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Old 17th Aug 2007, 16:57   #1
John Self
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Default Indra Sinha: Animal's People

I’ve been approaching my reading of the Booker longlist titles in much the same way I approached my dinner as a child: get through the vegetables first and then you have the meat to look forward to. So for the second of the longlist titles I hadn’t read, I chose Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (it would have been A.N. Wilson’s Winnie & Wolf, but it hasn’t arrived yet). Great! Another boring book about India. It doesn’t even look like a novel: the cover design resembles an exotic form of misery memoir, perhaps an account of life stunted by the Union Carbide chemical disaster in Bhopal in the 1980s.



Well: more fool me. In fact, mea maxima culpa, because like Nikita Lalwani’s Gifted, Animal’s People has shaken off my preconceptions. And unlike Gifted, it has shot straight to the upper levels of the seven Booker longlisted titles I’ve read so far, and is one of my finest - and coarsest - reads of the year.

It doesn’t take long to see that Indra Sinha has given us something special in Animal’s People: even on page one, his crippled narrator’s boisterous voice is fully developed and alive:
I used to walk upright, that’s what Ma Franci says, why would she lie? It’s not like the news is a comfort to me. Is it kind to remind a blind man he once could see? The priests who whisper magic in the ears of corpses, they’re not saying, ‘Cheer up, you used to be alive.’ No one leans down and tenderly reassures the turd lying in the dust, ‘You still resemble the kebab you once were…’
Our storyteller is Animal, a nineteen year old boy who, ever since ‘That Night’ in his home town of Khaufpur (a fictionalised Bhopal), when ‘the Kampani’s’ factory leaked poisonous chemicals all over the soil, water and air, has been unable to walk upright and instead must get along on all fours. “The pain gripped my neck and forced it down.”

Animal (”I used to be a human once”) is telling his story into the ‘tape mashin’ left behind by a foreign reporter (’Jarnaliss’), and his vigorous, foul-mouthed style makes him one of the most memorable narrators I’ve read in ages, and a vividly painted tragicomic freak almost of the scale of Owen Meany. He has a twisted syntax (”I wake with head’s singing. Still dark it’s but can’t sleep”) which fortunately doesn’t too often come out like Yoda, and doesn’t interfere with the flow of his story.

He lives among a community of the sub-poor, and what keeps many of them going beyond the day-to-day is the hope of seeing justice through the courts against the Kampani for the poison which has crippled and killed thousands of their people. At the same time they are “terrified that one night the factory will rise from the dead and come striding like a blood-dripping demon to snatch them off.” Animal sometimes manages to do the right thing even though his motives are usually selfish, not least involving his ‘lund’ which is one part of his body which still works:
it has become huge and hard, reared up it’s, feels like a log, with each beat of the heart it’s battering my belly.
It’s this desire to satisfy his “heavy monster” which leads him to covert spying missions on both his childhood sweetheart and the pretty ‘Amrikan doctress’ who has come to open a free clinic to treat the ill townspeople (”I’ve been seeing a lot of Elli and Nisha, albeit without them knowing”). Yet despite his crudity, selfishness and doubtful trustworthiness, I found it impossible not to warm to Animal: it’s all, I suppose, in the language.
Chunaram says I should be a Hindu because of all I’ve suffered in this life, I’m sure to get a better deal next time round, more than likely be a prince or politician or something. Trouble with that way of looking at things is by the same logic my situation is the result of evil things I did in my past lives, some people do look at me as if they’re wondering how many children I murdered last time round.
Sinha’s achievements don’t end with this expert ventriloquism. He has an ability too to deal with large subjects - from poverty to ideology - head-on without giving us an ear-bashing, and to make his story invoke sympathy without sentimentality. The only disappointment is what seems like a slight failure of narrative nerve toward the end.

It was with some amazement that I discovered not a single national newspaper in the UK reviewed Animal’s People when it was published earlier this year. No doubt (like me) they’ll all now be playing catch-up, but in the meantime we have to give thanks to the Booker judges for alerting us to this meaty, joyful, feast of a novel, filled with violence, energy and humour, which should without doubt reach the shortlist and must stand a very good chance of winning. And I managed to write a review of it without once using the word colourful. Almost.

- (still can't decide)
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Old 17th Aug 2007, 17:25   #2
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Default Re: Indra Sinha: Animal's People

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Originally Posted by John Self View Post
- (still can't decide)
I went for . As I moved towards the end I was willing (begging, actually) the book to be done. The reading became less leisurely and this knocked a star off. I don't use the rating, so my is reserved for the books I really like, such as The Welsh Girl. Thus, since I didn't think it as good as The Welsh Girl, it got along with Mister Pip. I do however use the which is hanging over Winnie And Wolf as I type this.
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Old 22nd Aug 2007, 12:57   #3
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Default Re: Indra Sinha: Animal's People

Animal’s People is a grand novel, combining the epic with the personal.

On the epic scale, we have the fight of the victims of an explosion in a poison factory to seek their justice through the corrupt court system in India. And on the personal level, we have the individual drama of the victims as they seek to live their lives and love their loves in the shadow of the factory, coping with their various forms of damage.

The setting for the novel, Khaufpur, is a thinly disguised representation of Bhopal, which did suffer a chemical factory tragedy in 1984. The star of the novel is Animal, a child whose bones warped in the chemical fire and now walks on all fours. Animal has an engaging personality, a huge bundle of hope, a libido that is out of control, and a rather irritating style of syntax. Having grown up under the protection of Ma Franci, a French nun, he is taken under the wing of Zafar and Nisha, who run the campaign for justice. Animal falls madly in live with Nisha, but knows that Nisha will choose Zafar over him because of his deformity. Much of Animal’s life is spent, then, wishing he could walk upright because then he might have more chance with women.

Then, the campaign for justice scores a hit as a court is willing, 20 years on, to consider seizing the assets of the “Kampani” if it doesn’t come to court to answer charges relating to the poisoning. But this is set against a backdrop of political scheming and corruption, apparently led by the Chief Minister himself. A doctress then arrives in Khaufpur, Elli Barber, to run a free clinic for people suffering the after-effects of the poison. Elli-doctress finds things hard going as the town tries to decide whether to trust her.

Without giving the game away, the schemings carry on at a fair old pace, as various characters have to balance their loyalties to one another against their loyalties to the campaign. The plot is rich and satisfying.

The characterization, too, is of the highest order. Animal, in particular, is painted in bright colours. He has a scatological sense of humour, and an unhealthily selfish streak of which he is not ashamed – he just tells people he is an animal, not a human. Ma-Franci, Somraj, Zafar, Nisha and Elli-doctress also have a great deal of depth and complexity. Zafar, in particular, gives an excellent depiction of the charismatic leader, prepared to put the personal aside for the cause of the people. In one section of the novel, Zafar takes a different view of the best course of action to most people – and uses his charisma to get people to follow his preferred course against their better judgement. This section was highly convincing.

The novel is quite excellent – save for the irritating device of using Animal’s convoluted syntax and spelling to deliver the narration. This is unnecessary. The novel is good enough to stand on its own feet, without resorting to gimmicks. Moreover, the syntax sits ill with a character who is supposed to be highly intelligent and who uses such glorious language to produce such a vivid picture of Khaufpur and its denizens. The irritation factor does abate with time, but it spoils what would otherwise have been a perfectly balanced novel.

For those who are interested – Indra Sinha’s Khaufpur website is worth a look just to marvel at his intense level of detail.

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Old 28th Aug 2007, 13:58   #4
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Default Re: Indra Sinha: Animal's People

Oooo, goody. Got this along with the Welsh Girl at the weekend. Glad it seems to be a corker.
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Old 2nd Sep 2007, 10:51   #5
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Default Re: Indra Sinha: Animal's People

It gets a from me.
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Old 4th Sep 2007, 11:57   #6
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Default Re: Indra Sinha: Animal's People

Novels from India are something that seem to make their way to my shelves but never get read (a few examples being Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and last year’s Booker winner, The Inheritance Of Loss by Kiran Desai). So, going ahead with my intent to read all thirteen books longlisted for the Booker this year, Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People was one Indian novel that wasn’t destined for indefinite shelving.

And for that happy I’m, as its narrator may say. Yes, such contortions are normal in Animal’s speech. They are a fitting parallel, for Animal’s body is physically twisted, forcing him to walk on all fours after “That Night” when the local factory exploded, its toxins killing thousands, harming many more, and polluting the elements. Although the novel is set in a fictional city called Khaufpur, it’s plain to see that it’s basis is in Bhopal, the explosion being a riff on the 1984 disaster.

Telling his story into a “tape mashin” left by an Australian reporter, Animal describes his life in Khaufpur. When he’s not scamming or drinking chai, he’s fancying himself a bit of a James Bond (”namispond jamispond”) in the spying stakes, which typically involves climbing up trees and perving on Nisha, his friend. It’s the delivery that makes Animal’s People special. For, aforementioned syntax aside, Animal is crude, comic, and at ease with his disability. His narrative practically sings off the page as he tells of his life, trades insults with his friends, and makes observations, passes judgement:
The world of humans is meant to be viewed from eye level. Your eyes. Lift my head I’m staring into someones crotch. Whole nother world it’s, below the waist. Believe me, I know which one hasn’t washed his balls, I can smell pissy gussets and shitty backsides whose faint stenches don’t carry to your nose, farts smell extra bad. In my mad times I’d shout at people in the street, “Listen, however fucking miserable you are, and no one’s as happy as they’ve a right to be, at least you stand on two feet!”
In the poverty stricken community where Animal lives, everyone has been affected by the negligence of the “Kampani”, and the main reason for living is to see it brought to justice, to see compensation paid to all affected. Of course, life here is unstructured, politicians are corrupt - the same old sorry story drags from one day to the next. And then, into the community comes Elli Barber, an “Amrikan doctress”, who opens a clinic offering free healthcare to all who need it. But the people are suspicious, for she may just be working for the Kampani, here to prove that they are not to blame.

Given the length of Animal’s People it’s testament to Sinha’s ability that he was able to maintain the unique voice although I did perhaps feel there were a few slips where, after being charmed by Animal, the story would briefly lose his likeable style. Toward the end, after following Animal for so long I felt myself wanting it all to be over; the closing chapters almost read as evidence Sinha was thinking the same, tying up the loose ends.

But overall, Animal’s People is a real achievement. While on the surface it follows one man’s journey in understanding his humanity, its concerns are greater in scope, using Animal to focus on issues such as poverty, religion, and corruption without being didactic. Given that not a peep was heard in the British press, its Booker longlisting will no doubt bring Animal’s People the attention it deserves. But, more importantly than literature, its content can bring about an awareness of the real disaster in 1984, the effects of which are still felt today amongst the real Animal’s people.
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Old 4th Sep 2007, 13:22   #7
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Default Re: Indra Sinha: Animal's People

I have very little to add to JS's, Mr HG's or Stewart's reviews - it's a great book with a clear distinct lead character whose voice remains strong throughout but where the other characters are also beautifully drawn - I particularly liked the grandmother/father and Alayia their playful little grandaughter; Ma Francie the Nun who sneekily decieves a delegation from a Convent, who wish to take her back to France, by walking past them hidden under a burka; Sandjit, the quiet musician who lost his voice on 'that' night and who now listlens to the frogs and lizards singing instead.

It was painfully sad sometimes, but Animal's people's emotions was shown to be something of a rollercoaster ride not solely made of despair, and this was a great strenth of the book. They were strong, still sometimes happy despite their condition, proud of family and small things, not without humour or the ability to laugh, angry, frustrated, confused, all the small things that made the book not so unremitingly traumatic to read. All of those emotions were also mirored in Animal's own emotions relating to himself.

I loved it, and have been recommending it to people all week. from me.
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Old 18th Sep 2007, 17:51   #8
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Default Re: Indra Sinha: Animal's People

I had a few things I wanted to say about this book but JS, MrHG and Stewart have beaten me to them. The only thing I really want to add is that I found the device of the tapes Animal speaks into very interesting. This means he can address the reader more or less directly (Eyes, he says) and adds another layer of interest to the novel.

Animal himself can get a little irritatingly obsessive, but he's believably obsessive, and that's ultimately more significant. It is a complete reading experience, granting moments to laugh, moments to cry, moments of understanding our shared humanity despite the incredible luck that we all have not to be living in a place like that. It is, quite simply, a brilliant, disturbing book, combining some of the most terrible tragedies of our time with characters so alive they seem to breath outside of the tapes. I give it and rank it in my top three choices out of the Booker shortlist (along with On Chesil Beach and Darkmans)
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Old 20th Sep 2007, 12:37   #9
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Default Re: Indra Sinha: Animal's People

Quote:
Originally Posted by Stewart
he’s fancying himself a bit of a James Bond (”namispond jamispond”)
Oh god. I had figured out eventually that jamispond was spy, but missed why.

Super book, top of the shortlist for me so far.



(This "red stars" rating is a bit like having an amp which goes to 11.)
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Old 20th Sep 2007, 12:40   #10
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Default Re: Indra Sinha: Animal's People

The red stars go together rather well with the red rose in your avatar.
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