Animal’s People is a beautiful, heartbreaking story about one of the modern era’s most terrible tragedies. I knew very little about the Bhopal/Union Carbine Disaster that took place in India in 1984 until i looked it up mid-read. And although this novel is set in the fictional Indian city of Khafpur, a very similar thing has happened in at about the exact same time to this community.
Animal is born days before the disaster strikes. One night, there is a problem with the chemical plant in town (owned by the "Kampani"). Poisonous gas is released into the streets, immediately killing thousands of residents, including Animal’s parents and family. The effects linger, tormenting and killing thousands more with respiratory and nerve damage, and these effects continue on for years. Animal, our narrator, is struck with crippling disfigurement in his childhood, which the doctors attribute to the disaster, including the American doctoress Elli, who has set up a clinic to help those sickened by the disaster.
The novel’s backdrop is the ongoing court case. The Amrikan Kampani has eluded legal consequences in the nearly 20 years since the disaster struck. Apparently by bribing Indian authorities, it has paid no damages, had no assets seized, and has not been tried. The Kampani has not even cleaned the contaminated groundwater at the site of the old chemical plant, or told authorities what exactly was in the poisonous gas – claiming “trade secrets.” As with every great book these events are only a part of the story, but this backdrop particularly resonated with me. This novel should be read by all those politicians who have recently been claiming we should abolish or seriously downsize the EPA to enable corporations more freedom.
Animal is another great reason to read this novel. He narrates the book in a series of tape recordings, to be later transcribed and translated into English – a crazy vibrant jumble of Hindi/Urdu/French/English at that. Although he is vulgar, sex obsessed, and selfish, he is also a deeply caring, long-suffering, and hopeful supporter of his desperate community. And while occasionally Indra Sinha was a bit heavy handed on the “finding the humanity in the Animal” theme, I was ultimately brought to tears by Animal’s story.
The Gathering (which I also loved) won this year, but I can't help thinking it must have been close.