UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA, Frontline magazine, Volume 24 – Issue 19 :: Sep. 22-Oct. 05, 2007
A human story
Indra Sinha’s new novel, which is on the Booker shortlist, pays tribute to Bhopal gas leak survivors, who are still seeking justice.
SOME time before dawn on December 3, 1984, a cloud of toxic methyl isocyanate gas leaked out of a tank in the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, killing thousands of people and leaving thousands of others with lasting illnesses. Among those presumed dead that day was a 13-year-old boy named Sunil. Although Sunil survived, most of his family, including his parents, had died. Doggedly, the boy sought out his two remaining younger siblings, and together they struggled to overco me the tragedy. Some time later, Sunil began to hear voices in his head. Even after being diagnosed with schizophrenia, he continued to work as an activist and volunteer at the Sambhavna Clinic for the survivors of the gas tragedy. One day in July 2006, wearing a T-shirt that said “No More Bhopals”, Sunil hanged himself from a ceiling fan. He was 34 years old.
Indra Sinha’s second novel, Animal’s People, is dedicated to Sunil. On his website – www.indrasinha.com – Sinha remembers this “mad Bhopali child”: “Animal’s ability to live on 4 rupees a day, and his sense of humour were certainly inherited from Sunil. Sunil went about the city on foot and once accused me of being ‘an auto-riding superstar’ just as Animal later accuses Elli doctress. He also once ran away to the jungle to live like a wild creature.” While Animal’s story is fictional, with only a few elements drawn from Sunil’s life, the novel pays tribute to Sunil’s spirit and to the spirit of the survivors who still seek justice.
How did Sinha, a successful advertising professional based in England, get involved with the Bhopal medical appeal? Sinha had grown up in India, where his father was a naval officer and his mother a writer. During his successful stint in advertising, he wrote several well-known campaigns, including one for Amnesty International. After publishing a translation of Kama Sutra and a book on Tantra, he quit his advertising career, burned his portfolio and took up writing full time. He published The Cyber-Gypsies, a memoir of the prehistory of the Internet, in 1999; his first novel, The Death of Mr Love, based on the Nanavati murder case, appeared in 2002.
Meanwhile, back in 1993, having heard of Sinha’s work for Amnesty, Bhopal community worker Sathyu Sarangi had gone to him seeking help to raise a fund for the gas tragedy survivors. Even for Sinha, it was a difficult project: “For months, Raghu Rai’s famous picture of a baby’s burial stared at me from my office wall. I was unable to find words to go with it. Finally, with the 10th anniversary of the disaster approaching, I wrote a double page ad and took it to Carolyn McCall at The Guardian, explaining that we hadn’t a penny, but the appeal was so important she had to publish it. It ran on a personal guarantee to stump up if it failed.” The appeal was a success. Thus began Sinha’s involvement with the Bhopal Medical Appeal and the free Sambhavna Clinic. Part of the proceeds from sales of Animal’s People on the Amazon site will go to this cause.
The novel began in 1996 as a series of sketches for a screenplay. After hearing about a man who walked on all fours, and an old French nun in a nursing home, Sinha decided to write it as a novel. Published in March, Animal’s People has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2007.
Khaufpur, where the novel is set (see the website www.khaufpur.com) is a fictionalised version of Bhopal where “the Kampani” chose to set up their pesticide factory. Gentle and progressive, with a heritage of poetry and music, Khaufpur was once a haven for refugees. Now it is the site of an epic struggle for this group of people who have nothing – and therefore nothing to lose. Sinha’s novel is not so much about the gas tragedy itself as about the long struggle of its survivors in the decades that followed, and the determination and endurance of the people of Khaufpur, Animal’s people.
Animal was a few days old when he was orphaned on the night of the gas leak. When the novel opens, he is 19 years old. He walks on all fours – the result of a spinal disorder caused by the effects of the gas – which is how he has acquired the name Jaanvar, or Animal. The novel begins with this startling disclosure: “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.”
Animal lives in an old ruined tower on the outskirts of the factory premises, with only an adopted stray dog, Jara, and an aged, senile French nun, Ma Franci, for company. On that fateful night, while others lost their lives, families, health, and even their sanity, Ma Franci lost the ability to speak Khaufpuri. She now speaks only in French as she raves to Animal about the Apocalypse to come.
The character of Animal is one of the achievements of the novel. Surrounded by slums and desperate poverty, the young narrator, Animal, manages to get by with some clever little scams, a savage wit, a “jamispond” swagger, and much attitude. The two dozen brisk chapters that make up the novel are presented as “tapes” made by Animal speaking directly into a tape recorder left for him by a foreign “jarnalis” (journalist). Characteristically, the boy has persuaded the journalist to leave him his shorts and Zippo lighter as well.
“If you want my story, you’ll have to put up with how I tell it,” he declares at the beginning of his narration. Animal’s voice is cautious, clever, and often wildly funny – a marvellous mix of dispassionate statement, boyish emotion, voices in his head, magic realist moments, and even stray bits of poetry. He speaks a mixture of Inglis (English), Hindi and French, a language that he has picked up from Ma Franci’s ravings. His narration is rich in detail and texture, taking us deep into the back-and-forth of Khaufpur’s bazaars, slums and alleys, filled with “bhutt-bhutt pigs”, raunchy jokes, cheerful abuse and shayari (poetry). He is unsentimental and has no patience with the sanctimonious pieties of most visiting journalists: “You told me that sometimes the stories of small people in this world can achieve big things, this is the way you buggers always talk.” At the same time, although his syntax is confused, even broken at times, it manages to be fresh, urgent and rich in feeling. “Never will I forget this moment, filled with dread I’m, it’s like my four feet have grown roots,” he says towards the hallucinatory finale of the novel just before his separation from Ma Franci and Jara.
Other characters are Zafar, who has been leading a tired, dreary struggle for justice from hearing to hearing and from judge to judge; Farouq, his foulmouthed but staunch deputy; Nisha, Zafar’s girlfriend and fellow activist, who brings Animal into their group; Somraj Punekar, Nisha’s father and the onetime “Voice of Khaufpur”, who lost not only his wife and a child but also his singing voice in the gas tragedy, and who now hears music in the smallest whispers of nature; and Elli Barber, an American doctor who comes to the town to open a free medical centre for the victims. Not least of all, the ancient, hospitable Huriya Bi, her husband Hanif, and their eight-year-old granddaughter Aliya.
This is the other great achievement of the novel: Sinha’s ability to depict, with accuracy and compassion, the everyday lives of people whose lives are so far removed from his own. Sinha’s decision to fictionalise the story of the Bhopal survivors is ambitious, but surely not surprising in someone who regards Saadat Hasan Manto, the great chronicler of Partition, as the greatest short story writer ever. Manto’s stories, about ordinary men and women caught in the raging fires of the Partition riots, burn with anger and tear our hearts with despair.
Despite Animal’s savagely funny narration, Animal’s People is a tragic novel. It does not seek to memorialise the tragedy with romance and cliche: at one point in the novel, a character derides an attempt to “reduce the terror of dying people to a moon in a second rate poem”. Animal’s People is not about the shape or colour of the moon, but about the very real and enduring aftermath of the gas disaster, and what it did to the lives and relationships of people over the years: the suffering of the have-nots; the power and callousness of the haves; the abandoned factory rusting into the ground; and people who have to tie pieces of cloth around their children’s bellies to fight pangs of hunger. Most of all, the extraordinary camaraderie, resilience, cussedness and – there is no other word for it – love shown by this community of the marginalised in its fight for justice. Nowhere else is this more apparent than in the blazing heart of the novel, during the Naupada, the hottest days of the year, when Zafar decides to lead a hunger strike. Because they have so few days before the next court hearing, the strikers will not even drink water during their fast. Elli warns the strikers of the terrible risk they are taking: “You’re now in the same situation as people who get lost in a desert without food or water, except that you’ve put yourself there, you are making your own desert.”
But Animal, who is watching the scene unfold, knows how the Khaufpuris will respond to Elli’s words: “‘What is Khaufpur but a desert?’ replies one of the women, someone says ‘wah wah’. All inside the tent nod. I can see Elli’s expression, I know what’s in her mind, which is that they’ll soon learn how hard it is to survive on rhetoric. Despite living among us and speaking our language, she knows next to nothing about us Khaufpuris.” But Animal knows them well, because they are his people. A raw, funny, occasionally heartbreaking and always, despite the name Animal chooses to call himself, a very human story.