When Indra Sinha?s Animal?s People was published last year in the UK, virtually every review of the novel took account of its lacerating first line, delivered by its horrifically maimed, nineteen-year-old protagonist: “I used to be human once. So I’m told.” It isn’t hard to figure why it hooked critics: Sinha controls language so magnificently in this novel — which was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize and is now being published in the United States — that the serrating lead sentence carves out his territory with a vengeance.
But Sinha’s opening gambit works in a second way: it simultaneously gives the lie to their speaker?s hot-breathed attempt to flee his humanity. Animal is among the poorest of the poor in the Indian city of Khaufpur; his spine has been twisted like a paper clip as a result of the industrial catastrophe at “the Kampani” sixteen years back, and he now must crabwalk on all fours. In a series of purported transcripts from cassette-recorded testimony, he narrates the story of his life and that of Khaufpur in a monologue practically Rabelaisian in its extravagance. Animal?s language draws on the Hindi-English patois of the basti and the cinema (the English is as mangled as his spinal cord); it is scabrous and pungently scatological, though never without humor, and utterly compelling. As with Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, a glossary appears at the end of the book to aid with some of the Hindi, but you don’t really need it: The lyricism, strange syntax, and urgency in Animal’s sentences seem to translate themselves, and his voice, at once furious and spicy, flows forth in a cataract. As one character says to him, ?Animal, do you ever listen to anyone else? Talk talk talk, is all you do. How you chunter. Honestly, if talking?s what makes people human, no one is more human than you.?
Khaufpur — the name translates from Hindi-Urdu as “fear village” or “village of dread” — is modeled on Bhopal, India, and the Kampani is of course Union Carbide, whose role in the 1984 disaster that killed (by some estimates) 15,000 Bhopalis and left another 100,000 with death sentences of rotten lungs and ruined kidneys, redefined the gold standard of corporate irresponsibility. As in Khaufpur, the citizens of Bhopal still argue in Indian courts that the company (in cahoots with corrupt government officials) has failed to face its moral obligations to clean up the hell left after the cloud of pesticides rolled through the city and leached into the town’s wells. Animal provides anecdote after anecdote of the perfidy:
Thighs-of-fate, it?s an Inglis name, I do not know what the Hindi might be. On that night when poisons came from the Kampani?s factory, those who weren?t then and there killed found themselves in a bad way with fainting, fits, pain, blood?s coughed up, can?t see, hardly can breathe etc. This thighs-of-fate was a medicine which whas helping people get relief. News quickly spread, from all over the city people came to wait in line for injections, but suddenly the treatment was stopped. Some bigwig let slip that the Kampani bosses from Amrika had rung up their best friend the Chief Minister and told him to stop the thighs-of-fate. . . . Some doctors moved into a shack near the factory and began giving the injections. The police came, wrecked the shack, beat up the doctors.
Sinha has been an activist on behalf of the victims of Bhopal for a decade and a half. In 1993, appalled by the company’s skullduggery in evading responsibility for cleaning up the site, he helped start a campaign to fund a free clinic to treat those who continued to die prematurely from the disaster. Writing about real and recent events can be a quagmire for some novelists, but Animal?s People succeeds fully on its own merits as fiction. The plot of Animal’s story concerns an idealistic firebrand, Zafar, who leads a boycott against a free clinic opened by an American expat, Elli. Sensing Elli?s effort is a Trojan horse led by the Kampani to gather medical data on the victims in order to argue in court against their claims, Zafar enlists the crafty Animal to help spy on the clinic and its operator (according to Animal, he is an expert at “jamisponding”; it took me far too long to get the joke, but think 007). The problems of the scheme are twofold: Like any nineteen-year-old virgin, Animal fantasizes as much about screwing Elli as screwing the Kampani; and he is only slightly less carnally drawn to Nisha — who is passionately in love with Zafar and a true believer in his cause — to boot. Even more of a problem, Elli begins to develop her own love/hate relationship with the novel?s other hero (and Nisha?s father), Somraj, a brilliant singer called the Aawaaz-e-Khaufpur, the voice of Khaufpur, whose vocal music has been silenced by his burned-up lungs.
The principles, intentions, and motivations of the characters butt against one another at right angles. Of course, they are all portrayed through the words of the truth-speaker Animal and sieved through his own tortured, limited experience. As in any Bildungsroman, his world widens considerably over the course of the novel — from the slums of his city, to an encounter with the ?internest? (where, of course, he visits www.khaufpur.com <>, a real site for the ersatz city), and even to his apparent new existence in paradise after he and all of Khaufpur seem to have perished in a second industrial disaster.
The fiery promise of the ?Apokolis? hovers throughout the novel (Animal ministers to the at times comical Ma Franci, an octogenarian French nun who took him in as an orphan and now babbles on about the end of days). The showdown between the Kampani, the government, and the people?s movement led by Zafar sparks a conflagration that threatens to destroy every player in Animal?s world. (As he imagines himself dead, he writes of ?a fading nightmare of a city of stinks and misery, I think of thousands and thousands dead in the last moments of Khaufpur. Our whole lives were lived in the dark. Those who were there with me are now in paradise, where?s no Khaufpur, no India, no trace of flames, hell is not visible from here.? Khaufpur does sound like hell in Sindra?s telling. What?s most remarkable about this remarkable novel is that the voice emerging from this village of death is so relentlessly, jauntingly alive.