Animal's People by Indra Sinha

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Animal's People by Indra Sinha

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Animal is bent and twisted out of shape as a result of the poisons that lingered on after the chemical disaster. He gets by, but when he is befriended by a middle class girl who sees the human ingenuity behind the facade he is drawn into the struggle for justice for the whole community. When an American doctor arrives on the scene and sets up a free clinic, that struggle takes on a whole new dimension of intrigue and impending disaster.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: February 2008
Publisher: Pocket Books
ISBN: 978-1416526278

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A short note from the editor tells us that this story was recorded in Hindi on a series of tapes by a 19-year-old boy. The editor has merely translated the tapes, allowing the story to stand precisely as it was told. It tells us that a glossary has been provided. There is a web-address should we wish to find out more about Khaufpur.

The glossary and the web-address are real.

The story is only a kind of fiction. The kind that you will find is true if you seek in the right place for the characters.

The place you should seek is not Khaufpur. It is Bhopal.

Remember Bhopal? If you do, then I urge you to read this book to ignite your anger and your compassion anew. If you do not, then I urge you to read that you might learn or reconsider or, at the very least, remember.

I used to be human once our narrator tells us. He doesn't remember it, but his dear friend the French Nun known as Ma Franci, who is like a mother to him, tells of his antics as an ordinary mischievous upright child. That was before the poison that was either in his blood since birth or had been acquired from that remaining in the environment to poison everything and everyone around took its toll on his body and bent his spine until he was obliged to go on all fours.

Children can be cruel… and their cruelty lives beyond childhood. The child suffered his deformity and the taunts that went with it. They called him an animal. His ultimate response was to accept that designation and use it against his tormentors. He forgot his real name, and became, simply, Animal.

He was one of the many that the foreign journalists came to see. They came to talk of that night. How it was when the chemical plant failed and the poison gas crept through the town and killed and maimed and poisoned the landscape. The journalists came and went and they took the story with them. But the Kampani, the American owners of the plant that blighted this corner of the world, they went and never came again. Through long years the battle had not so much raged in the courts, as occasionally managed to raise a battle-cry, which would slowly subside into legal bickering, and futile protests on the streets. Compensation was pitiful. The poison lurked yet, these twenty years on, in the mothers' milk, in the land and the wells. The people are still sick. The defendants have never been brought to court. And the story the journalists took away was forgotten.

Does this sound familiar?

Animal talked to the journalists. Sometimes he told his story; mostly he would simply swear at them in a language they hadn't bothered to learn and leave his accomplice to translate as he saw fit, and they would split the profits of the encounter.

Then two things happen.

He is found scavenging in the streets (which after all is how an Animal lives) by Nisha, a middle-class girl, daughter of a nationally-famous classical singer and friend of a locally-famous agitator, who sees beyond the Animal to human in him that he vehemently denies. Befriended by her, he is drawn into the world of the protests, the long ongoing fight against the lawyers and the politicians and the ever-elusive Kampani.

Secondly, an American doctor arrives and sets up a free clinic for the poor of Khaufpur. Elli Barber claims pure altruism and her own hatred of the Kampani, but the evidence of rumour suggest secrets and lies, and that not all is as it seems.

Animal's life is catapulted into a world he could not have imagined: one of intrigue and plots, but also one of philosophy and politics; one where he gets free meals and is taught English, but still expected to abjure hope since only those with nothing to lose can be ever be strong enough to win this fight against the might of those who have everything.

Sinha's book was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker prize, described in the Independent as an extraordinary achievement and by the Indian Express as a novel so honest it leaves you gasping for breath. This doesn't even begin to capture it.

If the point of literature is to give you a harsh truth sweetened in a fiction Animal's People goes one better and serves you a bitter truth, in the warmth and spice of a slow-cooked, cinnamon rich, biryani that will envelop all of your senses, bring tears to your eyes, make you laugh and smile and weep. If you've any compassion at all, and assuming you're not already involved in the global campaign for justice, it will also raise a little shame, and not a little anger.

Animal speaks like a 19 year-old who has dragged himself up on the streets. His language is coarse. His priorities are staying alive and making a fast buck; getting a meal for free and fixating with all the passion of the unlovely on the forbidden fruits of an active sex life. Khaufpur is depicted as a peaceful, mixed-religion city of beauty and squalor, where the festivals are shared and riotous, and where the casual insulting of one's friends is the local sport. Also a place of subtle spirituality, where the poorest befriend those in need; where a mad old Christian nun will be loved and protected by those who understand not a single word she speaks. And also a place of corruption where the politicians and the police cannot be relied upon to provide justice or the rule of law…or at least, not in a sense that would make any sense to those who have suffered and continue to suffer.

Through the 23 tapes of varying lengths, Animal talks directly to the reader; challenges you to think and to question. The translation we are given retains occasional words of Hindi and or mistranslated English. There are snippets of French. Poems intersperse the action. And there are magical interludes reminiscent of Garcia Marquez but requiring far less suspension of disbelief.

Powerful is word as much over-worked as historic these days, but this novel has serious power. It grabs you by the throat, sits you down and insists: you will listen to this. Completely devoid of pity, and only occasionally giving way to real anger, it even manages to find humour and joy in a world to which the apocalypse has already come. The power lies in the ability to determine an emotional involvement in a very personal story, while working on the intellectual analysis of how and why, and asking when will we say: enough?

Read it. Share it. Talk about it. This is a book that should be part of the national curriculum through-out the world. Not only does it explore the outfall of one particular humanitarian and ecological disaster and the pitiful response to it by those responsible; but takes in the wider picture of the general attitude of richer people to the poorer and that of the so-called developed nations to those who have yet to claim a share of the power and the glory (or the muck and the money).

Of course the perennial themes of love and friendship, honour and trust, flow through every encounter. The nature of beauty and the point of religion are only two of the philosophical questions explored.

Such a book is brimful of the quotable bons mots…but if I had to pick two which capture the essence of it, they would be:

The world is made of promises.


The rich are condemned to shit alone.

I am deeply grateful to the publishers for allowing this to cross my desk. Do follow up the web-link to find out about the real Khaufpur and the place for which it stands in.

Arch-traveller' Paul Theroux's delve into a fictional India is equally telling on the view from the west.

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From the shortlist for the 2007 Booker prize for fiction we have also reviewed:

The Gathering by Anne Enright

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan


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Lesley Mason said:

I’m pleased to add that the book has now been justly recognised for its for its fiercely original, zesty style, coupled with seriousness of theme and intent Professor Makarand Paranjape, Chair of Judges at the Man Booker International / Commonwealth Writers Prize. It has been awarded the ‘Best Book Award’ (Europe & Asia Region).

Sue Magee said:

That's wonderful news, Lesley.