Sunday, April 27, 2008

'Animal's People' puts human face on Bhopal tragedy

Anglo-Indian writer Indra Sinha's second novel, "Animal's People," dramatizes a real event, just like his first, "The Death of Mr. Love." In "Death," he fictionalized a shocking case of adultery and murder involving a naval officer and his beautiful wife that had gripped India in 1959.

In his latest novel, however, the territory is broader, and more promising - the gas leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal in 1984. The Bhopal tragedy has become a permanent blot on the world's conscience, not just because of the many thousands killed immediately and in the aftermath but also because of the deafening lack of accountability attached to the incident.

"Animal's People," which was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, is narrated by Animal, a "creature" condemned to walk on all fours because of a deformity in his spine. But this is no ordinary genetic defect. Animal was born on the night the gas leaked into Khaufpur (the city of dread). Having lost both his parents on that fateful night, Animal was also burdened with a disfigurement that has played havoc with his life and his, er, roaring sexual appetite.

The villain is Kampani, the invisible corporate behemoth that is cocooned in indifference. So even as Animal introduces us to humans and half-humans like him irrevocably damaged "that night," there's no redemption for the evildoers.

Only Sinha could have tackled a tragedy of Bhopal's scale by making his narrator a slightly comic, and mostly bawdy, sex maniac. Peppering his narration with such scatological details as the prodigious size of his member, Animal regrets that his crooked posture leaves him no scope to woo the beautiful Nisha. His dilemma is compounded by the presence of a potential rival - the handsome Zafar, an anti-Kampani protester.

Somewhere along the way comes Elli, an American doctor who, seemingly wracked by her conscience, opens a free clinic in Khaufpur. But Zafar is wary of her, thinking she is a Kampani agent. He sets up Animal to spy on Elli, a task Animal, ever hopeful of his chances with women, takes up happily. The rowdy but lovable Animal then undertakes a series of adventures that climax in a hallucinogenic night reminiscent of "that night."

"Animal's People" shifts focus on a tragedy that threatens to drop off the map. At a time when globalization has been accepted as an ideal that spreads prosperity, this book is a timely reminder of the many tiny players left damaged in its wake.

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This review appeared in Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

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