Boyd Tonkin, The Independent, A Week in Books
Published: 17 August 2007
August sees a seasonal outbreak of head-scratching and site-searching as panicky critics, editors, retailers and bookies rush to discover more about the lesser-known novels on the Man Booker long-list. Quite rightly, in an art form now subject to a crass star system, the judges routinely decide that part of their job consists in baffling the pundits. In a contest where South Asian writers loom large, you might say that they’re bowling doosras (Urdu, “the other one”) that spin past defences to result in the embarrassing clatter of critical wickets.
Yet these surprises offer readers, as well as authors, a precious second chance. In the spring, I spent insufficient time with Indra Sinha’s long-listed second novel Animal’s People (Simon & Schuster, £11.99) to grasp its value. Now I have and, although some of its virtues stand apart from those of most literary fiction, I wouldn’t dispute that it counts as an extraordinary achievement. Buy it from Sinha’s own site (indrasinha.com) and 60 pence of the price will go to support the work of the Bhopal Medical Appeal (bhopal.org).
And there’s the rub. For all its brio and audacity, this novel stands on the shoulders of a terrible truth. Sinha, an award-winning ad copywriter in a former life, has spent a decade immersed in the campaign to secure justice for the victims of the leak of methyl isocyanate gas from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, central India, in December 1984 (bhopal.net). Every Bhopal figure comes clouded in argument, but the disaster caused perhaps 8,000 immediate deaths, 20,000 over the longer term, and 120,000 permanent disabilities.
A settlement in 1989 led to a compensation payment of $470 million (a seventh of the claim). But the former Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson remains a fugitive from justice (Dow Chemical acquired the company in 2001), and the clean-up operation a matter of Dickensian court wrangling.
Animal’s People bypasses the often-told story of “that night” to focus on the aftermath of suffering, despair and recrimination in a thinly disguised city named “Khaufpur” (“Dreadville”). Scampering though its slums on all fours after his six-year-old bones “twisted like a hairpin”, the orphan Animal is now a street-smart, foul-mouthed, angry-souled young man who – so runs the novel’s conceit – tells the sufferers’ story into the tape-recorder of a “jarnalis”. Animal, and his city, spurn the pity of outsiders. Sinha fends off all condescension with the salty and scabrous urchin’s voice – a virtuoso compound of Irvine Welsh and Salman Rushdie – that he crafts for the bitter hero as he moves among “the people of the Apokalis”.
Yet, for all its surface profanity, Animal’s People mingles sentiment with its savagery. Animal protects the aged French nun, “Ma Franci”, aids the endless battle with corporate culprits waged by the activist Zafar and musician’s daughter Nisha, and helps the mysterious US doctor Elli to set up a free clinic when most victims suspect her of acting for the hated “Kampani”. Along the way, he and Sinha forge a comic, obscene, pun-filled patois in exuberant “Hinglish”. This barnstorming monologue ranks among the strongest of the many bids to bend English into an Indian shape since GV Desani’s lost 1948 classic All About H. Hatterr.
At the same time, the novel draws its strength from a vast reservoir of real-world pain. If the long torment of “Khaufpur” existed solely in fantasy, could even Animal force us to care? The borrowed prestige of the real can limit as well as liberate fiction. Sinha’s judges and readers will have to make that call. In the meantime, his long-listing should spur a new generation to find out about the foulest act of corporate homicide in modern history.