Triumph from disaster
Stephen Moss, The Guardian, Wednesday September 26, 2007
Indra Sinha has been campaigning about the poisoned city of Bhopal since 1993. But how did he come to write a Booker-shortlisted novel about it? He tells Stephen Moss about his schizophrenic friend, giving up a cosy career in advertising, and a young man named Animal
Photograph: Martin Godwin
Like Salman Rushdie, Indra Sinha used to be an adman. Best leave the comparison there: the parallels are so close that Sinha prefers not to think about them. Both were born in Bombay, went to the Cathedral School for Boys, came to Britain, went to Cambridge, wrote ads about cream cakes (as well as The Satanic Verses, Rushdie is credited with the “Naughty but Nice” campaign), and abandoned advertising to write fiction.
Sinha, the son of an Indian naval officer and an Englishwoman who wrote short stories, doesn’t dwell on the similarities because he doesn’t want to think too hard about the latest one. Rushdie went on to win the Booker prize; now Sinha has been shortlisted for his second novel, Animal’s People, a powerful fictionalisation of the Bhopal disaster of 1984 in which a gas escape from a US-owned chemical factory killed thousands in the central Indian city.
The story is told by Animal, a 20-year-old whose spine was wrecked as a result of the leak and who has been reduced to walking on all fours. “I used to be human once. So I’m told,” he says at the outset. Animal curses, masturbates while spying on a naked woman from up a tree, and tries to poison the leader of the justice campaign. He is the anarchic centre of an angry, yet warm-hearted, book. It is a remarkable piece of ventriloquism by the cultivated, Cambridge-educated Sinha, a large, shambling, shaggy-haired bear of a man who speaks in disconcertingly perfect sentences and still frets about the amount of swearing in the book.
Sinha says it was finding Animal – and his violent, vibrant voice – that was the key to the book. “I had tried first person, third person, all sorts of things, and it just wouldn’t work,” he says. “It remained resolutely, totally dead, and then one day someone said to me, ‘I’ve met this young man in Bhopal who goes on all fours.’ I didn’t know anything more about it than that, and the fact that he was a quite a feisty character with a chip on his shoulder but also a sense of humour. I thought: maybe that’s what this thing needs.”
He had been developing a novel that related the stories of a famous singer whose voice had been irreparably damaged by the gas, a local activist in love with the singer’s daughter, and an American doctor who comes to Bhopal to set up a clinic. Again, it was Animal who made them come alive. “One of my friends had said, ‘You’ve made all these people too middle class; why don’t you write from the perspective of the very poor?’ I said, ‘I can’t – I’ve never been that poor.’ I was somewhat in despair, but then this character occurred. He came to life in my mind somehow. I don’t know how, I can’t explain it, but he immediately began to talk to me.”
The book is dedicated to a Bhopali friend of Sinha’s called Sunil, and from Sinha’s description this young man clearly shares a great deal of Animal’s spirit and humour. “Sunil was orphaned by the gas and lost most of his family in the most horrible circumstances, so that he was scarred emotionally,” says Sinha. “He began to hear voices, as Animal does, but unlike Animal’s, Sunil’s were often malevolent and would tell him things like there were people coming to kill him. He became paranoid and was finally diagnosed as schizophrenic. I dedicated the book to him from the beginning, five years ago. Unfortunately he didn’t live to see it published, because he hanged himself last July. He just couldn’t handle it any more.”
Animal’s People is both novel and polemic, but Sinha is clear that it must work as fiction if it is to have any impact. “It has to be a work of art – if you will excuse me using that expression – first,” he says, “and if it can’t succeed as that, it could have no power to change things either. Whatever anger I feel is expressed through some of the characters, though not all of them, and Animal himself is very scornful of the activism.”
Sinha feels a great deal of anger about Bhopal, but for the novel to work he had to neutralise it. Bhopal becomes Khaufpur (literally “terror town”) in the book, and Union Carbide, which owned the factory, is never referred to by name – the bereaved and injured are instead at war with the Kampani. “I knew Bhopal very well and the difficulty for me was not researching more, but trying to forget what I knew,” he explains. “I didn’t want to call the city Bhopal because I would have been obliged to stick accurately to events, and they’re simply too complicated. To make a novel with such a complex and convoluted background would have killed it.”
Sinha knew the city because he has been campaigning for compensation for its inhabitants since 1993, when a Bhopali activist called Sathyu Sarangi approached him to help raise funds for a clinic. Sinha was still an adman then – one of the leading copywriters in Britain, rich and garlanded with awards. Sarangi came to him because he was already known for his ads for Amnesty International. The horror and injustice of Bhopal did not seem so different. Sinha produced an ad, placed it in the Guardian, and money poured in – enough to build and staff a clinic that, a decade later, has given free treatment to 30,000 people.
The more Sinha found out about Bhopal, the more horrified he was at the injustice that had been perpetrated on its poverty-stricken people. Not so much the accident that killed an estimated 8,000 people, but the failure of Union Carbide to clean up the site afterwards; the continuing danger to those living nearby; the fact that wells were still being poisoned by leaks from the site; that no adequate compensation has been paid to victims; and that Indian politicians have colluded in the evasion of justice.
All this Sinha set out to oppose, first as an activist, now as a novelist, but no longer as an adman. He gave up advertising in 1995, on his 45th birthday. “I decided I just had to resign,” he says. “I didn’t have anything to write with. I found this pencil and scrawled a resignation note, then read it to [his wife] Vickie over the phone, and said, ‘Shall I hand this in?’ I said, ‘I’ve got nothing to go to, and we’re going to have a catastrophic drop in income,’ and she said, ‘Well, you’re not happy, we’ll manage, we’ll be all right,’ for which I’ve always been extremely grateful.’ ”
Sinha, who now lives with Vickie in the Lot valley in the south of France, had made two previous attempts to leave advertising to write. One produced a translation of the Kama Sutra and a book on tantric sex, both of which are, he says, more high-minded than they sound and perhaps than the publisher wanted. But both escape bids were thwarted. “Advertising is a fun industry,” he says. “You’re surrounded by clever people; it’s a very casual, easy lifestyle and of course very well paid, so it’s extremely seductive.”
But his work for Amnesty had radicalised him, and the onset of middle age made him realise it was now or never. “I was getting restless,” he says. “I felt as though I’d climbed to the top of the advertising mountain, but when I got to the top I saw a different peak higher and further away. That’s the damn thing I should have tried to climb from the beginning, and of course you have to go down and start at the bottom again.”
His first book (tantric sex aside) was The Cybergypsies, a memoir of his disturbing voyagings through cyberspace in the 80s and early 90s – the “pre-internet net”, as he puts it. He became so obsessed with virtual life that it almost cost him his marriage. The book, published in 1999, caught the zeitgeist perfectly, and was a big success. Sinha the writer was launched. His first novel, The Death of Mr Love, published in 2002 and telling the story of a famous society murder in Bombay in the 1950s, made less of a splash, but was respectably reviewed. Now Animal’s People promises to propel him up the mountainside.
The new novel had been quietly published as a trade paperback – reviews had been meagre, sales slow – and the Booker judges have in effect saved it. They have also done their bit for Bhopal, too, that apparently never-ending tragedy.
“If it gets widely read, it’ll help the campaign,” says Sinha. “The Bhopalis themselves think that if the book is successful it will bring the issue to the notice of a whole new audience. I hope that if people read it they will look at what’s happening in Bhopal with new eyes.” Art or polemic? Admirably, both. Move over, Salman.
· Animal’s People is published by Simon & Schuster, price £11.99.
. Information on the Bhopal justice campaign at www.bhopal.net, and on the clinic built with funds raised by Sinha’s ad at www.bhopal.org. The winner of the Man Booker prize is announced on October 16.