Every reader knows a Worthy Book, about a subject that would make anyone with a pulse weep. The Worthy Book is earnest, and invariably chunky. Reading it is a form of atonement for not joining that protest march. This book would boost your knowledge of the human condition — heck, it would make you a better human being. The Worthy Book usually lurks unopened beneath the latest issue of Elle and a pizza flier.
ANIMAL’S PEOPLE would seem to belong squarely in the latter category. Its theme is the Bhopal gas leak disaster of 1984 in which at least fifteen thousand died; tens of thousands continue to suffer to this day. While tragedies are common place in India, Bhopal stands out, not just due to the scale of the event but the callousness of the parties involved. (Union Carbide, the company that operated the chemical plant is now part of the Dow Chemical Company, and the latter has yet to accept responsibility for the event.) ANIMAL’S PEOPLE does not let us forget that after almost 25 years, little has occurred to punish the culpable or aid the victims of the world’s worst ever industrial disaster.
But begin reading ANIMAL’S PEOPLE, and oh, what a revelation; calling it a Worthy Book is akin to calling the Taj Mahal a nice little tomb. The narrator’s voice is the easily most astonishing and convincing literary feat I’ve witnessed since finishing Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
ANIMAL’S PEOPLE is set in a thinly-disguised version of Bhopal called Khaufpur (literally, “city of fear”), and features Animal, a youth who walks on all fours due to a twisted spine caused by the poisonous gas. But don’t be intimidated by the gravitas of the theme; do not be depressed by the plight of the protagonist. Not once does Sinha sentimentalize the plight of his characters, and Animal is considerably more alive and zestful than many corporate suits I’ve known. Animal’s expletive-filled story, conducted in a mixture of English and Hindi and French, is as pungent and exuberant as a fish market on a rainy Saturday.
While activists battle against the American Kampani as well as corrupt Indian government officials for justice, Animal’s preoccupations are basic and urgent — clean air to breathe, water to drink, a place to sleep, food, and sex. But when Animal is drawn into the Khaufpuris’ campaign, he must shed his cynicism and learn to hope — a dangerous emotion in Khaufpur. Indeed, this remarkable novel moves the reader too, to join in the struggle and to begin hoping anew. ANIMAL’S PEOPLE is a power tool for Bhopalis in their enduring quest for justice.
(This review appears in the Asian Review of Books.)