‘The only way to deal with tragedy is to laugh at it’

Indra Sinha, Man Booker Website, September 25, 2007
Indra Sinha explains the story behind Animal’s People
Congratulations on being shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Where were you when you got the news today and how did it feel?
I’d flown over from Toulouse for the shortlist party, not knowing whether Animal’s People would be chosen. My wife packed me off saying, ‘Your smile must be warm and genuine, whatever the result’. I sat in my hotel room not daring to turn on the television or radio and dreading the phone. When three-thirty came and went with no call, I assumed I hadn’t made it. I logged in to the Booker website to find out which books had been chosen and was much cheered to find Animal’s People there.
Khaufpur is a thinly disguised representation of Bhopal. Did you write Animal’s People in order to help the world remember its victims?
‘You think books should change things,’ the Kakadu jarnalis tells Animal. ‘So do I. When you speak, talk straight to the people who’ll read your words. If you tell the truth from the heart, they will listen.’
Personally, I don’t insist that writers have a duty to change things. Animal does because he’s a Khaufpuri. What I look for in a novel are compelling characters and a tale well told. If it can also be a power for good in the world, so much the better. I hope Animal’s People will help the Bhopalis’ long struggle for justice, but trying to teach Bhopal studies via a novel would kill the fiction.
People assume Animal’s People must be a grim read, but New York magazine called it ‘scabrously funny’, which delights me. In the end, the only way to deal with tragedy is to laugh at it.
Animal’s People began life as a screenplay. Do you find it harder to write for screen or do certain plots lend themselves better to a novel?
Fade up. A Khaufpur street seen from close to the ground. Wind kicking up dust which the sun is making to glow. Out of the haze come shapes, half a dozen starving dogs moving together with purpose. Among them is another shape, a boy walking on hands and feet… V/O: I used to be human once…
All very well, except that in the original screenplay, Animal did not exist and my attempts to turn it into a novel failed. Nothing worked. Then, in a space of three days, Animal and Ma Franci appeared, and changed everything.
Many of our greatest novels – Ulysses, The Glass Bead Game, Midnight’s Children (and its Booker twin Tristram Shandy) – are impossible to film. The two Lolita films never came near the book (Nabokov’s own attempt at a screenplay would have produced an 8-hour movie). With Perfume I loved the novel but hated the film.
With so many novels nowadays using narrative techniques borrowed from the movies, maybe one should aspire to write unfilmable books.
Some readers have found Animal’s voice disconcerting to read. Was it intentional to make readers feel a little uncomfortable around him sometimes?
Animal is sick of books about Khaufpur that achieve nothing. He’s angry and cynical. He goads, provokes. As you read him, he’s reading you.
I wanted Animal to be familiar yet disturbing. One translator assumed that the relentless use of the present perfect – ‘I’ve gone up the tree’ – was an Indianism, but it’s English football-speak. At the same time Animal’s talk is spiced with argot and inversions – ‘Khaamush. Silent then, I’m’ – that sound bizarre but are direct lifts from Hindi, whose word order can be almost randomly shuffled.
If you hate foul language, blame Animal not me. At the Edinburgh Festival I apologised for Animal’s constant use of the word that the dramatist Fletcher described as ‘sunt with a C, which is abominable’. After the reading someone came up to me and said, ‘This is the 21st century. I think you’re more shocked than we are.’
The novel is dedicated to Sunil Kumar. Do you draw from some of his life experiences in Animal’s People?
Animal inherits from Sunil his sense of humour, blunt speech and delight in shocking the unwary. Both lived on four rupees (5p) a day. Sunil went everywhere on foot and accused me of being an ‘auto-riding superstar’ just as Animal accuses Elli doctress in the novel.
In 2004, I taped a very long interview with Sunil. The batteries ran low and when played back most of the tape was squeaky laughter. Sunil could be very funny, but his life was anything but.
Sunil’s parents and three of his five siblings were killed on ‘that night’. He woke among corpses en route to a pyre. Aged 12, he worked 18 hour days to provide for his younger brother and sister. He was kind to other children, helped form an organisation of orphans and threw himself into the survivors’ struggle for justice, becoming one of its best-loved characters.
As years passed Sunil began having bouts of schizophrenia. He’d describe these as his mad times. He hallucinated and heard voices. He believed people were coming to kill him and once ran away into the jungle to live like an animal.
Some think that Animal’s People strays into magical realism. I doubt if there’s much magic in madness, but Animal is his own kind of realist. When people tell him his voices are imaginary and urge him to turn to religion, he replies, ‘To deny what you do see and hear, and believe in what you don’t, that you could call crazy.’ This too, he learned from Sunil.
Sunil’s death, last July, was reported all over the world. On behalf of his friends I wrote a tribute. It ended thus: Sunil brother, you thought you were mad, but a world without justice is madder. At least you are now safe. We scattered your ashes in the flooded Narmada river, and for your funeral feast followed your precise instructions: quarter bottle of Goa brand whisky, mutton curry from Dulare’s hotel near the bus stand, betel nut, tobacco and all. Were you there with us? If not, who was it that in the darkness chuckled, ‘I am no longer afraid of being killed – I am already dead and fearless.’
You’re dedicated to helping the victims of Bhopal. Can you tell us more about the concert you plan to stage in 2009 for Bhopal to mark the 25th anniversary of ‘that night’?
We hope it’ll be big. The organising is being done by our friend, Dave Bronze. That’s him playing bass on this video. The object is to guarantee that the free care being given by the Sambhavna clinic in Bhopal can continue and that the medical knowledge can be shared with other poisoned communities around the world.
23 years after the gas, around 120,000 people in Bhopal are still sick and new illnesses are coming to light. Chemicals from the derelict factory have leaked into the water supplies and kids are born with birth defects and brain damage. More about the clinic here.
The Bhopal 25 Concert is about healing and saving lives, not about who’s to blame. I’d invite anyone who can help to get in touch with Dave via the concert page on my website.
What would be your ‘Booker of Bookers’
I loved Midnights Children but exclude it as it has already been voted the Booker of Bookers.
My longlist is: Rites of Passage (William Golding is such an honest storyteller), The Remains of the Day (though The Unconsoled is my favourite by Kazuo Ishiguro), Last Orders, The God of Small Things, Amsterdam, Disgrace, The Blind Assassin, True History of the Kelly Gang and The Life of Pi.
The final would be between Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea, and Paul Scott’s Staying On, with the latter winning by a nose.
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