Novels from India are something that seem to make their way to my shelves but never get read (a few examples being Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and last year’s Booker winner, The Inheritance Of Loss by Kiran Desai). So, going ahead with my intent to read all thirteen books longlisted for the Booker this year, Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People was one Indian novel that wasn’t destined for indefinite shelving.
And for that happy I’m, as its narrator may say. Yes, such contortions are normal in Animal’s speech. They are a fitting parallel, for Animal’s body is physically twisted, forcing him to walk on all fours after “That Night” when the local factory exploded, its toxins killing thousands, harming many more, and polluting the elements. Although the novel is set in a fictional city called Khaufpur, it’s plain to see that it’s basis is in Bhopal, the explosion being a riff on the 1984 disaster.Telling his story into a “tape mashin” left by an Australian reporter, Animal describes his life in Khaufpur. When he’s not scamming or drinking chai, he’s fancying himself a bit of a James Bond (”namispond jamispond”) in the spying stakes, which typically involves climbing up trees and perving on Nisha, his friend. It’s the delivery that makes Animal’s People special. For, aforementioned syntax aside, Animal is crude, comic, and at ease with his disability. His narrative practically sings off the page as he tells of his life, trades insults with his friends, and makes observations, passes judgement:
The world of humans is meant to be viewed from eye level. Your eyes. Lift my head I’m staring into someones crotch. Whole nother world it’s, below the waist. Believe me, I know which one hasn’t washed his balls, I can smell pissy gussets and shitty backsides whose faint stenches don’t carry to your nose, farts smell extra bad. In my mad times I’d shout at people in the street, “Listen, however fucking miserable you are, and no one’s as happy as they’ve a right to be, at least you stand on two feet!”
In the poverty stricken community where Animal lives, everyone has been affected by the negligence of the “Kampani”, and the main reason for living is to see it brought to justice, to see compensation paid to all affected. Of course, life here is unstructured, politicians are corrupt - the same old sorry story drags from one day to the next. And then, into the community comes Elli Barber, an “Amrikan doctress”, who opens a clinic offering free healthcare to all who need it. But the people are suspicious, for she may just be working for the Kampani, here to prove that they are not to blame.
Given the length of Animal’s People it’s testament to Sinha’s ability that he was able to maintain the unique voice although I did perhaps feel there were a few slips where, after being charmed by Animal, the story would briefly lose his likeable style. Toward the end, after following Animal for so long I felt myself wanting it all to be over; the closing chapters almost read as evidence Sinha was thinking the same, tying up the loose ends.
But overall, Animal’s People is a real achievement. While on the surface it follows one man’s journey in understanding his humanity, its concerns are greater in scope, using Animal to focus on issues such as poverty, religion, and corruption without being didactic. Given that not a peep was heard in the British press, its Booker longlisting will no doubt bring Animal’s People the attention it deserves. But, more importantly than literature, its content can bring about an awareness of the real disaster in 1984, the effects of which are still felt today amongst the real Animal’s people.