’ explains that “information about the city of Khaufpur”, where the novel is set, “can be found at http://www.khaufpur.com.” It’s a real website: it looks like any other Indian city’s slightly cheesy site, and it comes complete with photos and contact numbers for governors. Thing is, what khaufpur.com is describing is the city of Bhopal, because that is what Sinha’s novel is really about. Kampani (company), factory, absent lawyers, birth defects, respiratory problems, grief, multiple losses, memories of chillies to the eyes and running desperately and all, this is the fictionalised story of Bhopal.

Eighteen years after That Night, Animal is a young man (“I’m not a fucking human being, I’ve no wish to be one”) bent in half:

feet on tiptoe
head down below
arse en haut
thus do I go

Shortly after the disaster, his spine twisted until he could not stand straight, so now he walks on all fours. We saw that man when we were in New Market recently. His situation is representative of so many people crippled and otherwise affected by the gas leak, and of almost hopeless hopes – he tries to hide the hope that maybe some day he will walk upright. Animal, symbol of the victims of the disaster, is no hapless victim, however. Foul-mouthed, mischievous and frequently distracted by thoughts of sex, Sinha has created an amazing mouthpiece for his tale. Animal’s often scathing view of the humans around him is allowed to also carry a great love and passion for the people of Khaufpur. His ability to hear voices no-one else can hear gives him compassion for people like Ma Franci who is insistent that the “Apokalis” will soon be upon them and can only speak French. Not only that, but it draws you ever deeper into his way of viewing the world, which, while scatological, and while it needs a glossary to explain some of the slang (although some words, like Jamisponding, are left up to the reader to work out – hint, think 007), it has a beautiful poetry to it.

Furthermore, its a celebration of the strength and weaknesses of the people who live in the slum areas here. By addressing himself to the “Eyes” reading his story, and through Sinha’s introduction of an American character, Animal sheds light on many elements of life in Bhopal (sorry, Khaufpur…). It would be silly to say that I now have a greater understanding of life in the bastis, but it has been interesting to apply his logic to what I’ve seen around me for the past three weeks.

Sanjay had taken us to the second, larger waste dump from the Union Carbide factory. By the afternoon, it is a playground for children and pasture for the cows and goats, but in the early morning it is the place that people come to take a dump. This is one of the things into which Animal offers some useful insights –

” ‘You foreigners talk as if the sight of a bum is the worst thing in the world, doesn’t everyone crap?’
‘Not in public, they don’t.’
‘There’s a lot to be said for communal shitting. For a start the camaraderie. Jokes and insults. A chance to discuss things. It’s about the only opportunity you get to unload a piece of your mind. You can bitch and moan about the unfairness of the world. You can spout philosophies. Then there’s the medical benefit. Your stools can be examined by all. You can have many opinions about the state of your bowels, believe me, our people are experts at disease. The rich are condemned to shit alone…’ ”

His views on religion, being in the midst of such a mixture of Muslim, Hindu and smaller traditions, are also interesting –

“If religions were true there wouldn’t be so many of them, there’d be just one for everyone. Of course all say theirs is the only one, fools can’t see this makes even less sense. Suppose people talked of beauty in the same way, how foolish would they sound? Times like this I feel sorry for god’s being torn to pieces like meat fought over by dogs. I, me, mine, that’s what religions are, where’s room for god?”

His cut-the-crap attitude is what guides you through the suspicions, paranoia, trust, love, despair and hope of campaigning for justice in Bhopal.

Read this book. It might break your heart a little bit, but read it.

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