The pen versus poison

Bron Sibree, The Courier Mail, July 07, 2007
The estimable Indra Sinha
IT’S true that Indra Sinha had three lives on the road to writing his novel inspired by Bhopal, Animal’s People.
But the 57-year-old advertising copywriter, activist and author says he only ever wanted to write.
A multi-award-winning advertising copywriter voted by his peers as one of the top 10 British copywriters of all time, Indian-born Sinha walked away from his stellar advertising career in 1994 to write “about things that mattered”.
And write he did, winning accolades for both his 1999 best-selling memoir about the then embryonic internet, Cybergypsies, and his 2002 novel The Death Of Mr Love before realising that he’d inadvertently reinvented himself as a Bhopal activist.
Sinha has now clocked up 14 years campaigning on behalf of the survivors of that infamous 1984 gas spill at Union Carbide’s pesticide factory in Bhopal, and says: “I just became more and more involved with it over the years until it became part of my life.”
His “accidental” activism began in 1993, when community worker Sathyu Sarangi visited Sinha in England asking for help to raise money for a free medical clinic for Bhopal’s 100,000 survivors.
Sinha – who’d already won acclaim for his work on Amnesty International’s advertising campaign – agreed, and a year later founded the Bhopal Medical Appeal by creating his now famous advertisement in Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
Accompanied by Ragu Rai’s iconic photograph of a Bhopali child’s burial, it convinced the public to donate £60 thousand – enough to build the Sambhavna Clinic and hire medical staff.
Soon after, Sinha quit his job and moved with his family to southern France, from where he has masterminded campaigns and appeals for Bhopal over the past 14 years, but says: “The thought of telling the Bhopal story in a book had never occurred to me.”
But Animal’s People reveals that the very spirit of Bhopal has seeped into his unconscious, much as the gas from Union Carbide’s factory has leaked into Bhopal’s collective bloodstream.
A book so raw in its honesty that The Indian Express likened it to a blow to the solar plexus and The New Statesman likened it to Dickens, Animal’s People is at one level a coming-of-age story set in the fictional city of Khaufpur – an Indian city that bears an uncanny resemblance to Bhopal. At another, it is a grim portrait of corporate and political chicanery. But the novel owes much of its potency to the unabashed bawdiness of its youthful narrator, a 19-year-old boy-man nicknamed Animal, who hijacked Sinha’s consciousness and his then novel.
“His language is unbelievably foul and was one of the things I was worried about,” Sinha admits, “because I’m not an impolite person.”
Indeed this softly spoken and erudite man was already working on a novel about St John set in Greece when, in the wake of the success of The Death Of Mr Love, his publisher asked him for a follow-on novel set in India. All he had was an unfinished screenplay which he attempted to adapt into a novel, explains Sinha.
“It just didn’t work, and wouldn’t work, and then a friend showed me some photographs from Bhopal. There was one of a young lad of about 19 who was on all fours because his back was so badly twisted, but he had a sort of cheeky look about him. And just seeing that, it was as if the character of Animal just leapt fully fledged into my head. I didn’t feel it was my voice at all. God knows where it came from.”
Loud-mouthed, profane, insolent and brutally honest, Animal’s voice is a fictional triumph. In a mangled syntax of English, Hindi and French, it reaches out from the pages of Animal’s People to snatch at your throat and clutch at your heart.
“I used to be human once,” he tells the unnamed journalist, or jarnalis, who comes to record his tale on a tape recorder, or mashin. Animal’s life changed “that night”, as locals refer to the disaster that killed thousands and left him orphaned and with a fever that twists his then six-year-old spine so horrifically he can only lope on all fours. Cared for by an elderly French nun called Ma Franci, Animal rejects the human world in a quest to live up to his nickname. He lies, he cheats, dreams wet dreams, and says and does unspeakable things, but his journey back from boy to man, animal to human lies at the centre of this riveting novel.
Narrated without a shred of self-pity, it will make you weep, it will make you laugh and will no doubt stretch the limits of all “proper” sensibilities as it does so, but you will not easily forget Animal or his friends and their struggles to bring an unnamed American “Kampani” to justice.
Sinha structures his novel around a hunger strike in Khaufpur – a city which became so real to him he has since dedicated a website to it – and which derives from the Urdu suffix for city “pur” and the Urdu word for extreme fear or terror. “For me,” says Sinha, “it was terror, it was terror town. The story is fictional, but there’s nothing in Animal’s People that did not happen in Bhopal.”
For Sinha, who describes the Bhopal story “as a very complicated issue” – rendered even more so since Union Carbide was taken over by Dow Chemical in 2001 – “the real scandal is the one almost no one talks about. There have been two Bhopal chemical leaks. One was the gas leak of 1984. The other is the one that’s been going on ever since, which is the leak of chemicals abandoned in the factory, into the ground. Every year in India you get three months of heavy monsoon rain, and the chemicals wash down into the ground. Over all these years they’ve percolated deep down into the ground water, and they’ve poisoned the wells of 14 different communities.”
Because the issue is now more than 22 years old, all its myriad threads have become so entangled, argues Sinha: “You almost need a PhD in Bhopal studies to unravel it. Bhopal survivors say that Dow Chemical has inherited Carbide’s liabilities. Dow refuses to accept this – although it has accepted Union Carbide’s American liabilities for asbestosis and other things – and Indian politicians are so anxious to have Dow in India that they turn a blind eye to it. Dow’s also recently revealed to have been routinely bribing Indian officials for years and they’ve been fined $325,000 for that in the US by the Securities and Exchange Commission. But the scandal of that hasn’t really exploded in India. So it all carries on. But leaving aside all the arguments still going on between lawyers, politicians and businessmen, the bottom line is the people in Bhopal are still sick. The scandal of it is unbelievable.”
But what he wanted to convey most in the writing of Animal’s People was the camaraderie and resilience he found among Bhopal survivors. “There’s that spirit of ‘we won’t be beaten’. If you won’t help us, we’ll do it ourselves. That’s the spirit in which the clinic was started. Realising that there was no help from anywhere else, so let’s get on with it, and if the politicians won’t help us, let’s make them, let’s shame them in the eyes of the world, and it is amazing what a few people can do. So it is a tremendously inspiring story.”
Equally inspiring – and not a little intriguing – is the story of Sinha’s own transformation from adman to activist. Even now, he admits he puzzles over why, of all causes, he should choose Bhopal.
“I’m not from Bhopal, I’d never been there, and I didn’t know anyone from there. I’ve never lived in the slums, I’ve never starved, I’m an overweight person.”
Born in Bombay to an Indian naval officer father and an English writer mother, Sinha went to Mayo College, a school created for Indian princes, before studying literature at Cambridge, and had even lost touch with India during the ’70s and ’80s.
Until he began working on the Amnesty International advertising campaign in the ’90s, says Sinha, “my eyes were largely closed to what was going on the world”. But as copywriter for Collett Dickenson Pearce, the London ad agency responsible for Amnesty’s campaign during the early ’90s, one of his tasks was to write about the human rights disaster in Iraq.
“This was before the first Gulf War and Saddam Hussein had, as we all know, bombed the town of Halabja with chemical weapons and nothing had been done to prevent him,” Sinha recalls.
“It made one absolutely livid with anger, so I wrote this piece in a white-hot rage, and it became the most successful ad that we’d ever run. It showed me the power of the written word.”
Its phenomenal success led the Kurds to approach him directly to write another ad to launch their Kurdish Disaster Fund, which raised half a million pounds, says Sinha.
“And that led to the people from Bhopal approaching me. When Sathyu told us this horrific story of people still being sick with no real help it was as if darkness came over the summer’s day as he talked. Two months later I quit advertising forever. I thought ‘I can’t do this any more. I really have got to do something more worthwhile’.”

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