SPEAKING VOLUMES, Nilanjana S Roy, Business Standard
Indra Sinha’s novel Animal’s People currently sits on the Man Booker longlist
New Delhi August 14, 2007: 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…” Opening lines of Animal’s People by Indra Sinha
Most Indians will remember December 3, 1984; those who were in Bhopal on that day will never be able to forget it. In the early hours of December 3, a holding tank at a Union Carbide pesticide plant overheated, releasing 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas; the death toll from what is considered one of the worst industrial disasters ever was somewhere between 15,000 and 22,000.
Bhopal was extensively reported on and written about, but unlike other disasters, it seemed to daunt writers. Partition literature has grown over the years, and become more complex in the telling. The assassination of Indira Gandhi, earlier in 1984, finds its way — usually clumsily — into a score of contemporary Indian novels. This generation of young writers, from Sujit Saraf (The Peacock Throne) and Raj Kamal Jha (Fireproof) to Altaf Tyrewala (No God in Sight), are beginning to find ways to tell the darker stories that emerge in the wake of contemporary riots and disasters. The Kargil war found its best chroniclers not in the ranks of fiction writers, but among journalists whose memoirs of that brief conflict remain invaluable.
The accident at the plant that made Bhopal, like Chernobyl, into something approaching a verb, a city’s name converted into shorthand for an almost Biblical tragedy, deterred most fiction writers. The redoubtable Dominique Lapierre was one of the few to boldly go where wiser souls had not gone before. About 18 years after the gas tragedy, Lapierre co-wrote It Was Five Minutes Past Midnight along with Javier Moro. This fast-paced novel blended some solid investigative journalism into the history of the Union Carbide plant with the mawkish, fairy-tale-to-noir horrorshow story of Padmini, a young slum dweller whose marriage takes place on the night of the disaster. Lapierre, whose generosity as an author is only surpassed by his instinctive talent for finding the right cliché for the right occasion, donated his royalties from the book to Bhopal victims.
In 2002, Amulya Malladi came out with A Breath of Fresh Air, a delicate, meandering but eminently readable novel that looked at the gas tragedy from the perspective of Anjali, a young woman who can never forgive her ex-husband for his role in the damage she suffers on December 3. Malladi’s book captured the nuances of relationships very well, and grapples with some of the complexities and challenges of the cost of being a survivor. But while it was a competent and moving novel, it lacked force, and suffered from some of the defects of a debut novel.
“Sunil, for much of your short life, you believed people were coming to murder you,” Indra Sinha wrote in 2006, in a tribute to a friend of his, a fellow activist who worked on behalf of the Bhopal victims. Sunil Kumar, also known as ‘Jaanvar’ or ‘Animal’, (Sunil Kumar was never known as ‘Jaanvar’ or ‘Animal’, and was not the model of the character in Indra Sinha’s book Animal’s People – ed.) was 13 at the time of the Bhopal gas tragedy. Separated from his parents, he lost consciousness and was tossed onto a pile of corpses to be taken to hospital. He survived that; he managed to find his younger siblings; he found work; he became an activist for Bhopal; and slowly, little by little, he lost his sanity. In 2006, Sunil Kumar put on a T-shirt that said, “No More Bhopals”, and hanged himself from the ceiling fan.
I have never met Indra Sinha, but from his previous books, I know him as a man of magnificent obsessions. His non-fiction work, The Cybergypsies, chronicled cyberculture in an age when that word had not yet been invented. His first novel, The Death of Mr Love, was an entertaining if uneven fictionalisation of the Nanavati murder, one of Bombay’s best-beloved scandals. It was clear from both books that Sinha had the ability to immerse himself in the world that he was writing about, whether virtual, historical or real.
But his involvement with Bhopal is much more than an obsession: finding justice and practical help for those who survived the tragedy is a commitment that Sinha has made for several years, as a journalist, as an activist, and now as a writer. His novel, Animal’s People, is about a boy called Jaanvar, crippled by a disaster that’s hit the fictional city of Khaufpur. It’s on the Booker longlist, but that isn’t why you should read it. Despite the occasional clunkiness of the language and a tendency to be over-lyrical, Sinha’s writing is powerful and Jaanvar’s story is deeply moving. This may the closest to the non-stereotypical Bhopal novel that we’re going to get for a while.
(Disclaimer: The author is chief editor, EastWest and Westland Books. The opinions expressed here are personal)