Village of the Damned
From the arresting opening line of Indra Sinha's vivid second novel ("I used to be human once"), the voice of Animal, the narrator, leaps out to grab you by the throat. Bawdy, irreverent and smart, Animal's compelling vernacular, with its mangled, Yoda-like syntax, conjures up the colour, cruelty and camaraderie of life in the Indian city of Khaufpur. This is a place where people are compelled to sell their blood for food, but would give their last channa (chickpea) to feed those they love; where having nothing means having nothing to lose.
Animal's People, Indra Sinha, Simon & Schuster, 374pp, £11.99, ISBN 0743259203
So who is Animal? A preface in the form of an editor's note explains that what you are about to read is a true account as recorded on tape, in Hindi, by a 19-year-old Khaufpuri. At the back of the book is a glossary of Hindi words, some of which, we are told, have specific meanings in Khaufpuri. There is also a website about the city.
This site (which didn't even exist when I began reading the novel) features just two un- remarkable photos. Confusing? Well, the clue is in the name: "pur" is a suffix meaning "village", and "khauf" is an Urdu word meaning "fear". Many Urdu words are spoken in Hindi. And like many Hindi and Urdu words, it has multiple meanings, including "terror" and "dread". Now, I could be wrong (even if Google uncovers nothing for Khaufpur, India is a vast country containing over 638,000 villages and over 5,000 towns, according to the 2001 census), but my sense is that Khaufpur is fictional, a place of terror and dread. Its real-life counterpart is Bhopal.
Nearly 20 years ago, Khaufpur was devastated by a chemical leak at a factory owned by an American firm, referred to by Khaufpuris as "the Kampani". Thousands died during what has come to be known as "That Night", including Animal's parents. Two decades on, women still carry the toxins in their milk, and Animal is condemned to walk on all fours after the poisons attacked his body and froze his spine. Physically deformed he may be, and the butt of much peer contempt, but he is still human - a sentiment he strenuously denies until the book's close.
The tracing of Animal's emotional growth provides much of the novel's poignancy. A small-time exponent of numerous begging scams, Animal feels his life start to change when Elli, in her tight blue jeans, arrives from what he calls "Amrika" to open a free clinic. He finds himself plagued by hope: that he might walk upright on two feet and, by extension, win the hand of elegant Nisha - a hopeless dream in itself, because Nisha loves Zafar, a saintly preacher of non-violent action against the Kampani. In fact, all Khaufpuris know how debilitating hope can be. In a deliberate echo of Bleak House, one of the teeming 19th-century novels that Sinha's writing so pleasingly resembles, the legal case against the Kampani has seen off 13 judges. Compensation, such as it has been after all this time, amounts per person to less than the price of a cup of daal.
In some sense, Animal's People is a parable about the human condition. Just as the Kampani lacks any conscience about its accountability, so Animal, in his attempts to deny the hope fluttering in his breast, concentrates on baser instincts, such as masturbating while jamisponding (as in "spying" - say it quickly), getting laid (he is hung like a horse) or poisoning his love- rival Zafar. Over time, however, as Elli defies a boycott on her clinic, Zafar goes on hunger strike and Ma Franci, Animal's carer, evades an attempt to repatriate her to Toulouse, Animal develops a conscience and learns that you can't duck your responsibilities by denying who, or what, you are. Sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in - even if you can't stand up.
The final chapters have a Christian gloss to them that feels heavy-handed, not so much in the theme of redemption, but in references to empty caves, Animal's cathartic wanderings in the (jungle) wilderness, and Zafar's apparent resurrection. Likewise, Sinha's flirtation with magical realism, conveying Animal's ability to converse with foetuses, and the musings of several delirious or psychotic characters, might not be to every reader's taste. But as a follow-up to The Death of Mr Love, Sinha's hugely enjoyable Mumbai epic debut, Animal's People - part coming-of-age Bildungsroman, part vicious critique of corporate terrorism - is a bold and punchy tale.
This review first appeared in The New Statesmen
(R) thedailystar.net 2007