Late for Nowhere

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Posts Tagged ‘John Gardner On Moral Fiction

Book Review: Indra Sinha’s “Animal’s People”

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The names Chernobyl, Minamata and Bhopal serve as powerful reminders of the damage that humans can cause others through the careless pursuit of progress and a callous disregard for the well-being of the victims when things go terribly wrong.

The facts of these disasters, however convoluted, have been probed, recorded and widely reported by journalists. But newspaper and television reports – due in part to space and time constraints – tend toward the reductive, with journalists often simplifying complex situations to help the public more easily digest unfolding events. As a result, there is little leeway in the news for profound exploration of the human costs of disaster.

Where journalism falls short, well-crafted fiction can fill the gaps by getting into the heads of major and minor players, thereby providing deep insight into the effects of dire situations on those whose views might otherwise be neglected. As American writer William Faulkner said, “The best fiction is far more true than any journalism”.

Novelist John Gardner explored this idea in the collection of essays On Moral Fiction (1978): “In a democratic society, where every individual opinion counts, literature’s incomparable ability to instruct, to make alternatives intellectually and emotionally clear, to spotlight falsehood, insincerity and foolishness – literature’s incomparable ability, that is, to make us understand ought to be a force bringing people together, breaking down the barriers of prejudice and ignorance, and holding up ideals worth pursuing.”

Such is the case with Indra Sinha’s novel Animal’s People, a fictionalised account of the aftermath of the 1984 disaster in Bhopal, India, in which a chemical leak from an American-owned plant on the night of December 2-3 resulted in thousands of deaths, some immediate and others occurring weeks, months and even years later.

Sinha’s novel, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, is set in a fictional stand-in for Bhopal called Khaufpur.

The action takes place 18 years after the disaster – chemicals remain in the ground and the water, and residents continue to suffer and die from their poisoned environment. The survivors and their damaged offspring still wait for assistance from the American owners of the chemical plant, as well as from corrupt Indian authorities who care more about protecting foreign investors than helping their own people.

Our guide through Khaufpur is a first-person narrator known only as Animal, born just a few days before the leak and found abandoned in the street in the aftermath of the disaster, his parents presumably killed by the gas cloud.

Raised in an orphanage, Animal seems like a healthy child until the age of six, when he is suddenly wracked by pain and fever. The mystery ailment twists his spine until he is forced to walk around on all fours. With no proper medical facilities in the area, Animal’s condition remains undiagnosed and uncured.

As a result of his dog-like posture, the other children in the orphanage start calling the boy Animal, a name, and a persona, that sticks through the intervening 12 years until the novel’s narrative starts.

Animal is an entertaining but brutal (and often foul-mouthed) narrator, recounting the horrors of death, poverty and oppression in relentless detail. Early on he warns the reader, “If you want my story, you’ll have to put up with how I tell it,” adding, “If a person leaves things unsaid so as to avoid looking bad, it’s a lie.”

This is his way of saying that the truth must include the whole story, however unpleasant or offensive, and that censorship through omission is still censorship. Those who are embarrassed by the realities of life in Khaufpur are admonished to “throw down the book in which these words are printed”.

Readers who can handle the blunt language and embrace the novel will be treated to an enthralling, instructive and harrowing story of social justice pursued in the face of impossible odds.

Animal, who has spent most of his life as a dumpster-diving street rogue, becomes involved with Zafar, a university-educated activist who has given up a cushy life to live among the poor, helping them organise in their fight to force the factory owners to take responsibility for the effects of the chemical spill.

Animal willingly falls in with Zafar’s crowd, not because he’s interested in politics but because he wants to be near Zafar’s girlfriend Nisha, with whom he falls in love. Animal, who had always thought himself content to roam the streets on all fours, suddenly develops a desire to find a cure for his ailment so he can once again walk upright, which he thinks will help him win Nisha’s love.

Once within Zafar’s orbit, however, Animal can’t avoid getting caught up in the greater social struggle at a moment when the poor residents of the city, after a fruitless 18-year crawl through the Indian legal system, are growing tired of waiting for corrupt politicians to come to their aid.

Sinha is careful to illustrate exactly what is at stake for the characters in this fight, not only for Animal, Zafar and Nisha, but also for a wider cast of downtrodden people who have trouble envisioning brighter days ahead.

“In the Kingdom of the Poor, time doesn’t exist,” Animal explains. “Hope dies in places like this, because hope lies in the future and there’s no future here, how can you think about tomorrow when all your strength is used up trying to get through today?”

But Sinha also manages to delve into the convoluted logic and sentiment that keep the people from giving up the struggle, even when key players don’t see eye to eye on matters of principles and tactics.

Zafar, for example, is seen by many residents of Khaufpur as a saint for giving up his comfortable life to help the poor, but he also reveals his paranoia and ideological rigidity when he organises a boycott against a free health clinic that opens in the neighborhood.

Free healthcare is just what the suffering people need, but Zafar believes, without any supporting evidence, that the American doctor is collecting medical data for the chemical company.

Animal raises his voice against the boycott, seeing the opening of the clinic as the only development in years that could bring some relief to his neighbors and, he frankly admits, that might help correct his condition. He worries that Zafar’s decision is causing the people to “suffer for nothing” and argues that “noble ideas” don’t dull pain or cure illness.

Zafar also counsels nonviolence, but Nisha speaks for many frustrated residents when she warns, “Maybe you remember such a thing as justice, but in my lifetime there’s been no sign of it. If we want justice we’ll have to fight for it in the streets.”

Indeed, as the story unfolds, the game of brinkmanship between the oppressed and the authorities intensifies, inevitably resulting in an outbreak of unrest that seems more necessary than tragic. Even lovesick Animal concedes that “there are times to be afraid and there are times when you can be pushed just so far”.

Predictably, the police blame the agitation on “Hindu extremists” who have “come from outside to sow hatred and divide your community”. This is a refrain familiar to anyone who has lived under despots, who are forever shifting blame from where it belongs and onto the shoulders of some unfortunate minority group demonized as a phantom menace.

While the street riots spread, the story remains focused on the personal concerns of the characters. Where journalists are keen to document ideological invective and body counts, Sinha opts to explore the complexities of human psychology.

In the midst of these community-rattling events, Animal’s main concern is rediscovering his own humanity in a world in which a human-engineered chemical disaster has caused him to be perceived as something less than a whole person.

With chaos ruling the streets, Animal’s inner turmoil sends him fleeing into the forest to confront his own Dark Night of the Soul, a personal rebellion against human life, human society and the power of the gods. This journey of transfiguration seems the last chance for Animal to come to terms with his own core being, to give up his desires for the impossible and learn what it means to live as a responsible person rather than hiding behind his sub-human persona.

While Animal’s People does focus on the fate of the narrator, the author remains cognizant of the fact that during times of social upheaval, everyone’s humanity is at stake, whether they are agents of repression or have sided with the revolutionaries.

It’s the manner in which people conduct themselves when pushed to the brink that really counts, and in such situations anti-humanist ideology all too often trumps compassion: Leaders, police, soldiers and normal people alike are all capable of descending into evil and depravity, after which they must spend the rest of their lives seeking redemption for the horrors they unleashed.

It is a lesson that, by the closing stages of Animal’s People, remains unlearned by the Indian authorities who send in the army to “clean up the mess”. As Zafar says, “Whatever happens they are ruined beings, their souls are already dead.”

Written by latefornowhere

September 24, 2014 at 7:56 am