Indra Sinha, Tehelka, 22 September, 2007
In an exclusive essay for TEHELKA, this year’s Booker nominee writes about the impossibility of capturing the anguish of Bhopal, the city that inspired Animal’s People.
Over the last fourteen years I’ve written a lot about Bhopal. I’ve penned newsletters and press releases, fundraising appeals in UK newspapers, edited three different websites and authored an (unpublished) non-fiction book.
Now I’ve written another book, this time a novel, and made a website about the fictional city in which the novel is set. My city is called Khaufpur, not Bhopal, yet for some reason everyone assumes they are one and the same. Well, there are a few similarities. Both cities, real and fictional, were devastated two decades ago by a chemical catastrophe caused by an American-owned factory. In each story the company faces criminal charges, but is refusing to appear before the court and has been declared an absconder from justice.
In the fictional city of Khaufpur, politicians are plotting a secret deal to free the hated ‘kampani’ of its legal liabilities and its duty to care for its victims. It may seem incredible that political leaders would ever betray their own suffering people, but as you read this Indian politicians are cooking up a backroom deal to free Dow Chemical of the liabilities it inherited when it bought 100 percent of disgraced Union Carbide.
The timing of this real-world betrayal, just as the novel comes under the spotlight of a Booker nomination, is uncanny, it could never have been planned. I could never have known six years ago, when I began writing Animal’s People, that reality would one day mirror fiction.
There are other small likenesses between Khaufpur and Bhopal. In each the factory grounds are slowly returning to jungle. Both factories were abandoned full of chemicals that have leaked into water supplies and poisoned thousands living nearby. In both cities, children are born malformed. Animal, the narrator of Animal’s People, has a badly twisted spine and must get along on hands and feet, hence his nickname.
In Khaufpur as in Bhopal, there are shantytowns called Blue Moon Colony, Phuta Maqbara and Qazi Camp, places where almost everyone is ill. In Bhopal as in Khaufpur, the poor — hungry and too ill to work — yearn for justice and are denied it. Despite these coincidences Khaufpur is not, and could never be, Bhopal.
Let me put it another way. When I talk of writing about Bhopal I should really say ‘attempting to write’, for the anguish of Bhopal cannot be expressed in words. My first attempt was a fundraising appeal to run in the Guardian newspaper. It would tell the story of ‘that night’, the subsequent suffering and ask for donations to start a free clinic for the survivors.
Raghu Rai sent me a print of his famous photograph of a baby’s burial, a terrible yet tender picture of a hand caressing a little face whose staring eyes are filmed with dust. On the morning after the disaster, Raghu had found a man burying his daughter with his bare hands. The father had covered the tiny body with soil then, unable to bear the thought that he would never see her again, carefully brushed the soil from her face for one last look. Raghu cried as he took the picture, and I cried as I heard the story.
For a year I sat and stared at Raghu’s picture. That fleeting hand choreographed a pain beyond anything I could imagine. My words could only defile it. Defeated before I began, I little realised that the writer’s job would grow harder still.
One grows hardened to suffering. In the novel, after listening to a sad story, Animal says, “At the end of this narrative, all are in tears, except me who never cries and for each tale as tragic as this can narrate ten that are worse.”
The story of our friend Sunil is one of the cruellest. Orphaned at twelve, losing five of his eight family in the gas, he worked eighteen hour days to provide for his young sister and brother. A kind, funny man, he suffered nightmares and heard voices that tormented him. Sunil was a leader of the survivors’ movement, but last July, despairing of ever regaining his mental health or of obtaining justice, he hanged himself. His story is told on my website www.indrasinha.com/sunilbhai. html.
When words are inadequate one may take refuge in lists of diseases, numbers of dead and names of crippled children, but my inarticulacy has other causes. One of them is anger. Something very vile has been at work in Bhopal. The cruelty visited on its people is so massive, brutal and brazen that it all but defeats attempts to describe it.
In 1989 Carbide tested samples of soil and water from inside the factory. Fish placed in the water died instantly and a private Carbide memo concluded that the factory grounds were lethally poisoned. Right by the factory wall was the hamlet of Atal Ayub Nagar, but instead of warning its people, Carbide watched in silence as they got ill, and their children were born deformed or brain damaged. Union Carbide knew its water-borne poisons would spread fast and far. It knew what they would do to people who used the contaminated water. It knew that many of those being poisoned were already ill from its gases, but it kept quiet and let them be poisoned a second time.
The silence lasted ten unforgivable years. Children conceived during those years are now aged between eight and eighteen. You can see their faces on the www.bhopal.org website. They are not pretty pictures.
If a corporation knowingly allows thousands to be poisoned by its chemicals, while saying and doing nothing, shouldn’t it be held responsible for their deaths and injuries? In a just society the answer would be yes. But the Bhopalis do not live in a just society. When Union Carbide Corporation was summoned to face criminal charges, it blankly refused, saying the Indian court had no jurisdiction over Americans.
Today Dow Chemical owns 100 percent of Union Carbide and Carbide’s board is made up of Dow managers, yet Dow says Carbide is a wholly independent ‘entity’ and calls itself ‘a shareholder’, asserting that it has no power to make its subsidiary appear in court.
Now, instead of using the polluter pays principle to make Dow pay for the factory clean up and compensate those who have been poisoned, the politicians are plotting to free Dow of its liabilities. The reason? Unless India’s sovereign government does as it is told by the foreign multinational, Dow will invest no more dollars in the country.
If Animal’s People told the actual story of Bhopal, it would not be believable and would not work as a novel, but fiction is a way to tell truths that cannot be expressed by facts. To bring my characters and story to life, I had to forget about Bhopal and create Khaufpur, a city that became so real to me that it got its own website. After the writing was done, I visited Bhopal and was amazed to find that it was not as I remembered, so real had Khaufpur become to me.
In the end, the only way to deal with tragedy is to laugh at it. This is why Animal’s People is full of jokes, swearing and scams, why Animal himself refuses to bow to any human or take anything seriously except his desire to get laid. Through laughter one can reach into the darkest depths without drowning.
Speaking of the Khaufpur website, www.khaufpur.com, a book blogger wrote, “While the site could be seen as canny publicity for the book, to me it, and the book are really part of the bigger continuing campaign for justice in Bhopal.”
To me they aren’t. But I do hope they have that effect.