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Animal's People by Indra Sinha
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Nov 18, 09

bookshelves: south-asia, the-body, kids, blew-my-mind, books-i-teach, trauma
Recommended to jo by: Merike
Recommended for: hard to understand why some people didn't like it
Read in November, 2009

Animal is a teenage boy who, as a consequence of the bhopal disaster of 1984, which is here thinly fictionalized maybe for legal reasons, is bent at the bottom of his spine and thus forced to walk on all fours. on the day of the disaster his parents dropped baby Animal in front of a convent of french nuns, almost certainly before going to their death, and it is one of these nuns, Ma Franci, who raised him. Animal developed his deformity when he was no longer a baby, so his early years were normal and an object of much regret for him, who does not remember them except through Ma Franci’s stories.

i feel i can do little justice to the intense poetry of this book. Animal, who refuses to be called by any other name or, for that matter, act in any other way (as least until he meets the people who constitute the main characters of the story), is both profoundly dejected and much in touch with the wry tenderness of life through an indefatigable, irresistible, tremendous sense of discovery and laughter. this book, so sodden with tragedy and despair, is also extremely funny. the language is probably the most obscene i've ever read but it's also really childish and joyful, Animal's flaunting of life while diving deep into its delights (just like he did as a kid, in artificial ponds chock full of poison).

according to the author's blurb, indra sinha has been working for years to raise funds for the victims of the bhopal disaster (looks like the american company that's responsible for it, Union Carbide, doesn't believe in reparation or even just cleaning up). i imagine this man as he ruminates how to write a novel about this horrible tragedy and comes up with this, and it strikes me as genius.

the language of the novel is, to me, one of its main attraction. a native hindi speaker, Animal "writes" the book by tape-recording his story in english for a journalist who asked him to do so. he also knows french (or some version of it) thanks for Ma Franci, who only understands and speaks french and, in the craziness of her old age, thinks that all other languages are unintelligible sounds people use because they are brutes. the resulting language is for the most part really lovely english, but the generous detours into crazy transliterations of Animal's perception of english words he doesn't know, french, and hindi, make the writing exhilarating (there is a glossary at the end but after a bit i felt i got the hindi just fine, even though, obviously, i don't know a word of it).

speaking about the novel's bitter critique of american and corporate callousness and first world's indifference to the plight of the poor on whose back it builds its wealth is stating the obvious. you feel this must have been sinha's original intent, at which he succeeds perfectly. but this novel plays way beyond its political scope. it's love story, coming of age, meditation on the body, exploration of the doomed sexuality of the disabled, fairy tale about the large soul of the poor and blistering indictment of the rich and powerful who keep them so by deception and betrayal, political reflection on revolution, and, ultimately, a traditionally plotted story of reversals and errors with a {blank} ending.

i love many things about this book, and a number of long scenes and narrative threads are truly priceless, but let me mention here just one. the city of bhopal is renamed khaufpur (i wouldn't be surprised if there were a play on words here). sinha describes the khaufpuri poor as united beyond religion, which is saying something given the history of india. muslims and hindus mingle seamlessly in the slums of khaufpur because their enemies are outside – in the "kampani" that ruined their lives and the corrupt indian politicians who are colluding with it. when an american doctor comes into town to open a free clinic for the damaged poor of khaufpur, though, this dream-turned-reality doesn't quite work. the poor of khaufpur find it impossible to accept the help of the american woman.

the reason for this may seem obvious – why trust americans? but what struck me is the way in which sinha represents the delicate interaction of people of vastly different cultures and, also, power quotient. offering, and getting the other to accept, help does not end with the simple act of offering. it requires an active cultural and political engagement that involves the whole being of the offerer, especially when the offerer is assimilated by the one who needs help with the perpetrator. you hear all the time in this first world of ours about "solutions" for the problems of the third world (i'm just going to mention the war in afghanistan and our intent to bring democracy -- thank goodness the word "freedom" has been dropped by the american diplomatic language -- to this country). in reality, nothing good will happen before we realize that we don't know the other. when we think we do, we dehumanize and objectify them, we actively do violence to them.

the resistance of the citizens of khaufpur may not be entirely realistic but it speaks of a need for intercultural translations that is the conditio sine qua non of cooperation.

the other day some of my friends lost their cool at obama's bow to the emperor of japan. it seemed to them an unthinkable act of submission (what, we are bowing to the japanese?!) AND the recognition/sanctioning of an antiquate and oppressive hierarchical system. but, really, who is obama to dictate the way the japanese see themselves? no one, as he clearly understood. this, i think, is the question that sinha asks himself throughout this book: who are we to claim we understand the needs of others?

in case i’m giving the impression that this is a sentimental and earnest book, well, no, it isn’t. it’s as irreverent as they come, and hilarious, and not one serious moment happens that is not quickly demolished by Animal’s (or someone else’s) sharp-as-a-blade cynical, hardscrabble realism.
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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Simon Great review. I'm so gonna read this!


Jean Now this is a review. I love it. On the library wait list for it.


message 3: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo thank you, jean.


message 4: by Shubhika (new)

Shubhika Dwivedi great review


message 5: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo thank you!


message 6: by Abhinav (new)

Abhinav Khaufpur would translate to city of fear by the way :)


message 7: by jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

jo thank you!


Ajay My thoughts exactly. I thoroughly enjoyed this. Would not have read it if not for the Booker buzz in 2007.


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