Human Being, or Being Human?

Following the recent trend of unusual narration in our studied texts, Sinha’s Animal’s People depicts the story of the fictional, poor city of Khaufpur, India following a poisonous chemical leakage, all of which is narrated through the taped voice of the protagonist, Animal. Interestingly, the protagonist himself is an unconventional character, as he repeatedly claims, “Je suis un animal” (40).

The protagonist endures his name and status as a devastating effect of the “Kampani’s” chemical leakage. As one of the survivors from the catastrophe, Animal experiences the toxic effects of the poisonous chemicals six years after the explosion, when his spine becomes deformed and forces him to walk on all fours, like a dog. The change in his physical form also causes him to change in his attitude towards others and himself. The relationship he has with his name provides insight to his character. Although he adamantly demands to be called “Animal,” he does not allow people to treat him as inferior. Rather, he stands his ground, which is displayed in the way he protects himself as a response to the attempts to tease him. Animal seems to be torn between the two worlds: human and primitive. This is reflected in the following passage:

““My name is Animal,” I say. “I’m not a fucking human being, I’ve no wish to be one.” This was my mantra, what I told everyone. Never did I mention my yearning to walk upright. It was the start of that long argument between Zafar and me about what was an animal and what it meant to be human” (23).

It almost seems as though Animal has to convince himself that he does not want to be viewed as a human. This behavior goes hand in hand with the jealousy he felt for everything that was able to walk, paralleled with his desire to be able to walk upright. Animal also succumbs to primitive, instinctive desires, and often justifies his decisions by reassuring himself that he is not human (87). Thus, before he meets Nisha and Zafar, he lives on the street performing elaborate scams until he agrees to work as a spy for Zafar. Even so, Animal’s success as an information scouter is mostly due to his ability to extract meaning from people’s unspoken thoughts and feelings, as well as through unfamiliar words. His subhuman (or arguably, superhuman) ability to read others and communicate with both people and animals (like his dog, Jara) suggests he is neither fully human nor beast, but is living in limbo between the two categories.

What does it mean to be human? What is the distinction between humans and animals? How does Animal’s instinctive perception of the world reflect his more-than-human nature? What does the title, Animal’s People, suggest about the division between man and beast?

The oral nature of the narration enhances Animal’s animalistic characteristics, as some of the words are transcribed with incorrect spelling, such as when he agrees to spy for Zafar and says, “Namispond! Jamispond!” (26) (translation: the name’s Bond, James Bond). Also, the text is embedded with sounds and words from various languages, including “Inglis” (English), Hindi, and French. The rapid switching between languages, which can often be confusing, contributes to the authenticity of the book. The mixture of dialects and sounds reflects the rough language of animals, an idea that is highlighted by Ma Franci’s inability to understand other languages after the poisonous chemical leak:

“On that night all sorts of people lost all kinds of things, lives for sure, families, friends, health, jobs, in some cases their wits. This poor woman, Ma Franci, lost all knowledge of Hindi. She’d gone to sleep knowing it as well as any Khaufpuri, was woken in the middle of the night by a wind full of poison and prophesying angels. … But there was a further twist to Ma Franci’s madness, when she heard people talking in Hindi or Inglis, or come to that in Urdu, Tamil, Oriya, or any other tongue used in Khaufpur, she could no longer recognize that what they were speaking was a language, she thought they were just making stupid grunts and sounds” (37).  

How is language/speech related to being human? How does language work as a distinction between people, and between humans and animals? What aspects of a language reflect the people who speak it, and how do we perceive people who speak a foreign language (compare with Arthur Mervyn)? What is the significance of language in terms of delivering a story, particularly Animal’s?

Aside from language, the question of sexuality and lust arise as other aspects of being alive and being human. Although Animal constantly dehumanizes himself, he develops feelings for Nisha even though he knows he has no chance with her. Despite his inner voices of reason, his love and desire for her grow to such an extent that he is willing to do anything to impress her and take care of her (47).  Also, when he spies on the “Amrikan” (American) woman, Elli, who moves to Khaufpur and prepares to open up a free medical clinic, he accidentally sees her bathing – the first time he sees a woman naked. He involuntarily lusts for her, which causes him to dream about his desires and his beloved Nisha:

“Often I’d dream of making love with I won’t say her name. I never told anyone because if people got to know, what would they do, laugh at me, pity me? “Animal, don’t have those kind of hopes.” … Animal mating with human female, it’s unnatural, but I’ve no choice but to be unnatural. Many times I would dream that she and I were in love, sometimes we were married and naked together like in the movies having sex. In such dreams was my back straight? Did I stand upright? No and no. I was exactly as I am now and it did not matter. Such dreams! I woke from them shaking with hope. This frightened me, I despise hope” (78).

Time and time again, Animal reacts to Nisha and Elli with uncontrollable lust. In tape nine, Animal sits in between Nisha and Zafar at the town meeting to discuss the opening of Elli’s clinic, and the physical presence of Nisha causes “the monster down there [to stir]” (124). He struggles to hide and subdue “the unruly beast” which “immediately starts to rear and buck, damn that f***ing thing, it has no respect.” Thus, Animal’s lust is itself given animal-like characteristics, which further complicates the definition of the human essence. The fact that he is able to differentiate love from lust reminds us of his more ‘human’ side.

Is love a human characteristic, or is it a natural instinct? If lust, love, and jealousy, and hope are all aspects of being human, what does this indicate about human nature? How does this answer the bigger question on what it means to be human?

Since in this novel, the disease is entirely caused by man-made means, it offers a new insight into the issue of responsibility in the face of an epidemic. Moreover, it allows for an analysis of the inherent problems behind the disease, much like how Dream of Ding Village introduced the question of the role of government vs. individuals in the propagation of and response to the spread of AIDS. As explained by Animal’s narration, the employees and managers of the “Kampani” are accused guilty in the aftermath of the factory leak, but for eighteen years, they never make an appearance in court (52). In fact, they also fail to pay the costs for the recovery efforts and for the victims of the leakage, placing the Kampani’s selfish needs before the poor citizens of Khaufpur (112). Khaufpur’s own government fails to respond appropriately to the catastrophe, as minimal action is taken by the (ironically named) Minister of Poison to alleviate the victims’ suffering (131).

What is the role of the government in Animal’s People, and how does its (in)action compare with the Chinese government in Yan’s Dream of Ding Village? In what ways is the government criticized and satirized by the Khaufpuris? What is the significance of politics and business within the context of this novel? How does the issue of politics relate to the issue of foreigners vs. insiders, in terms of the “Amrikan” presence in and influence on the town?

Hopefully this post and the questions posed above help us to begin delving into the complex fabric of this fascinating text. Happy reading!

– Azmyra, Laura, Maisie, and Sharon


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  1. The way in which language and narration, and perhaps even the combination of the two, operate in the novel is quite interesting, and they both play a role in shaping the perception and understanding of the novel and the story on the part of the audience. When we think of the concept of language, our minds are immediately diverted to the expression of ideas and sentiments through the written word. However, in the novel we see that verbal and written language is at times a barrier to understanding for some characters, namely Ma Franci and Animal. For Ma Franci, as you have already mentioned in your post, lost all ability to speak Hindi and English, which poses an issue for Animal, who decides he wants to learn French in order to understand Ma Franci (p. 37). Ma Franci’s impairment also hinders her understanding of the world around her via language, as she interprets all other dialects and languages as grunts. We also see that language impedes Animal’s understanding of certain situations. For example when he is spying on Elli and Somraj in Tape fifteen, he narrates how he didn’t follow much of “Hindi-Inglis” mix, and that “there are some things that even a don for a language can’t explain” (p. 223). As a result, his interpretation of the scenario is to some extent warped by his inability to fully understand it. In this instance, as seen before, we see how Animal is a slightly unreliable narrator. Given that all the information that the audience learns comes from Animal’s narration of his experiences and the world around him, the fact that aspects of it are inaccessible to him due to language barriers, thus causes the validity of his narration to suffer. This is similar to the narration in Arthur Mervyn, where the story is told by Dr Stevens, and thus all the information (limited, perhaps) the audience receives, is filtered by the perspective of a doctor.
    We also see in the novel that there are other means of expressing ideas without the use of words, which includes music – as we saw in the passage we analysed in class on Monday on pages 48 and 49. Observation, to a small extent, can also be seen to be a language of some sort, as it is the form or communication between Animal and his environment, and it shapes his understanding of it.

  2. One of the major themes of the novel is the search of identity, which materializes through a fight for self-acceptance. Animal tries to accept what he is, an animal rather than a human being and this struggle leads to profound internal changes for the main character. Although he, initially, was lead by “rage against all things that go or even stand on two legs”[2], with time he seems to accept his situation and those around him: he takes care of Ma Franci, gives an important support to his love rival, Zafar, in his fight to make justice for the victims of the accident or even helps Elli Barber to integrate in the community despite what all other people believed about her. During the novel he is full of contradictions proving sometimes a strong emotional instability. This could be obviously interpreted as a post-traumatic shock, shock, which, actually, didn’t disappear at all, being manifested in his appearance. Moreover his pain is accentuated by his desire to be loved (not only to be considered a normal human being but to feel a passionately love). Thus, he oscillates between considering himself an animal, a superior creature or trying to be a human being and enjoy the affection of those around him.
    As the story goes on, we can see that he begins to understand that can’t regard himself a person like all the others. Coming to terms with what happened, he understands that his identity doesn’t come from the Kampani disaster or the way he looks, but from the way he is on the inside and the way he behaves with people who surround him: “it’s the inside where the real things happen, no one looks in there, maybe they don’t dare.” The final of the novel sustains this decision regarding his choice of being Animal, unique, special, different (but not in a bad way) from all the other people: “Stay four-foot, I’m the one and only Animal.”

    “I am Animal fierce and free
    in all the world is none like me.”

  3. It might be Animal’s bodily anomaly or his penchant for swearing creatively, but Animal reminds me of Tyrion Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. This free reign over his tongue does not come uncombined with the gift of wit, as is true for his counterpart from Westeros.
    Tyrion Lannister is the sole most loved person in A Song of Ice and Fire (and this includes G.R.R.M. so if you are gambler enough to bet on who gets to survive the end of A Song of Ice and Fire, Tyrion is probably your best bet … or maybe not considering writers have unconventional ways of being partial towards their favorite characters, but the point is that Tyrion too was born a deformed Imp. Thus, his education and social initiation did not follow the normal route. He read a lot more than his able-limbed brother and by adulthood had cultivated an art of witty repartee in response to the sneers and jokes inspired by his deformity. Could there possibly be a connection as to why both characters with similar deformities in societies with similar prejudices have a similar sense of wit and humor about them …
    This train of thought stems in response to your insight about Animal: “His subhuman (or arguably, superhuman) ability to read others and communicate with both people and animals (like his dog, Jara) suggests he is neither fully human nor beast, but is living in limbo between the two categories.” Another way to see those subhuman qualities is as compensation cultivated out of his defense mechanism. Animal learnt to find a friend in Jara; most humans successful in friendships with fellow humans would not give the time or effort for it or share a mutual dependence with a street dog. His ability to read humans (also his wisdom) shared between storytelling and cursing seem to be the results of an active thought process that replaced or filtered the more idealized existing philosophies that just could not fit his scenario. Meanwhile, his humor is the quintessential defense mechanism. This is not very different from how most blind people cultivate almost superhuman ear radar.
    Such compensation in another character which might not be as obvious is in Ma Franci. Ma Franci lost grasp of all languages that are not French in the Bhopal incident. Ever since she has been absorbing them as gibberish. In absence of much meaning, Ma Franci has learnt to designate her own meaning to most things. The 9/11 incident in Amrika inspired meanings of “a star falling from heaven” and such. In a broader sense, religion too is not very different. In absence of other meaning, each religion tried to make sense of the world and in that process invented many fantastical stories which are still read and their meanings still derived today.

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