The eponymous narrator of Animal’s People, a survivor of the chemical ‘apokalis’ that has blighted his city, and a self-disgusted opportunist akin in shamelessness to Diderot’s immense rogue Rameau’s Nephew, delivers us “a story sung by an ulcer”, a singular, haranguing monologue that refuses to indulge, grabbing the gentle reader by the throat and shaking their expectations out of them from the first page on.
Twenty years on from ‘that night, which no one in Khaufpur wants to remember, but nobody can forget’, its ailing people are enmeshed in an interminable fight for justice against the vanished ‘Kampani’. We encounter Khaufpur’s deeply, roundly, often hilariously realised humanity from ground-level, the unique perspective of our quadrepedal narrator Animal, whose back has been ‘twisted like a hairpin’ by exposure to the Kampani’s poisons. Thrice dispossessed, first of his parents, then by poverty and deformity, Animal scampers around the cramped, ramshackle, unkempt gullies of Khaufpur’s poorest settlements in seeming tragic obeisance to the insistent ambitions of his outsized lund, the remaining part of his anatomy to stand straight and true. But Animal’s People is no simple tragedy, and Animal is certainly no victim. As the city struggles along a determined path of recovery, the tales that angry, goading Animal relates are unsentimental, scarifying and, most of all, immensely funny.
Animal’s story is made possible by dent of a scam perpetrated upon a well-meaning Australian ‘jarnalis’. Glorying in the capture of his multi-pocketed shorts, Animal begins by denying him the information he had evidently travelled for, “that night, always that f***ing night.” Instead, Animal drags us into an intricate aftermath of deprivation and resistance, where even what is generally considered to be a necessary constituent of the will to live, hope, is unnecessary. ‘Brother, you’re right,’ replies Animal’s rival-in-love, the activist leader Zafar, ‘let go of hope and keep on fighting, it’s the lesson of Khaufpur.’ This Khaufpur, literally city of ‘terror’ or ‘dread’, is a place where it would be easy enough to lose hope: to deliberately put it aside is an act of defiance in the face of the cruellest of vicissitudes; an unbending refusal to fall into hopelessness.
If presentation of this spirit were Indra Sinha’s chief achievement in his profoundly affecting Man Booker nominated novel, he’d have created a worthy homage to the extraordinary courage of its characters and their evident counterparts, the real life survivors of Union Carbide’s 1984 gas disaster in Bhopal, India, who like the residents of Khaufpur have lived through a terror beyond ordinary imagining. But Animal’s People is considerably more ambitious than this.
Stealthily, sometimes with passages of breath-stealing beauty, sometimes phantasmogorically, Sinha sows a strange, abstruse imagery into the rough ground of Animal’s experiences, until the raw, unrefined stuff of Khaufpur’s shacks and alleys, the crumbling factory, the grotesque artefacts of the savage gas become shunted, dislodged, dislocated from their material moorings, until the ‘dread’ of the city begins to feel more akin to that uncanny dread CS Lewis applied to the mysterium tremendum. Certain reviewers, lazily grabbing for a hand-hold, have slapped a glib ‘magical realism’ label upon passages that spin off into fractured reels of visionary symbolism. But fractured does not mean unwhole. As Animal moves toward some kind of reconciliation with his own humanity, there is a sense of an archetypal drama opening out beneath the surface of events – a drama which hints at the mystery of the ageless, illimitable, universal self which is the ultimate object of the millennia old arcane practise of alchemy. Yes, alchemy – a glimmering presence within the interstices of the lolloping plot.
If alchemy seems an intellectually gaudy tack-on to what appears to be a straight forward bildungsroman, think again. The unspeakable tragedy of Khaufpur hails from the hubris of commercially produced chemical science. Like all sciences, chemistry has its origins in the mists of occult antiquity. Alchemy concerned itself with the process of chemical transformation – the transmutation of one substance into a higher one – which itself was the materialised counterpart to ideas of psychical transformation. As chemistry detached itself from its alchemical past during the enlightenment, its shadowy philosophical sister, hermeticism, went underground. In the twentieth century, Carl Jung related that underground to the subconscious mind: via dream analysis Jung discovered alchemical symbolism to be a regular product of the subconscious, and from this asserted the general existence of a transformative psychological process, seeing in its working a metaphor for the realisation of the self. The process was observed in disparate people and cultures, leading to the theory of the universal unconscious.
A most extraordinary achievement of the novel, and a markedly radical one, is its exploration of that mysterious universality in an environment awash with Forster’s ‘unthinkable’ poor, the global economy’s cast offs, Mark Curtis’ politically irrelevant ‘unpeople’. It is the foul-mouthed, contradictory, classically unreliable guttersnipe Animal who leads himself and thereby the reader toward an eventual apprehension of the mystical homo maximus; the symbolically dying and reborn shaman of global prehistory; the cosmic, suprapersonal Atman of the Upanishads.
The resonances are often eerie. The Kampani has left dry red rocks of poison lying inside its factory – the pesticide carbaryl or Sevin, miraculous ‘crop medicine’of real-world twin, Union Carbide (see image below). The Arabic al-iksir, from which the term “elixir” is derived, was believed to exist as a dry red powder made from a legendary stone – the alchemical philosopher’s stone, meant to turn metal into gold; or in Carbide’s case, losses into profits. The Kampani has left the water table around its abandoned factory poisoned with pesticides and solvents, so that it has contaminated wells, bodies, even mother’s milk. The aqua permanens or ‘mercurial’ water of the alchemists is the transforming substance par excellence: though curative and ennobling, it also enters the body as a deadly poison. Mercury is a prima materia of alchemy: the Indian word for alchemy is Rasavātam which means “the way of mercury”. Union Carbide left real mercury – in amounts 10,000 times beyond what is considered safe – to soak into the grounds of its abandoned factory in Bhopal. ‘Lord of thought’ Hermes, the mercurial deity in alchemy, was also God of commerce.
Union Carbide’s sinister ‘hand of God’ 1962 ad – the shining city, the reddish elixir are redolent of alchemical symbolism
If the Kampani represents the debased, profane application of alchemical knowledge and its monstrous consequence, the character of Animal, on the other hand, eventually undergoes a transformative regeneration of personality and spirit that is archetypally sacred. He begins as the ‘commanding self’ of the Sufis – a snapping, provocative beast of a boy, his conscious mind a morass of schizophrenic dissolution. He is also the prima materia of the alchemists: sent into chaos, suffering and pain through by the Kampani’s poisons, the alchemical putrefactio, but now containing the potential, the dynamic oppositions, to achieve the opus. Isolated, set-apart, he makes himself invisible inside the grounds of the nefarious factory – a classic alchemical temenos, a taboo area where it is possible to meet the unconscious. Even in this apparently godforsaken place there are intimations of spiritual symbolism, ‘metal stairs going nowhere… a single black pipe continues into the sky‘ – Khaufpur is not only the centre of Animal’s world, then, it is transfigured here into the axis mundi, where the heavens and the earth meet. Suspended on the rusting frame of the diabolical factory, Animal opens himself to knowledge of the sacred.
As Animal’s voice pulls us deeper into his liminal experience, more parts of his environment are transfigured. The narrow alleys take on the mythological aspect of the Labyrinth, where there is motion between parallel worlds, and where death results in triumphant return. Some reviewers have discerned a Christian allegory in the theme of death and rebirth in the novel, but this displays a poor understanding of the many mythologies that describe the same phenomenon, and in particular the way they are built integrally into the vividly realised Khaufpur. For example, the schizophrenic Animal converses with a double-headed homunculus – the double face of alchemy, the inner man, the lapis – which is trapped in the unum vas, or hermetic vessel, demanding to be transformed through fire from where it will emerge purified, endowed with spirit and life. No abstruse symbolism this, it’s uncannily germane to a narrative where physical impurity and break-down is a consequence of real chemical exposure, and where in the parallel Bhopal, doctors until recently kept display jars of unborn foetuses deformed by Union Carbide’s gases.
Like all powerful art, Animal’s People has the ability to work compellingly on multiple levels, chiefly due to the haring narrative and barnstorming characterisation of Animal. Though Animal’s People describes a catastrophic collision of two worlds and its profoundly human consequences, Khaufpur is also a place of amplified significances, where contraries are paradoxically linked together by hidden connections and identities. Artfully conceived alchemical imagery abounds throughout, and with it expression of that essential alchemical paradox, the unity and transformative power of opposites. It is spiritual death hearkened by physical and psychological disintegration that rescues our narrator from the collective ‘animal’ psyche, a denouement that is mysteriously, ultimately uplifting.
In all, it amounts to a remarkable representation of classic alchemical dialectics, and an astonishing imaginative feat in a writer whose real-life loyalties are anchored in humanitarian work in real-life Bhopal. It is here, as in Khaufpur, as in Minamata, as in Vietnam, as in Nicaragua, as in Midland, Michigan and in numerous other chemically poisoned communities, that people are left holding a paucity of hope in the face of extreme suffering, injustice and international neglect. What does Zafar tell Animal survives hope as the motive for continuing the fight? ‘Well,’ says the fool, removing and wiping his specs as he always did when he was feeling emotional, ‘it is love.’
And with what love has Animal’s People expressed beauty and redemption for souls cast aside without hope.