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Animal's People

Book>> Animal's People by Indra Sinha Simon & Schuster, London 2007

Published: Tuesday 15 January 2008

Allegory is one of the most powerful figures of speech, conveying the poignancy of reality and yet, free from the burden of being faithful to facts and figures. Orwell used it intelligently in one of the most powerful political allegories of all times, Animal Farm . The novel was a clever and thinly-disguised attack on communism and Stalin, at a time when voicing dissent often meant losing one's life. It did not take a very discerning reader to tell that the swarthy Berkshire Boar in Animal Farm was styled on Stalin's personality or that Snowball, who is driven out of the farm, was styled on Trotsky.

Indra Sinha novel, Animal's People does not only share a part of its name with Orwell's Animal Farm but like its probable inspiration, utilizes the allegory to register a sharp comment against one of the worst industrial tragedies in human history, the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984. On the morning of December 3 a leak in the Union Carbide factory in the city changed the lives of thousands of people forever. Union Carbide hastily abandoned the city. Litigation against the company drags on while public protests against Carbide fade into anonymity. The tragedy has provided the script for a movie, Bhopal Express.

Down to Earth In Animal's People , the Union Carbide is Kampani, Bhopal is Khaufpur and Anderson, the man who has come to represent the evils of the Union Carbide, is Peterson. But the most powerful character in the novel is its protagonist, rather unimaginatively called Animal. He was given his name as a child, thanks to the effects of the poison gas fallout from the Kampani factory in Khaufpur. It left him half-crippled, his back twisted out of shape so that he has to walk on all fours, his legs trailing uselessly. "I used to be human once," Animal reminisces at one place.

Animal's existence is a not so oblique reference to the victims of the tragedy. The story is narrated in his voice and its Animal who binds the characters together. Animal is so alive and captivating that it is torturous to imagine what Animal actually looks like. Sinha's description is chilling "When the smelting in my spine stopped the bones had twisted like a hairpin, the highest part of my body was my arse." It is Animal who holds up the novel as an intensely political work. Khaufpur is indeed about 'Animal's' people be it Elli, the American doctor who sets up a free clinic to treat the ill or Nisha, the object of Animal's desire.

Animal's People is riveting in parts. Some of the most interesting parts of the novel involve conversations between Animal and Elli; the attractive American 'doctoress' in Khaufpur. Sinha's work blurs the thin line between truth and imagination. Jeha-Numa, a hotel which was previously the Nawab of Bhopal's property, finds a place in the novel as the hotel in which Kampani men stay to settle compensation. It's called 'Jehannum' or hell in its fictional avatar.

Animals's People was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize this year and many hoped that it would convince the jury. It did not and it is not difficult to see why. It is everything that Animal Farm was not slightly dull, trite and dumbed down for the average reader. Sinha tends to explain too much Animal spends most of his time reminiscing of the days when he was human and the politics of the little fake town are predictable. Little is left to the reader's imagination.

But the novel has its moments of literary spark. The description of the site of the factory touches the reader, before Sinha slips into pedestrian prose. Animal's People might not count amongst the sophisticated allegories of all time, but it's a likeable and immensely readable novel. Finally, the very original 'Khaufpuri Glossary' makes one pause and smile, as one returns the book to the shelf.

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