Animal’s People. By Indra Sinha, Simon and Schuster, London, 2007.
On December 2, 1984, the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked methylisocyanate gas into the atmosphere causing the death of over 15,000 people and maiming hundreds of thousands more for life – and for future generations. Union Carbide simply packed up and left, leaving behind its contaminated plant that continues to poison the soil and water reserves of the area. Its CEO’s have never returned to face Indian justice and its affiliates continue to operate in the country with impunity with the tacit agreement of government authorities. Its victims have not been adequately compensated and continue to suffer from severe illnesses, displacement, poverty and a sense of hopelessness. However, the struggle continues, in India and abroad. Animal’s People is the fictionalized account of this struggle. Most importantly, it is a celebration of that which binds us together as humans, that which impels us towards great acts of courage and solidarity in spite of, or perhaps because of, our intense suffering.
Animal’s People is also Sinha’s artistic expression of the humanitarian work he is already carrying out in Bhopal with the free clinic he helped set up. The editors take care to state -surely following wise legal advice- that this book is a work of fiction, and that names, characters, places and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Yet we know that fact is often stranger than fiction and that even such an imaginative writer as Sinha could have never invented the terror he depicts in his novel. What his imagination did create was the town of Khaufpur (City of Terror) whose most colorful character is Animal, the main protagonist of the novel. Animal acquired that moniker after his spine fused during childhood as a result of the chemical poisoning, forcing him to walk on all fours. Other important characters are Zafar, a Gandhian activist willing to fast unto death for the sake of justice; Nisha, his girlfriend, torn between her desire to start a family with the man she loves and her duty to support his political activism; her father Somraj, a level-headed man whose classical singing career was truncated when his lungs got damaged by chemical fire; Elli, an American doctor who set up a free clinic at great personal cost and Ma Franci, a senile French nun whose apocalyptic visions are painfully close to the truth. The other characters are the corrupt politicians and the mind-your-own-business types whose willful blindness is as criminal as willful neglect.
The novel starts with a lapidary statement: “I used to be human once. So I’m told.” This is Animal speaking, the voice through which the story unfolds, the honest and earthy and humorous voice that compels the reader to devour the book from cover to cover practically in one sitting, in spite of its harrowing subject. While Khaufpur is a City of Terror and not a City of Joy, its inhabitants continue to go about their daily lives without a care for the future because “In the Kingdom of the Poor, time doesn’t exist…It is always now o’clock” in Animal’s words.
This is one story whose plot I will not reveal. Go for it. Ride on Animal’s strong back and let him take you through the dark alleys of Khaufpur, while his prattle makes you laugh and cry and ponder. Who knows, after such a ride, you might be tempted never to sit on the fence again.