Friday, May 9, 2008

Animal's People

Animal's People, by Indra Sinha, is a novel that comes close to showing me a side of human nature that I haven't understood before, but it falls short. The cover says that it was "shortlisted for the 2007 Booker prize," and that's the kind of book it is--it's a finalist, but not a winner.

It's the first-person tale of a boy from Khaufpur, India, and is based on the events of the 1984 Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal. Deformed by effects of the poison, the boy's back is bent so that he has to walk on all fours and is called "Animal," a name he identifies with. His point of view is enhanced by spelling--he calls a journalist a "Jarnalis" and the American company that owned the pesticide factory where the disaster took place is the "kampani." The narrative frame is that he tells his tale into a tape recorder, so the spelling reminds readers that this is not a literate tale-teller. He is "speaking to the mashin."

One place where I almost could see things from a different point of view is this: "Jarnalis, you were such a fool. The best thing about you was your shorts. Six pockets, I counted. Two at the side, two on the front, two on the arse. With shorts like those a person does not need a house."
In fact, part of Animal's price for telling his story to the journalist's tape recorder is those shorts, which he lives in for most of the rest of the novel.

Another place where I almost saw from a new perspective is when Animal is taking an American doctor ("doctress" he calls her) through "Paradise Alley," where the people worst affected by the poison live. She doesn't understand why they won't come for free treatment at her clinic, and Animal can't explain that the man he works for, Zafar, has instructed all the local people to avoid her clinic in case she is gathering medical information on them for the kampani and its lawyers. She says

"These people have nothing. Why do they turn down a genuine and good offer of help? I just don't get it."
Seeing how unhappy she is, I try to find something to say that will make her feel better. "Elli doctress, no surprise or shame. I understand because these are my people."
"So what the hell do I have to do to get through to these people of yours?" She cups her hands to her mouth and shouts, "HEY, ANIMAL'S PEOPLE! I DON'T FUCKING UNDERSTAND YOU!"

As the title of the novel comes from this sequence, maybe the fact that my understanding falls short is deliberate. It sounds simple enough when Animal tries to explain that "hope dies in places like this, because hope lives in the future and there's no future here, how can you think about tomorrow when all your strength is used up trying to get through today?" But there's more to it than just the simple opposition Animal falls back on when Elli says "Animal, I don't know what such suffering is like, but it doesn't mean we've nothing in common. There's simple humanity? Isn't there?" He calls himself a "cheap lying bastard" and says "no good asking me...I long ago gave up trying to be human."

Elli gives Animal a view of the world that is initially attractive to him, and then he tries to reject it totally:

"The world is made of promises....Think of everyday things. Mail gets delivered. Farmers grow crops. The stores take our dollars, each bill says 'This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private,' which means, you've done a good turn for someone, I promise you something equally good in return....Rocks keep their promises. They behave like rocks. Water boils at one hundred degrees. The sea rises and falls, that's the sea and the moon keeping their own kind of promises. To have the world work for you, you've got to make your own promises right back."

Ultimately, Animal adopts a version of this philosophy for his own use, and "his" people accept some of the help Elli offers them. Rather than being destroyed by the apocalypse ("apokalis"), the people of Khaufpur adapt and go on. "Tomorrow," they say, "there will be more of us."

There's no great revelation. There are certainly no heroics. The ending of the novel is like the ending of many ordinary days--you're tired and not entirely satisfied with what has passed, although it was interesting while it happened.

1 comment:

Jeanne said...

I got a g-mail message from the author of Animal's People, and she says I got more than I think I did, and that it's just that kind of novel. Okay. I'm astonished and gratified to see that authors look for mentions of their books, even in blogs!