Salil Tripathi, Tehelka, 22 September, 2007
SALIL TRIPATHI on Indra Sinha who gave up ad copywriting for storytelling and is probably entitled to think that he did the right thing
The works of Indra Sinha, the latest addition to the pantheon of writers of Indian origin to be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, have flirted with fact and fiction, blending the two, leaving it unclear where fantasy ends and reality begins. In Animal’s People, Sinha has become the amanuensis for Animal, “who was human once,” and who, after an illness ruined his spine, now crawls on all fours. His deformity is the result of a chemical leak at a multinational plant in a town called Khaufpur. The world forgot the town’s agony and Animal wants it to be remembered.
Khaufpur’s real life parallel with the Bhopal disaster is self-evident. But if critics have warmed to the novel, and judges have acknowledged its brilliance, it is because Sinha has made the victims leap out of the pages and haunt us.
Sinha is used to compelling readers’ attention: for twenty years he was a renowned copywriter still spoken of with awe in international advertising circles. His ad for London’s Metropolitan Police shows a skinhead spitting at a bobby with a caption that boldly asks: “Can you turn the other cheek?” It is considered one of the greatest recruitment ads of all time.
Sinha has also written a novel about the sensational Ahuja- Nanavati case of 1959, which led to the abolition of jury trial in India. He was also an early chronicler of cyberspace in Cybergypsies: A True Tale of Lust, War and Betrayal on the Electronic Frontier a book about that vanished world when the Internet wasn’t just about commerce.
And yet there is more to Sinha than the sum of these parts, for at heart, he is a master storyteller. In Animal’s People, he sees a monumental event through the eyes of a marginal character, who, quite literally, adults cannot see, because he only comes up to their knees. Though enfeebled, he has normal dreams.
And that is at the heart of the struggle of Bhopal: its victims want to regain their dignity and respect, both denied by a government that appropriated their right to sue, and by corporate lawyers forever shifting blame. Animal stands up for what he believes in, even if he can’t stand up. Indeed, by making its protagonist unable to stand erect, the novel forces us to imagine a world seen from below, becoming a metaphor for a city whose back is broken. The world has moved on from Bhopal, but Animal does not want you to move on: he paints a vivid and gloomy picture of a town ravaged by a cloud of gas, of a people whose hopes are raised often and sent crashing just as often.
Critics have noted his language, too, and in this, Sinha joins another illustrious list of writers who have exploited the flexibility of English. Sinha injects into the language the urgency of the streets of the Hindi heartland. Indeed, Boyd Tonkin of The Independent says: “This barnstorming monologue ranks among the strongest of the many bids to bend English into an Indian shape since Desani’s lost 1948 classic All About H. Hatterr.”
For much of the last 15 years, Bhopal has been Sinha’s consuming passion. While Khaufpur is based on Bhopal, the novel would not have worked if it only sought the reader’s compassion. “If Animal’s People were simply propaganda it would not work as a novel,” says Sinha. “My primary concern was to write the best novel I could. The characters are everything, it is a story about people, and the catastrophe that had overtaken the city is very much in the background, where it belongs.”
Sinha was born in Bombay and came to Britain at 17. He spent two decades in advertising, and by 1994, when he decided to turn to writing full time, he was widely acknowledged as a legend. He found the advertising world full of “clever, amusing people” and his was a light-hearted and extravagantly paid job. “I was rather successful at it, perhaps because I couldn’t do slogans to save my life. I used to tell stories. No one else did this, so I suppose they stood out,” he adds.
Ram Kapoor, executive creative director at Y&R ,Vietnam, says: “To any Indian copywriter two decades ago, Indra Sinha was a hero. He was one of the most famous copywriters in London. His campaigns were also very human, compassionate and at times shocking. With fact-based, graphically-descriptive prose which forces the reader to imagine the victims’ pain, A master of the long narrative, Sinha’s ads are reminiscent of David Ogilvy, who exhorted copywriters to write longer copy, capture the attention of the readers, and not to treat consumers as morons.
Sinha won many awards, but his Damascene moment came when in the late 1980s he wrote advertising for the Kurdish Refugee Appeal and Amnesty International. He described the destruction of Halabja by Iraq’s chemical weapons attack with remarkable emotive power. Advertising executives often quote an adage ascribed to Sinha: “The written word is the deepest dagger you can drive into a man’s soul.”
“I realised that there was really important work in the world that no one was doing,” he says. When he turned 45, he told his wife, Vickie, that he wanted to quit his job. She told him: “You’re unhappy. This is right. Do it. We’ll manage somehow.” They moved to France, with books and memories, surrounded by wine country.
His attention turned to Bhopal after a meeting with Satinath Sarangi, who has worked for Bhopal’s victims for over two decades. “Like everyone else, I assumed that the survivors must have been compensated, provided with proper health care etc, so it came as an absolute shock to learn when I met Sathyu that none of these things had happened,” he says.
He hopes that people will now rediscover the truth about Bhopal, but he does not have any illusions. “Personally, I don’t insist that writers have a duty to change things. Animal does because he’s a Khaufpuri. I ask no more of a novel than it should be a good story told well. If it can also have a power for good in the world, so much the better,” he says.
In his earlier work on the cyberworld, Sinha argued that there was no difference between fact and fiction, because all experience was subjective. “Fictional characters are often more real than living people,” he says. “Elizabeth Bennett is more vivid to me than the woman who lives down the street. This is what I used to say, but I was wrong, there is a difference. In the real world, people suffer and feel physical pain. They die in various horrible ways, while fictional characters are immortal. Fiction is a way of telling truths that cannot be conveyed by facts.”
Sinha’s life has turned busy after the Booker nomination but he expects the interest to subside. Many consider Ian McEwan a surefire winner, and other contenders, including Pakistan’s Mohsin Hamid are formidable. Sinha is calm about the reception so far, but then many novels have a fairy-tale ending, and in Sinha’s world, it is increasingly difficult to make out what’s real and what is not.