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Book Review: Animal’s People by Indra Sinha

24 Feb

Jaanwar walks on four legs. He is rude, bawdy, irreverent and has a heart the size of an ocean. He lives in the fictional city of Khaufpur, where his spine was melted when a poisonous gas leak from a factory ravaged the city slums, on a night which is always referred to as “That Night”.

Jaanwar or Animal, is the nodal character of Indra Sinha’s book Animal’s People. His world consists of the Khaufpur slums and the people who live there. Ma Franci – the fossilized French nun who has devoted her life to the people of Khaufpur, the kind and elegant Nisha, the Christ-like Zafar, Elli, the “Amrikan doctress”, whose tight jeans keep Jaanwar’s loins in a state of turmoil, and finally, little Aliya, a fellow orphan of that night, whose cheeky spirit Animal cherishes. Over them all is cast the malevolent shadow of the “Kampani” – the absconding foreign owners of the factory, and the fear that the night which disfigured their lives will come again.

Animal, a street urchin and small time trickster, is wrenched out of his self-serving existence by Nisha, who gets him involved in Zafar’s crusade to seize justice for the gas victims. As he struggles to deal with this larger picture, Jaanwar is beset by the troubles of love, lust, fidelity, trust and truthfulness. He bilks all of Nisha’s attempts to repatriate him to “human” society and prefers to remain an “animal, fierce and free”. At the same time, he falls hopelessly in love with Nisha, and ends up trying to poison Zafar, with whom Nisha is besotted.

Animal insists on living in the bowels of the deserted factory, the proverbial “heart of darkness”. He prides himself as being the only person able to negotiate the poisonous jungle that by now has overwhelmed the factory’s skeleton. He describes the “pink and white powders” still lying about and the dry grasses waiting to catch fire, so that the poisonous gases may gush out once again. From the highest smokestack is a view of the Kampani’s killing grounds – the multitude of slums and hutments around its periphery.

Along with being incredibly poignant, Animal’s narrative is also at times grotesquely funny.  Most of the humour originates from his hilarious pejoratives for the people and circumstances around him, and the truly Indian mispronunciation of certain English words (Namispond, Jamispond – say it quickly). He also makes cynical fun of the bureaucratic clap-trap and political double-speak which Zafar and his fellow philanthropists have to combat  to bring the “Kampani” to book.

The book occasionally slips into magical realism, though it feels very real in the composite sense. The story swallows the reader from its very first sentence – “I used to be human once.” And at the end of it, you emerge with the feeling that the characters in the book are people that you have encountered in real life. Even Animal’s occasional drifts into imaginative gibberish only serve to buttress the corporeality of the story.

Even though Animal’s People is a work of fiction, it takes little effort to draw a line of inference from its narrative to the real life tragedy which occurred in Bhopal. The fact that it is fiction is doubly advantageous as it gives the author the freedom to write without the fear of lawsuits, and it has garnered attention to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy from corners  hitherto unaware of its occurrence.

Animal’s People in its entirety is an indictment of corporate terrorism and a stark reminder that the “Kampani’s” victims, real or fictitious, still seek retribution for what they have undergone. Animal’s People was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize and was the winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize: Best Book From Europe & South Asia.

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