The Guardian, September 15, 2007
Behind the clouds
Kamila Shamsie is moved by Indra Sinha’s clever reworking of the Bhopal disaster, Animal’s People
How do you write a novel about a world in which unspeakable horror is not the climax, but the air which each character must breathe on every page? The answer, provided by Indra Sinha in his Booker-shortlisted Animal’s People, is to write it using a narrator who has never breathed any other kind of air, and who is by turns cynical and romantic, bawdy and philosophical. His narrator guides us between the worlds of political activists, determined to find justice 20 years after a crime, and his own personal world in which it often seems that the greatest crime of the “Kampani” responsible for his town’s suffering is that it left him crippled and, therefore, undesirable to women despite the great size of his penis.
The Kampani, never named, is Union Carbide, whose pesticide plant released 40 tonnes of lethal gas into the city of Bhopal in 1984, killing thousands (both immediately and in the years that followed), and contaminating drinking water which remains toxic. In Animal’s People, Bhopal’s name is changed to Khaufpur – the City of Fear.
One of the early delights of the novel is the website to which it directs readers (www.khaufpur.com) which could easily lead one to believe Khaufpur exists. It details the centuries old history of Khaufpur (which is, in fact, the history of Bhopal) and as you enter its matrimonial and classified sections you find characters from the novel. This is not just the playfulness of a writer of fiction trying to make his world appear convincing. Sinha (who, on the website, appears as a female journalist named Indira Sinha) has a sharp political purpose in telling the story of Bhopal’s victims and drawing attention to the fact that it is a story which should, in a world of any conscience, remain within the realm of fiction.
Our narrator’s name is Animal – he claims it is his nature, too. Twenty years old, he was born the year of the industrial accident which killed his parents and left him with a spine so twisted that he has to walk on all fours, his backside raised higher than his head. He is brought up by Ma Franci, a French nun who was struck by a form of aphasia when the gas leak occurred: she immediately forgot all her Hindi and English, and only retained French; consequently, she believes the factory’s gases turned everyone except herself into gibbering creatures without the power of speech. Animal, alone, can speak to her in the French she understands.
Desire, rather than politics, leads Animal into the company of activists, spearheaded by Zafar, who has come to Khaufpur to campaign against the Kampani – which still hasn’t accepted its culpability, or offered meaningful redress for the victims. Animal is less interested in Zafar’s moral fervour than in his passion for Nisha, the woman Animal loves. Soon he is plotting to poison Zafar to keep him away from Nisha.
Into this world steps Elli, an American doctor who wants to open a free clinic for the people of Khaufpur. Zafar believes she is there on behalf of the Kampani, collecting data which she will then twist to claim that the Kampani is in no way responsible for the suffering of Khaufpur’s people. Zafar sends Animal to spy on Elli – a task he’s more than eager to carry out on account of the jeans Elli wears, which are so tight her legs appeared to be dyed blue.
There is a point in the novel when it begins to meander – too many characters introduced, and little narrative tension beyond the question of how many sentences can pass before we have to hear of Animal’s next arousal. But this is a dip, rather than a serious flaw, and compensated for by the last 100 pages, which have a gathering tension and power that are quite extraordinary. At its best, Sinha’s writing is a blade gleaming in the moonlight. And the novel, for all its pain, is a work of profound humanity.
· Kamila Shamsie’s most recent novel is Broken Verses (Bloomsbury)