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Animal's People: A Novel

Animal's People: A Novel

4.7 7
by Indra Sinha

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In this Booker-shortlisted novel, Indra Sinha’s profane, furious, and scathingly funny narrator delivers an unflinching look at what it means to be human.

I used to be human once. So I’m told. I don’t remember it myself, but people who knew me when I was small say I walked on two feet, just like a human being...

Ever since he


In this Booker-shortlisted novel, Indra Sinha’s profane, furious, and scathingly funny narrator delivers an unflinching look at what it means to be human.

I used to be human once. So I’m told. I don’t remember it myself, but people who knew me when I was small say I walked on two feet, just like a human being...

Ever since he can remember, Animal has gone on all fours, his back twisted beyond repair by the catastrophic events of “that night” when a burning fog of poison smoke from the local factory blazed out over the town of Khaufpur, and the Apocalypse visited his slums. Now just turned seventeen and well schooled in street work, he lives by his wits, spending his days jamisponding (spying) on town officials and looking after the elderly nun who raised him, Ma Franci. His nights are spent fantasizing about Nisha, the girlfriend of the local resistance leader, and wondering what it must be like to get laid.

When Elli Barber, a young American doctor, arrives in Khaufpur to open a free clinic for the still suffering townsfolk—only to find herself struggling to convince them that she isn’t there to do the dirty work of the Kampani—Animal gets caught up in a web of intrigues, scams, and plots with the unabashed aim of turning events to his own advantage.

Profane, piercingly honest, and scathingly funny, Animal’s People illuminates a dark world shot through with flashes of joy and lunacy. A stunning tale of an unforgettable character, it is an unflinching look at what it means to be human: the wounds that never heal and a spirit that will not be quenched.

Editorial Reviews

When Indra Sinha's Animal's People was published in the U.K., virtually every review of the novel took account of its lacerating first line, delivered by its horrifically maimed 19-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 -- 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" 16 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 was 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 19-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 Sinha'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. --Eric Banks

Eric Banks is the former editor of Bookforum. He has contributed to The New York Times, Slate, the Guardian, and the Financial Times and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle board of directors.
Dennis Bock
Set in the slums of a re-imagined and re-named Bhopal, India, site of the deadly Union Carbide gas leak, the novel promises to level a damning indictment against corporate greed and indifference to human suffering. And so it does, and so it might have remained, righteous and dreary. But the book achieves much more than the predictable conjuring of sympathy, outrage or mute despair, and for this the reader has Animal to thank, the irrepressibly horny and uncannily resourceful narrator, whose spine, twisted as a result of that poisoned night, forces him to walk on all fours…An oddly arresting balance of the tragic and the comic saves Animal from becoming little more than a hapless chump through which the author can display his pity and outrage. Our narrator, four-legged bugger that he is, will shape his own destiny, thank you very much, and happily pick your pocket to boot.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Orphaned Bhopal slum resident Animal, who "used to be human" before an industrial chemical accident left his bones "twisted like a hairpin," narrates in a rich argot this tense and absorbing Brit import, shortlisted for the Booker in 2007. Animal, who walks on all fours, focuses on the events surrounding the impending trial of the "Kampani" responsible for the accident. He falls in with a group led by famous musician Somraj; Somraj's daughter, Nisha; and Nisha's boyfriend, "Saint Zafar," who devotes his life to fighting the Kampani and caring for the poor. Tensions mount as suspicious "Amrikan" doctor Elli Barber opens a clinic in the slums, lawyers from the Kampani arrive in Khaufpur to negotiate a settlement, and Animal, desperately in love with Nisha, copes with his desires and frustrations. While some of the supporting characters remain one-dimensional, Animal's voice-a mélange of grit, pointed social criticism, profanity and lust-brings to life what could have become a tendentious parable, and his struggles personalize the novel's grand themes of secrecy, betrayal and unexpected acts of love and kindness. Sinha balances big issues with an intimate depiction of life at its bleakest. (Feb.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

"A double triumph for Sinha: The plight of the world's powerless has seldom been conveyed more powerfully, while Animal is destined to be one of fiction's immortals."


"[A]n antic, ribald, and searing tale of greed and heroism - .Sinha's daring farce asks what it means to be human, rekindles compassion for the still uncompensated victims of the real-life catastrophe, and celebrates the resiliency of love and goodness in the poorest and most poisoned of places." -- (starred review)

Library Journal

Last year's Man Booker Prize winner is a story with a message: Animal is a teenage boy who lives on the streets of the Indian city of Khaufpur. He goes around on all fours since his spine is badly damaged; he cannot walk normally. As an infant, he was one of the thousands of victims of a poison gas leak at an American-owned company, here just called "the Kampani." Animal also lost his parents "that night" (as the local people refer to the horrible event). Animal has a lively mind and a way with words, some of them angry and profane, some of them bitterly funny, as he gets caught up in the struggle of those in Khaufpur who seek long-delayed justice from the Kampani. Sinha, who frequently contributes to bhopal.net, has clearly based his story on the human and environmental disaster at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal in 1984. The result is a gripping novel that also reminds us of a continuing real-life tragedy. Recommended for all larger collections.
—Leslie Patterson

Kirkus Reviews
Take a feisty young cripple, connect him to one of the world's worst industrial disasters, and you have Sinha's extraordinary, incandescent second novel, a Man Booker Prize finalist. Thousands died after an explosion at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1985. The British-Indian Sinha (The Death of Mr. Love, 2004) uses the catastrophe as a springboard; it's now years later, but residents of Khaufpur (his name for Bhopal) are still dying from poisons as they battle the Kampani (the company). Grim material, but this is not a grim novel, thanks to Animal, Sinha's narrator, a 19-year-old Khaufpuri. Abandoned on the night of the accident, he was raised in an orphanage; at age six, pains twisted his spine, forcing him to walk on all fours. He left the orphanage for the streets; the name Animal (a child's taunt) became his badge of pride. Smart, tough, sneaky, horny and improbably upbeat, Animal is an astonishing creation with a bawdy, layered narrative voice, seasoned with scraps of French and Hindi. His story is inextricably linked to that of his wounded yet still hustling city. The plot revolves around the campaign against the Kampani waged by Zafar, a saintly young college graduate beloved by the poor. The other main characters are Zafar's sweetheart, Nisha, coveted by Animal, and her father Somraj, a famous singer until the poisons destroyed his lungs. Zafar's campaign is complicated by the arrival of Elli Barber, an attractive American doctor opening a free clinic. Suspecting she is a company stooge, Zafar imposes a boycott. Meanwhile, Animal is working to detach Nisha from her man, and why not? He's capable of devotion; he's got a fine torso; and he's hung like ahorse. There's a gripping climax as company lawyers arrive and Zafar's hunger strike threatens to kill him. A double triumph for Sinha: The plight of the world's powerless has seldom been conveyed more powerfully, while Animal is destined to be one of fiction's immortals. Agent: Carole Blake/Blake Friedmann Agency

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tape one

I used to be human once. So I'm told. I don't remember it myself, but people who knew me when I was small say I walked on two feet just like a human being.

"So sweet you were, a naughty little angel. You'd stand up on tiptoe, Animal my son, and hunt in the cupboard for food." This is the sort of thing they say. Only mostly there wasn't any food plus really it isn't people just Ma Franci who says this, she doesn't even say it that way, what she says is tu étais si charmant, comme un petit ange méchant, which is how they talk in her country, plus I'm not really her son nor any kind of angel but it's true Ma's known me all my life, which is nearly twenty years. Most people round here don't know their age, I do, because I was born a few days before that night, which no one in Khaufpur wants to remember, but nobody can forget.

"Such a beautiful little boy you were, when you were three, four, years. Huge eyes you had, black like the Upper Lake at midnight plus a whopping head of curls. How you used to grin. Tu étais un vrai bourreau des coeurs, your smile would break a mother's heart," thus she'd talk.

I used to walk upright, that's what Ma Franci says, why would she lie? It's not like the news is a comfort to me. Is it kind to remind a blind man that he could once see? The priests who whisper magic in the ears of corpses, they're not saying, "Cheer up, you used to be alive." No one leans down and tenderly reassures the turd lying in the dust, "You still resemble the kebab you once were..."

How many times did I tell Ma Franci, "I no longer want to be human," never did it sink in to that fucked-up brain of hers, or maybe she just didn't believe me, which you can understand, seeing it used to be when I caught sight of myself -- mirrors I avoid but there's such a thing as casting a shadow -- I'd feel raw disgust. In my mad times when the voices were shouting inside my head I'd be filled with rage against all things that go or even stand on two legs. The list of my jealousies was endless; Ma Franci, the other nuns at the orphanage, Chukku the night watchman, women carrying pots on their heads, waiters balancing four plates per arm. I hated watching my friends play hopscotch. I detested the sight of dancers, performing bears brought by those dirty buggers from Agra, stilt-walkers, the one-leg-and-crutch of Abdul Saliq the Pir Gate beggar. I envied herons, goalposts, ladders leaning on walls. I eyed Farouq's bicycle and wondered if it too deserved a place in my list of hates.

How can you understand this?

The world of humans is meant to be viewed from eye level. Your eyes. Lift my head I'm staring into someone's 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!"

Don't worry. Everything will get explained in due course. I'm not clever like you. I can't make fancy rissoles of each word. Blue kingfishers won't suddenly fly out of my mouth. If you want my story, you'll have to put up with how I tell it.

tape two

First thing I want to say, it's to the Kakadu Jarnalis, came here from Ostrali. Salaam Jarnalis, it's me, Animal, I'm talking to the tape. Not the one you gave. That one no longer works, rain got at it, black lumps are possibly scorpion-shit. I had to hide it after you left, I put it in a hole in the wall. Long it stayed there, I never used it like I promised, now it's fucked, I guess you are thinking what a waste of shorts.

My story you wanted, said you'd put it in a book. I did not want to talk about it. I said is it a big deal, to have my story in a book? I said, I am a small person not even human, what difference will my story make? You told me that sometimes the stories of small people in this world can achieve big things, this is the way you buggers always talk.

I said, many books have been written about this place, not one has changed anything for the better, how will yours be different? You will bleat like all the rest. You'll talk of rights, law, justice. Those words sound the same in my mouth as in yours but they don't mean the same, Zafar says such words are like shadows the moon makes in the Kampani's factory, always changing shape. On that night it was poison, now it's words that are choking us.

Remember me, Jarnalis? I remember you, the day you came here with Chunaram. How did you make the mistake of hiring that sisterfuck as your chargé d'affaires? With him it's anything for money, didn't he charge people to watch him rip off his little finger? I guess you weren't to know that collecting foreigners is a sideline of his. Daily he goes to meet the Shatabdi, waits on platform one, exact spot where the first-class air-conditioned bogie stops. You'll have got off the train looking clueless. Well, what else is Chunaram for? "Yes please, want a taxi? Need a hotel? Best in Khaufpur. See the city? Want a guide? Need translate? Jarnalis?" Once he knew why you'd come he'll have promised to show you everything. The really savage things, the worst cases. People like me.

"This boy," he'll have told you, "he lost everything on that night."

Such a look on your face when he brought you here, as you pushed aside the plastic sheet, bent your back through the gap in the wall. With what greed you looked about this place. I could feel your hunger. You'd devour everything. I watched you taking it in, the floor of earth, rough stone walls, dry dungcakes stacked near the hearth, smoke coiling in the air like a sardarji doing his hair.

When you saw me, your eyes lit up. Of course, you tried to hide it. Instantly you became all solemn. Your namasté had that tone I've come to know, a hushed respect as if you were speaking a prayer, like you were in the presence of the lord of death.

"Jarnalis," Chunaram informed me, giggling like he's found a bag of gold, I'd already guessed.

"Speaks no Hindi," says Chunaram. "Animal, there's fifty rupees for you, just keep talking till the tape stops."

"What should I talk about?"

"Usual, what else?" He's already backing out the door.

Oh your face, when he buggered off. Such alarm. But see, Chunaram has other things to do, he has a chai shop to run. When he gave you his salaam, did you see his nine fingers?

So then, what was to do? You were sitting there gazing at me in a ghurr-ghurr kind of way, as if your eyes were buttons and mine were buttonholes.

I said, "Don't fucking stare or I won't speak." I said it in Hindi, I'm not supposed to let on that I know some Inglis, Chunaram gets an extra bunce for translating. You gave a thumbs-up, carried right on staring. I called you a wanker. You nodded, smiled at me. Khaamush, silent then I'm. After some time I've joined another silence to the first.

Inside your skull thoughts were scrabbling like rats. I could hear them like voices in my own head -- why has this boy stopped talking, queer as a winged snake is he, leant against the wall with such a look on his face, would be handsome if he weren't so sullen, what a chest he has, deep as a wrestler's, how does it spring from those twisted haunches to which are pawled legs like hanks of rope, oh god, his ribcage is heaving as if at any moment he may vomit, maybe he is ill, boy what is your problem, alas, my wordless enquiries cause his convulsions to grow worse, I think he may be going to have a fit, what will I do if he dies, oh dear, my further anxious attempts to communicate, with twisting "wherefore" hand motions and raising of eyebrows, seem to cause violent shudders, bugger's lips are writhing in some kind of agony, should a doctor be called, where can one find a doctor in this place, where the hell am I anyway, what the fuck am I doing here?

Actually, Jarnalis, I was trying not to show that I was laughing at you. After that, what else, I talked. Your tape crawled. Then you were happy, this is what you had come for. You were like all the others, come to suck our stories from us, so strangers in far off countries can marvel there's so much pain in the world. Like vultures are you jarnaliss. Somewhere a bad thing happens, tears like rain in the wind, and look, here you come, drawn by the smell of blood. You have turned us Khaufpuris into storytellers, but always of the same story. Ous raat, cette nuit, that night, always that fucking night.

You listened politely, pretending to follow, smiling now and again pour m'encourager, as Ma Franci would say. You were so fucking sure I was talking about that night. You were hoping the gibberish sounds coming from my mouth were the horrible stories you'd come to hear. Well, fuck that. No way was I going to tell those stories. I've repeated them so often my teeth are ground smooth by the endless passage of words.

With no Chunaram to tell you what I was saying, I could say anything. I could sing a filthy song:

I may be just a twisted runt

But I can sniff your mother's cunt

Hahaha, oh dear, your face, you were wondering, the song this boy is singing, with such a nasty tune, what is it, sounds like a lament, but pourquoi il rit? You scribbled something in your book. Let me guess. "Animal chanted a poem, probably a traditional song of mourning, just now he was crazy with grief."

Jarnalis, you were such a fool. The best thing about you was your shorts. Six pockets, I counted. Two at the side, two on the front, two on the arse. With shorts like those a person does not need a house. From one pocket you fetched out a pack of cigarettes and from another a shiny lighter, it made a grinding noise when you flipped it, and a flame sprang up. I coveted that lighter, but more than that I craved your shorts.

Thus and thus time passed, Chunaram returned reeking of apologies and strong liquor, some Inglis gitpit passed between you. He said, "I shall listen to the tape." The thing squeaked like a rat having its back broken and I heard my own voice earning fifty rupees.

Well, Chunaram was appalled. He started shouting, with great tappings of the brow and circlings of the temple. "You cretin! You are not right in your head. You have not said what's wanted."

"Did as bid."

"You must do it again. You must tell the real stories."

"Balls to you!" says I with wanking gestures. "Did I ask you to go and get drunk?"

"You miserable boy," yells Chunaram. "Who's going to pay for this foul-mouthed shit? Why didn't you just spout the usual?"

I've thought about this. "It is usual for me."

"Mother's cunt? Where do you get that from, you twisted little bastard? Next time I ask you to record a tape, keep your mouth shut."

After this, Jarnalis, I'm not expecting you back, but you show up next day with grinning Chunaram qui me dit que Jarnalis wants you to carry on telling your story.

"Don't ask me why," says he. "Yesterday what you said, I thought it was one of your fucking madness fits, I admit I was wrong it has done the trick now I'm thinking it's this jarnalis who's cracked." He shrugs and gives a thook onto the floor. So smug does he look that there and then I decide to teach the fucker a lesson.

"I'm done talking to tape mashins."

So then Chunaram's wheedling, pleading with me. "Think of the money. Jarnalis is writing a book about Khaufpur. Last night he had your tape translated. Today he comes saying he has never found such honesty as in that filth of yours. Really I think he is mad, but listen how I buttered the shaft, I told him that you are an orphan of that night, you grew up in a crazy franci situation, you used to live on the streets like a dog, you are a unique case. Jarnalis really wants your story, this could be a big business, don't fuck it up."

"Well," says I, pretending to consider it. "No."

"Listen, you can string it out. Make ten tapes. Why ten? Twenty. I will treat you to free kebabs at my place as long as it lasts."

Wah Jarnalis, big money you must have offered him, his kebabs are famous throughout Khaufpur, well, at least in the Nutcracker, which is our part of Khaufpur, but one more look at his greedy face convinces me.

"Salty fucks to you, I won't do it."

So Chunaram's shouting again, I am giggling, you're meanwhile wanting to know what's going on. Chunaram does some Inglis guftagoo, then he's back to me. "Jarnalis says it's a big chance for you. He will write what you say in his book. Thousands will read it. Maybe you will become famous. Look at him, see his eyes. He says thousands of other people are looking through his eyes. Think of that."

I think of this awful idea. Your eyes full of eyes. Thousands staring at me through the holes in your head. Their curiosity feels like acid on my skin.

"What am I to tell these eyes?" I demand of Chunaram. "What can I say that they will understand? Have these thousands of eyes slept even one night in a place like this? Do these eyes shit on railway tracks? When was the last time these eyes had nothing to eat? These cuntish eyes, what do they know of our lives?"

"Don't talk that way," says Chunaram, casting a fearful glance at you. "Think of kebabs. Plus," he says with a nod at my rags, "you can buy a good shirt and pant, go to the cinema every night, take the best seat, kulfi eat."

With Chunaram everything is a question of money, I'm about to tell him to stick it up his cul when a notion occurs.

Chunaram falls into a rage. "You idiot," he cries. "This deal is nestling in my palm. Why ruin it with stupid demands?"

"It's my story. If he doesn't agree, I will not tell it."

"Have some sense," says he, "how can I ask such a thing?"

"Je m'en fous you nine-fingered cunt."

I know Chunaram won't give up, he lives for money, but as he speaks to you every word is a stone in his mouth. I catch his thoughts, badmaash boy, too much cunt, fucking boy, francispeaking, got too grand, bastard. Mixed in with this is allwhat he's saying to you. I know most of the Inglis words, those I don't know spit their meanings into my ear. C'est normal. Since I was small I could hear people's thoughts even when their lips were shut, plus I'd get en passant comments from all types of things, animals, birds, trees, rocks giving the time of day. What are these voices, no good asking me. When at last I told Ma Franci about them, she got worried, soit un fléau soit une bénédiction, curse or blessing, that's what she said. Well, she should know whose own brain's full of warring angels and demons. She took me to a doctor, it's how I met the Khã-in-the-Jar, which I'll tell about later, but the voices, some are like fireworks cracking the nearby air, others are inside me, if I listen carefully I'll hear them arguing, or talking nonsense. Once I was looking at Nisha, this voice says, the hair pours off her head like history. What the fuck does that mean? I don't know. Some voices are slow like honey melting in the sun, Elli and I saw a locust spread scarlet wings in the Nutcracker, it was crooning "I'm so gorgeous." I said aloud, "Yeah, till a bird sees you." Such a look I got from Elli. She was interested in my voices, being a doctor with a mission to save, even shits like me. I will get to Elli soon, too the Khã-in-the-Jar, but right now I'm telling how Chunaram's thoughts were giving him a headache. Poor bugger was rambling like a lost soul, he did not want to put my demand to you, at one point he grew so confused he forgot to speak Inglis, whinged in Hindi, "Don't get offended by what this idiot is asking." Then I knew greed had him by the ear.

"Sir," mumbles Chunaram. "Sir, I am so sorry, this boy says that if he talks to the eyes the book must contain only his story and nothing else. Plus it must be his words only."

Only his story? His words only?

"Sir, he is a beastly boy, but it's a good story."

Jarnalis, your brow creases, strange figures dance on your forehead. You gitpit with Chunaram, who pleads, "Drop this demand. It's impossible. This jarnalis already has a plan for his book. It is already agreed. Jarnalis talks of an agent, plus a type called editor."

Makes no sense. How can foreigners at the world's other end, who've never set foot in Khaufpur, decide what's to be said about this place?

"I guess the way it works," says Chunaram, "is jarnalis bribes agent, agent bribes type. Business, na?" He gives a laugh, smirky bastard thinks he's won.

Well, I'm in a shining fucking rage, here and now I will cut the throat of this plan. "Give me the address of this editor type, I'll send a letter! I'll say this Jarnalis should not be allowed to tell my story. Comes here strutting like some sisterfuck movie star. What? Does he think he's the first outsider ever to visit this fucking city? People bend to touch his feet, sir, please sir, your help sir, sir my son, sir my wife, sir my wretched life. Oh how the prick loves this! Sultan among slaves he's, listens with what lofty pity, pretends to give a fuck but the truth is he'll go away and forget them, every last one. For his sort we are not really people. We don't have names. We flit in crowds at the corner of his eye. Extras we're, in his movie. Well bollocks to that. Tell mister cunt big shot that this is my movie he's in and in my movie there is only one star and it's me."

"I'm not saying all that," says Chunaram, but we both know he must, it's Animal he's dealing with, not one of his stooges, no one can get the better of me, I do what I want.

How often have I watched Chunaram make deals? After all the talking, there is always a silence as money changes hands, notes are counted, folded, put away. What is that hush? Jarnalis, I will tell you. On your side it's shame because you know you're paying shit for something priceless. Chunaram has no shame, his silence is delight, he has taken a fortune for a thing he considers worthless.

So then there's silence.

"One more thing, he must give me his shorts."

Two days pass, comes Chunaram with a bundle. Inside is the tape mashin and many tapes, folded on top are the shorts. First thing I do is put them on, they are too big but by tying string I make them tight. There's a lump in one of the pockets. I put in my hand, out comes the shiny lighter. There's a picture of a cannon on it, plus some writing. Holding it to the light, I make out Inglis letters. phuoc tuy so I guess that's your name, it's Phuoc Tuy. On the other side in Hindi is my name, animal, so then I know you've given me your lighter too. Chunaram reads the letter you sent. "Animal, you think books should change things. So do I. When you speak, forget me, forget everything, talk straight to the people who'll read your words. If you tell the truth from the heart, they will listen." There's a lot more like this, then a good bit, "The shorts come from Kakadu where there are crocodiles."

Such a fool you were, Jarnalis. Gave your shorts but left Khaufpur with nothing. Not a single tape did I make. Not one. Chunaram said if you are not going to use the mashin, I'll sell it, so I hid it in the wall where the scorpions live, from then till today solid time has passed, you must be wondering, why is this putain telling his story now? What's changed? What happened?

* * *

What's changed? Everything. As to what happened, well, there are many versions going round, every newspaper had a different story, not one knows the truth, but I'm not talking to this tape for truth or fifty rupees or Chunaram's fucking kebabs. I've a choice to make, let's say it's between heaven and hell, my problem is knowing which is which. Such is the condition of this world that if a creature finds peace, it's just a rest before greater anguish, I do not know what name you could give to the things I have done.

Jarnalis, I'm a hard bastard, I hide my feelings. Ask people they'll tell you I'm the same as ever, anyone in Khaufpur will point me out, "There he is! Look! It's Animal. Goes on four feet, that one. See, that's him, bent double by his own bitterness." People see the outside, but it's inside where the real things happen, no one looks in there, maybe they don't dare. I really think this is why people have faces, to hide their souls. Has to be, or every street in Khaufpur would be a passage through hell, which Ma Franci says it is anyway, except she sees angels suffering, I see panicked humans. One night Farouq and me, we'd drunk a lot of bhang, about enough to get you on first name terms with god, we were ogling women in Naya Bazaar, as I looked at passersby their faces vanished, just disappeared, I could see their souls. Most were ugly, some shone like green birds, but all without exception were full of fear. I told this to Farouq and said, "Look at my soul, tell me what does it look like."

"Your soul?" He began laughing and couldn't stop. "Your soul, my dear, is a tomb, even god can't see inside." This happened on the night of Holi, when he was trying to get me laid.

Jarnalis, there's a lot to tell, it wants to come out. Like rejoicing, the world's unspoken languages are rushing into my head. Unusual meanings are making themselves known to me. Secrets are shouting themselves into my ear, seems there's nothing I cannot know. Ssspsss, haaarrr, khekhekhe, mmms, this is how the voices are, often I'll babble aloud the things they tell me. "Tu dis toujours des absurdités," Ma says, smiling, the rest just shrug, "Fucking boy, crazy as fishguts. Sees things, hears voices that aren't there." Well, I do see them, I do hear. To deny what you do see and believe in things you don't, that you could call crazy. Some believe in god whom they've never seen, who never says hello. In each other's dreams we are all fucking fishguts. It's better I speak these things to the tape.

Hah! This story has been locked up in me, it's struggling to be free, I can feel it coming, words want to fly out from between my teeth like a flock of birds making a break for it. You know that sudden clap of wings when they take off in a hurry, it's that sound, listen, clap, clap, clap.

Pandit Somraj's good friend, the poet Qaif Khaufpuri, when he grew old his poetry dried up inside him, an ulcer came on his leg, an open mouth that wouldn't go, one day it began reciting such sweet verses, his poems were trying to burst their way out of him.

Same way is this, a story sung by an ulcer.

My friend Faqri gave me this mashin, batteries I stole from Ram Nekchalan's shop, he can't say anything to me. Now the tape is running. I'm remembering the eyes that hide inside your eyes, you said I should ignore you and talk straight to those who'll read these words, if I speak from my heart they'll listen. So from this moment I am no longer speaking to my friend the Kakadu Jarnalis, name's Phuoc, I am talking to the eyes that are reading these words.

Now I am talking to you.

I am saying this into darkness that is filled with eyes. Whichever way I look eyes are showing up. They're floating round in the air, these fucking eyes, turning this way and that they're, looking for things to see. I don't want them to see me, I'm lying on the floor, which is of dry dust, the tape mashin is by my head.

The instant I began talking the eyes came. I tried to hide. For some time I stayed silent. The eyes remained, they were wondering where the words had gone. They watched quietly, blinking now and again, waiting for something to happen.

See, it's like this, as the words pop out of my mouth they rise up in the dark, the eyes in a flash are onto them, the words start out kind of misty, like breath on a cold day, as they lift they change colours and shapes, they become pictures of things and of people. What I say becomes a picture and the eyes settle on it like flies.

I'm looking right now at my feet, which are near the hearth, twisted they're, a little bent to one side. Inside of left foot, outer of right, where they scrape the ground the skin's thick and cracked. In gone times I've felt such hunger, I'd break off lumps of the dry skin and chew it. Want to see? Okay watch, I am reaching down to my heel, feeling for horny edges, I'm sliding the thumbnail under. There, see this lump of skin, hard as a pebble, how easily it breaks off, mmm, chewy as a nut. Nowadays there's no shortage of food, I eat my feet for pleasure.

The hearth near which my feet are resting is of clay shaped somewhat like, like what, I've never thought of this before but it's like a yoni, which is a cunt, I don't know another way to say it, there's a gap you feed in hay, twigs etc., then put bits of dungcake and sticks to get a fire, which I've one burning. Outside the sun has yet to show its face. I can hear people passing, going for dawn shits on the railway line. They'll be well wrapped up this morning, blanket or thick shawl. The poor sods who are on the street must cover themselves in what they can find. Winter nights here you can freeze. That night they say was a night of great cold. Zafar used to say that as people were breathing clouds of mist out of their mouths that night, they little knew what kind of mist they'd soon be breathing in.

The eyes are watching people breathing mist. Stupid eyes, they don't know what the mist does to the people, they don't know what happens next. They know only what I tell them.

In this crowd of eyes I am trying to recognise yours. I've been waiting for you to appear, to know you from all the others, this is how the Kakadu Jarnalis in his letter said it would be. He said, "Animal, you must imagine that you are talking to just one person. Slowly that person will come to seem real to you. Imagine them to be a friend. You must trust them and open your heart to them, that person will not judge you badly whatever you say."

You are reading my words, you are that person. I've no name for you so I will call you Eyes. My job is to talk, yours is to listen. So now listen.

My story has to start with that night. I don't remember anything about it, though I was there, nevertheless it's where my story has to start. When something big like that night happens, time divides into before and after, the before time breaks up into dreams, the dreams dissolve to darkness. That's how it is here. All the world knows the name of Khaufpur, but no one knows how things were before that night. As for me, I don't remember any time before my back went bad. Ma Franci would talk, proud as if she were my real mother, of how I used to enjoy swimming in the lakes behind the Kampani's factory. "You'd dive right in, with your arms and your legs stretched out in one line." Whenever she said this I'd feel sad also angry. I still dream of diving straight as a stick into deep water leaving my crooked shadow behind.

On that night I was found lying in a doorway, child of a few days, wrapped in a shawl. Whose was I? Nobody knew. Mother, father, neighbours, all must have died for no living soul came to claim me, who was coughing, frothing etc. plus nearly blind, where my eyes had screwed themselves against the burning fog were white slits bleached on the eyeballs. I was brought to the hospital. Was I Hindu or Muslim? How did it matter? I was not expected to live. When I did, they circumcised me, if I was Muslim it was necessary, if I was Hindu what difference did it make? After this I was given to the nuns. I grew up in the orphanage. I do not know what religion I should be. Both perhaps? Neither? Or should I listen to Ma Franci, loves Isa miyañ, he said "forgive your enemies, turn the other cheek." I don't fucking forgive. I'm not a Muslim, I'm not a Hindu, I'm not an Isayi, I'm an animal, I'd be lying if I said religion meant a damn thing to me. Where was god the cunt when we needed him?

* * *

I was six when the pains began, plus the burning in my neck and across the shoulders. Nothing else do I remember from that time, my first memory is that fire. It was so bad I could not lift my head. I just couldn't lift it. The pain gripped my neck and forced it down. I had to stare at my feet while a devil rode my back and chafed me with red hot tongs. The burning in the muscles became a fever, when the fevers got bad I was taken to the hospital, they gave me an injection. It did no good. After that my back began to twist. Nothing could be done. It was agony, I couldn't straighten up, I was pressed forward by the pain. Before this I could run and jump like any other kid, now I could not even stand up straight. Further, further forward I was bent. When the smelting in my spine stopped the bones had twisted like a hairpin, the highest part of me was my arse. Through flowers of pain I could make out an old woman kneeling by my cot, wiping my head and mumbling strange words in my ear. Her skin was wrinkled as a dried apricot, so pale you could see clear through it, she looked like the mother of time itself. This was Ma Franci. She already knew me well, but this is my first memory of her. Ma stroked my face and comforted me in words I did not understand. Tears were falling down her face. Mine too. This feverish dream gradually faded and became my new life.

On my hands I learned to walk, my legs grew feeble. My hands and arms are strong, my chest is strong. The upper half of my body is like a bodybuilder's. I walk, also run, by throwing my weight onto my hands, hauling feet forward in a kind of hop. It took a long time to master this new way of getting about. Maybe it was months, maybe a year. When I could run I ran away because the teasing had begun.

The orphanage kids started calling me Animal one day during a round of kabbadi. You'd think such a tough game I'd have difficulty playing, but with my strong shoulders and arms I was good at catching opposing players and wrestling them to the ground. One day I grabbed this boy, he kneed me in the face. It hurt. I was so angry I bit him. I fastened my teeth in his leg and bit till I could taste blood. How he yelled, he was howling with pain, he was pleading, I wouldn't stop. I bit harder. The other kids started shouting, "Jaanvar, jungli Jaanvar." Animal, wild Animal. Copyright © 2007 by Indra Sinha

Meet the Author

Indra Sinha was born in India. His work of non-fiction, The Cybergypsies, and his first novel, The Death of Mr Love, met with widespread critical acclaim. He lives in France.

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Animal's People 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
LininCT More than 1 year ago
This is a remarkable book...a work of fiction based on the Union Carbide Disaster in India that claimed many lives needlessly and affected many others. The book's opening line, "I used to be human once..." is said by Animal...a deformed individual - a product of a chemical disaster. I think it aptly could be said by Kampani (company) officials for reasons based on apathy and greed...they and people like them are not human. This is not such a difficult read...stick with it...there are so many life lessons here that it does become overwhelming when we are constantly aware of the greed, neglect and complacency of individuals and industry alike in everyday life. May anyone who reads this take away a responsibility and the empathy to make an effort to help those less fortunate - and there are far too many poor souls in this heartless world. I will read Indra Sinha's other works and I urge you to visit his website. It shows what a truly caring individual he is in real life!
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Mairead Brady More than 1 year ago
this looks great