Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People

Serre, fourmillant, comme un million d’helminthes,
Dans nos cervaux ribote un pueple de Demons,
Et, quand nous respirons, la Mort dans nos poumons
Descend, fleuve invisible, avec de sourdes plaintes. [1]

– Baudelaire

[plot spoilers]

In the opening poem of Les Fleurs du Mal, from which the quote above is taken, Baudelaire gives us a litany of nightmarish images, then concludes by speaking of one “more damned than all” – l’Ennui. Yet boredom is the one monster you’re unlikely to encounter in Indra Sinha’s magnificent if somewhat overwrought novel Animal’s People, a book that more than makes up in ambition what it lacks in finesse.

Set in the fictional Khaufpur (a transparent stand-in for Bhopal), Animal’s People is the story of Animal (Jaanwar) – a crippled orphan whose back has been permanently bent by the poisons released by an industrial accident, and who lives his life (literally) in the shadow of the ‘kampani”s abandoned factory, trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and ill-health that afflicts everyone who lives in his neighborhood. Yet Animal is no mere ‘victim’; he is sly, street-smart, aggressive, petty, a slave to his hormones, desperately proud and frequently confused – in short, everything a normal adolescent is, except that this adolescent scuttles about on all fours. Sinha’s great achievement in laying out the character of Animal is to scrupulously avoid sentimentality, to refuse to idealize Animal and / or his sufferings, and to force us to see the rough-edged, often unattractive truth of who Animal really is. We shall come to love Animal by the time the book is over, but we shall come to love him not through some easy mix of guilt and pity, but with the fierceness with which we love another human being, accepting him for both the temper of his qualities and the inevitability of his flaws, making room for him in our hearts as one makes room for an equal, caring for him as one cares for a friend.

But Animal is more than just some crippled boy. He is also an attitude, a state of mind. Animal’s creed is that since he is called an animal and treated like one, since he cannot aspire to the condition of humanity, he is therefore exempt from behaving like a human, and may turn his very abjectness into a form of license. Animal is not alone in taking this stand – when an American doctor criticizes the living conditions in the slum where Animal lives she is told “What can the poor do?”; even Zafar, a leading activist for the rights of poison victims, and a hero to the people in Animal’s slum, speaks blithely of the power of nothingness, takes pride in being powerless. It is a way of shifting responsibility, a kind of moral laziness, and while Sinha is not unsympathetic to the conditions that give rise to such an attitude, he recognizes that it is an attitude that Animal must leave behind if he is ever to become a Man in the true sense of the word. Animal’s back is not the only thing about him that is twisted, the deeper handicap is a bent of mind and spirit that keeps him pressed to the ground and it is when he has learnt to overcome that disability, when he has learnt to stand upright not physically but emotionally and mentally, that he will cease to be Animal. In this sense, Animal’s People is truly a bildungsroman, and watching Animal grow into his own person is one of the sublimer pleasures of Sinha’s book.

Attending him on his journey into person-hood is a cast of vivid characters, all rendered with scrupulous accuracy. There’s Elli Barber, the American doctor who’s left her practice in the US and come to Khaufpur to set up a free clinic for poison victims; there’s Pandit Somraj, a classical singer who lost his voice in the poisoning, and whose quest for harmony in the aftermath of his loss becomes an embodiment for a larger struggle to retain one’s humanity in the face of suffering; there’s Ma Franci, a half-crazed French-speaking nun who sees the poisoning as the harbinger of the Apocalypse, but who nevertheless manages to serve as a mother to Animal, as well as be a beloved figure to the whole slum; there’s Farouq, a rather uncouth young man whose general loutishness is balanced against an almost fanatical devotion to the cause of the poison victims; and there’s a whole host of marginal characters – corrupt politicians, honest judges, inquisitive reporters, indifferent attorneys, greedy shopkeepers, small-time con artists. Sinha is taking us into the grimy heart of impoverished urban India, into the dilapidated bastis and the fetid slums, but also into the fears and aspirations of the people who live there, into their superstitions and loyalties, their prejudices and principles.

Just to attempt this would be an act worth praising, but what makes Animal’s People a truly impressive achievement is that Sinha gets it right. It’s not just the richness of the language – which evokes the rhythms and nuances of Indian speech with pitch-perfect accuracy – it’s the details – the ignorance, the petty combination of sexual frustration and misogyny, the automatic deference given to foreigners. This is a book that could only have been written by an insider, by someone who understands India, and that alone makes it a book worth reading.

And if Sinha manages to avoid falling into the trap of cultural stereotyping, manages to present India as she really is rather than how an outsider would see her, he also manages to avoid making this a simple black and white story of good vs. evil. Oh, he’s unmerciful to the company and the corrupt politicians that go hand in hand with them – there can be no doubt about which way his loyalties lie – but even as he pillories the company, he’s quick to show us the flaws among those on his own side. These are not the idealized heroes from some Bollywood movie, they are weak, often selfish people, who have found something larger than themselves to cling to. This is most glaringly true in Animal’s case, but it is true of the others as well – isn’t Elli just fleeing a failed marriage, isn’t Nisha’s devotion to the cause merely an extension of her love for Zafar? None of the characters who inhabit this book were born great, but some have achieved greatness and others will have greatness thrust upon them before the book is through.

Or perhaps it is more that under certain circumstances survival itself is a form of greatness. The real canker that poisons Khaufpur is not chemical – it is a cynicism born out of hopelessness, a spirit of self-seeking calculation married to a deep suspicion of any assistance that seems disinterested. “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart” Yeats writes, and the people of Khaufpur have surely borne more than their fair share of outrage, of loss. Little wonder then that when Dr. Barber first arrives, with her offer of free help, she is viewed with suspicion, suspected of being a stooge of the ‘kampani’. If hope survives, then, if they find it in themselves not only to struggle on, but in the midst of this struggle to care for and be kind to each other, then that by itself is a kind of heroism, perhaps the only kind there is.

Not that Animal’s People is without its faults. Comparisons with Rushdie are inescapable, not only because of the zest with which Sinha uses language, but because of the characters he creates (I mean really – a nun who speaks French and lives happily in a slum where no one understands her? A crippled boy who hears voices and speaks fluent French? A character called the Kha-in-the-Jar?), yet it is Sinha’s occasional descent into what I can only describe as Rushdie-ism that are, for me, the weakest parts of the book. When he’s sticking to realism Sinha is a formidable writer, the minute he tries to get even slightly magical he loses it and becomes derivative and vaguely ridiculous. Do we really need Animal to be able to make up songs about himself or come up with clever rhymes that make him sound like a cut-rate Saleem Sinai? Is it absolutely necessary for him to hear voices and have vaguely hallucinogenic encounters in abandoned factories or hold conversations with damaged fetuses in formaldehyde? Do we really need the piano?

There are half a dozen places in the book where Sinha (either through his characters or otherwise) lapses into long soliloquies about the plight of the people of Khaufpur, their hunger, their hopelessness, their memories of the dead – all of which might have been needed if Sinha had been less of a writer, but precisely because he is so good at conjuring up the sense of despair and gloom that broods over Khaufpur through his characters and story, these long diatribes of his seem unnecessary, even artificial. Sinha is also, to my mind, a little too fond of his Animal metaphor: it’s a clever idea, this notion of someone scuttling away from his humanity because he feels incapable of asserting it, but the third time someone tells Animal that he only likes to call himself an animal so he can avoid the responsibility of behaving like a human, you want to scream “okay, okay, enough already – we get it!”. I have to admit, also, that I found some of Sinha’s plot developments a little contrived. At least one of the love affairs in the book struck me as improbable and poorly developed, the scene with Animal’s first sexual experience was a total cop-out and adding a sweet, precocious little girl just so you can kill her off in the end (a tragedy that I could see coming a mile off, btw) is the cheapest trick in the book.

But the book’s greatest failing, for me, was the last 60 pages. The blurb at the back of the book describes the finale as ‘explosive’, but for all the fireworks that Sinha packs into it the ending of the book struck me as terribly weak. Worse, it struck me as a definite false note. That Animal might want to escape the horror that his world has become by going on a crazy drug trip I can understand, but what excuse does Sinha have for that kind of escapism? Brilliantly written as they were, the descriptions of Animal’s retreat into a temporary madness left me entirely cold, simply because they felt like a betrayal of the clear-sighted, unflinching narrative the book had provided till that point. I didn’t want to be off in some feverish land of metaphor and dream with Animal, I wanted to be right there, in the heart of Khaufpur, watching Animal’s people somehow make it through that night of terror.

Reading Sinha’s descriptions of Animal’s dementia, I couldn’t help thinking of Rushdie again: this is precisely the kind of extraordinary, imaginative ending I would expect in a Rushdie novel. Except Animal’s People is not a Rushdie novel, it’s a Sinha novel, and it deserves a finale that’s more down-to-earth, more grounded. I’ve said the comparisons with Rushdie are inescapable, but for me, reading the novel, the book that came to mind was not Midnight’s Children, but that other Booker prize winner – James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late. Now there’s an ending that Sinha could learn from.

Don’t get me wrong – Animal’s People is an exceptional, large-hearted book by a writer with tremendous energy and a great deal of talent. I’ve only read (or part-read) four of the six books on the Booker shortlist so far, but of those four this one is easily my favorite. There are parts of Animal’s People (the fire-walking scene comes to mind) that are simply breathtaking, and if you have any interest at all in Indian writing in English this is a book you absolutely must read. I maintain that it could have been a better book if Sinha had tried a little less hard with it – some of the plot devices seem gratuitous, some of the metaphors overdone and the ending feels needlessly over the top – but even as it is, it is a fine, moving book.

[Part of the 2007 Booker Mela; Cross-Posted on 2x3x7]

[1] Translation (by Roy Campbell):

“Packed tight, like hives of maggots, thickly seething
Within our brains a host of demons surges
Deep down into our lungs at every breathing,
Death flows, an unseen rivers, moaning dirges.”

Advertisements