Archive for November, 2014

An outsider’s responsibility

Central to this novel is the influence of outsiders, particularly westerners, and their responsibilities. Elli, the doctor, establishes a public clinic for the residents of Khaufpur. Elli is aware of the suffering and does her best to help, but she did not experience the suffering for herself. That is what binds the people of Khaufpur, Animal’s people, most strongly — shared suffering. The entire community remembers ‘that night’ and still feels its effects. Elli simply lacks that shared experience, so she can’t fully connect with the Khaufpuris.

Another example of outside influence is obviously the Kampani. The entire disaster and its grievous affects are the direct result of ‘Amrikan’ actions. So many of the characters are focused to some extent on bringing the kampani to justice, and phrases of the kampani even pervade local speech. Despite this, those responsible continue to evade their culpability, and in Khaufpur “when the kampani comes to court” is equivalent to “when pigs fly”. The kampani’s actions thereby become even more like the morass of disease — even when the cause is tracked down, not much can be done to lessen the effects.

If this is all too frustratingly unjust, consider this small form of retribution: in 1999, Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide (the real ‘kampani’ responsible for the Bhopal disaster). Jacques Servin, one half of The Yes Men, an activist duo you can read more about here, successfully impersonated a Dow Chemical representative on BBC news. Watch the rest —

Dow Chemical’s stocks took a hit and it was forced to once again publicly deny responsibility for the disaster, bringing attention back to the decades-long suffering in Bhopal that now rarely makes international news. It also sparked a conversation about the credibility and accuracy of large corporate news media outlets. These days, the news media also plays a crucial role in disseminating information about and sometimes manipulating the public view of epidemics and plagues.

As an addendum, Radiolab recently produced an hour-long podcast called Patient Zero, which investigates the origins of epidemics. Of particular relevance to our class discussions are this section about HIV/AIDS and the section about Ebola (which starts around 43:52 in the full podcast)


  One of the questions continuously raised throughout Animal’s story is the distinction between man and animal. This question is stemmed from Animal’s four-limbed gait that earned him his nickname, most likely because Evolutionist theory places so much emphasis on bipedalism as a defining characteristic of homo sapiens: 

“Bipedalism is a highly specialized and unusual form of primate locomotion that is found today only in modern humans.”  – Harcourt-Smith, The Origins of Bipedal Locomotion 

  Upon further pursuit of this topic, I stumbled upon the interesting story of a Turkish family with a genetic condition called Uner Tan Syndrome which causes them to walk on all fours . While not much is known about this condition, media coverage on this family provides another example of four-legged gait, a physical feature, being linked with a more animalistic state of mind.

“Characterized by loss of balance, impaired cognitive abilities and a habitual quadrupedal gait, it’s a syndrome, Uner Tan theorized, that suggested “a backward stage in human evolution.” In other words, the siblings were thought to be walking proof that our evolutionary advances could — poof — vanish, and we’d be back to walking on all fours.”  (Note: results of this study are highly controversial)

   Another interesting point brought up by the article is that the affected people experience difficulty with language and communicate amongst themselves in their own language (a chilling reminder to Animal’s special position with regard to communication)

 “The syndrome has another price. The siblings are able to speak, but barely, and have developed their own language to communicate with one another.”

  This family has also been the subject of a PBS documentary, creatively titled Family that Walks on All Fours. The trailer is available here.

   What is interesting (and important) to note, however, is that both this family and Animal’s gait is distinguishable from that of primates in that they walk on their palms, not knuckles. What does this say about our perceptions on how we define human beings? Can definition based on physical ability be justified? What about cognitive capability? These are some questions I hope this post has facilitated in raising. 

In parallel–Bhopal and Khaufpur

As we all know, Sinha’s Animal’s People recounts a story of a manmade disaster and its victims in the city of Khaufpur, a fictional setting that is based on an actual incident–the Bhopal gas tragedy. Last session we discussed the purposes and effects of this book as a fiction based on a true story, and I thought it might be worth comparing the two stories side by side, noting the similarities and differences that the author might have made on purpose while creating this fictional account of the devastating disaster.

Among the subplots of this story, the legal battle between Khaufpuris and the Kampani is crucial to the plot development. There were ongoing legal issues during the Bhopal tragedy as well, and the actual incident and the fiction have many things in common. The lawsuit was a long battle, which ended up benefiting only the company. The government turned its back on people whom it was supposed to protect. As also mentioned in the novel, the company refused to reveal any toxicological information on the chemicals as it was a part of “trade secrets”. The details can be found here: “Insight to Bhopal Gas Tragedy: A case lost before trial”

Discussion about Ebola

During the “Ebola talk” last Monday, Ms Franklin recounted how an infected man had fled from Guinea to Senegal knowing he had the disease; she commented how his actions, although unjustifiable, were understandable: if there was better medical attention elsewhere, wouldn’t anyone try to seek it hoping to get treated? This narrative resembles of the zombie behaviour that we have encountered in several texts such as Defoe and Dream of Ding Village, of people exposing others to the disease with little regret or even amusement.

Both guest speakers mentioned the idea of dying with dignity: Ms Franklin commented on this while showing pictures of some victims, abandoned after passing away; while Ms Moussan from Médecins sans Frontières explained that amongst the aims of their organization were to treat the symptoms, alleviate the pain and ensure that the patient’s last hours were bearable and dignified. This subject invokes the responsibility of the living to look after the sick and provide a respectful burial. In addition, “dying with dignity” can be interpreted as the deceased maintaining his honour at the time of death, thus limiting our intentions of enjoying life at its fullest before dying. In Dream of Ding Village, Ding Liang claimed that because faced quickly and decisively approached them they could indulge in pleasures without caring for other’s opinions, nevertheless he still strived to legitimize his new marriage before passing away, so that , thus demonstrating that the sick still have responsibilities to society.

Finally, another compelling fact shared at the discussion was that the fastest ways that Ebola was spreading was through local funeral rites, and it was suggested that to avoid further spread it was necessary to take precautions that clashed with traditional rites. It thus links to another subject that we’ve discussed before: mass graves and death carts, as seen in Defoe, Camus and Pushkin. This raises a couple of questions. Are mass graves actually helpful in preventing the spread of disease, or they detrimental? And how far are we willing to abandon social norms to prevent the expansion of the disease and the endangerment of those that remain?

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

“A hundred thousand suns, burning up the sky.”

In summer, the sweltering heat worsened the episode of sickness in Ding village. A hundred thousand suns burned up the sky. 

The Ten Suns in Chinese Mythology
Chinese people once believed that there existed ten suns that appeared in turn in the sky during the Chinese ten day week. Each day the ten suns would travel with their mother, the goddess Xi He, to the Valley of the Light in the East. There, Xi He, would wash her children in the lake and put them in the branches of an enormous mulberry tree called fu-sang. From the tree only one sun would move off into the sky for a journey of one day, to reach the mount Yen-Tzu in the Far West. Tired of this routine, the ten suns decided to appear all together. The combined heat made the life on the Earth unbearable. To prevent the destruction of the Earth emperor Yao asked Di Jun, the father of the ten suns, to persuade his children to appear one at a time. They would not listen to him so Di Jun sent the archer, Yi, armed with a magic bow and ten arrows to frighten the disobedient suns. However Yi shot nine suns, only the Sun that we see today remained in the sky.

A similar plot can be traced in our story. Grandpa tried to tame his son but his son continued to test his limits. He had been responsible for the episode of sickness in the village in the first place but, like the sweltering heat of summer, he continued to aggravate their situation, seeking personal profit from coffin business and conducting extra-humous marriages. The death threats from the villagers, conveyed by his father, bothered him very little.

By marrying his dead son off to another place, the father was destroying whatever was left of their family heritage. Before this could happen, Grandpa had to kill him. The end of summer and the death of the thousand suns signals spring. The “puddle of blood” from when Grandpa’s son died “bloomed on the ground as red as a blossom in the spring”. 

Ancestors and Death


After our previous discussion regarding the new constitution that had been introduced to the community in the school by Ding Yuejin and Jia Genzhu, I thought it was fitting to provide some background information regarding the role of ancestors in Chinese culture, seeing as some of the rules – namely rules 2 and 3 – concern themselves with the humiliation and shaming of ancestors.

Just as a refresher, here are the specifics of rules 2 and 3:

#2. All government donations of grain, rice, cooking oil and medicine will be administered by the school. Anyone who gets greedy or takes more than their share can go f*** their ancestors, and may all their descendants die of the fever.

#3. Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin will be in charge of distributing coffins donated by the government, whenever we get them. Anyone who doesn’t follow orders will not receive a coffin, plus we will tell the whole village to go f*** that person’s ancestors and curse their descendants.

So what is the significance of ancestor worshiping in Chinese culture?

Ancestor worshiping has played an integral role in Chinese culture for centuries, so much so that these veneration practices have been incorporated into Taoist and Buddhist practices. It is the means through which the living honour the deeds, memories and sacrifices of the deceased, and it offers a way in which family continuity can be maintained, even in the afterlife. Ancestor worshiping also allows for the reverence of the wisdom of elders, and it seems to unify not only familial units, but also the society as a whole. Ancestors are given somewhat of a Godly status, and many believe that they are ‘guardian angels’ that watch over and protect the living. 

The worshipping process begins during the funeral and mourning phase, and is continuous from thereon in. The rituals are as follows:

  • Worshipping begins at the funeral of the deceased: necessities like a toothbrush, comb, towel, shoes, water etc. are placed in the coffin, or are burned as a sacrifice, to prepare the deceased for the afterlife
  • After the funeral, offerings are made once or twice a day to ensure the deceased has made a comfortable transition into the afterlife.
  • Necessities like favourite foods, wine and money (in the form or symbolic pieces of paper) are placed in bowls on the altar, or they are burned.
  • After the funeral, a home alter is set up by the family which includes a photograph of the deceased, a commemorative plaque and cups for offerings
  • The alters are taken down after 49 days, which is the period during which the deceased is thought judgement
  • Once the home altar is disassembled, the deceased is thought to reside in commemorative tablets – pieces of wood that have an inscription of the names of the deceased and the dates of their birth and death.
  • Tablets are kept in a shrine in the family home and incense is lit daily before the tablets, and food offerings are made twice a month

This video documents ancestor worshiping on Winter Solstice by a large group of Chinese delegates. This is the second most important day pertaining to ancestor worshiping in the Chinese calendar.

It can be understood why Genzhu and Yuejin use this tactic of shaming ancestors as a means to exercise control over the community within the school, which is made up of individuals who have such a high regard for their ancestors, that the mere thought of bringing their memory to shame is enough to coerce them into submission to the appalling new constitutional rules.

By Simi Roopra



It’s easy to observe the culture of death in China through Dream of Ding Village. Everything from the hanging of scrolls on the door of the dead’s house, to posthumous marriage is explored through the narrative.

The first encounter the reader has with the death culture is the grieving process and reactions that different families have as seen on page 14. Then, the first mention of coffins and the carpenters appears. “The three elderly village carpenters worked all day long building coffins. Two of them came down with backaches from overwork.” (pg 14). In this video an assortion of pictures and videos shows how much of a back pain traditional coffin making really is!

The importance given to the coffins, especially by Ding Hui, is inmense. The wood used for the coffins, the engravings and what they represent, and what is put inside the coffin all has to do with the belief of the afterlife and giving the deceased all they need to prosper there.

Then, we encounter the funeral scripts. “Turning into a narrow alleyway, Grandpa noticed white funeral scrolls pasted on the lintels of every house (…) The funeral couplet pasted on the lintels read: Since you have gone, the house is empty, it has been three seasons now/ Extinguish the lamps, let the twilight come, we must endure the setting sun.” (pg 17).

There are many different types of couplets, including marriage couplets, longevity couplets, greeting couplet and funeral couplet. To read up more on the funeral scrolls and chinese couplets in general click here. 

Posthumous marriage plays a big role in the final part of the book. Ding Hui is making a huge profit off of this business, and we can note how ambitious he is when he marries his son to a girl much older than him, with a crippled leg and epilepsy. He does this only because her father is a very powerful man. 

“Over the last two weeks, they’ve been digging up the bodies of our girls who died of the fever, and marrying them off to dead boys in other villages. They’re selling our girls, digging up their bones and giving them to outsiders.” (pg 292)

This is actually still going on in rural parts of China, as can be seen in this BBC News article  published just last week and on this article on the South China Morning Post.

Camila Viera


AIDS in China and not only

From a previous post, you can find here a documentary about the lives of children with HIV in Anhui province, which can make us better understand the effects of blood donation campaigns in China.

Interesting aspects about these campaigns can be found in this reportage, which presents, in an ironic manner, the way authorities responded to the AIDS contagion, their decision to hide the truth from the villagers, and the lack of a sexual education in numerous areas in China.

Also, you can see some recent statistics about AIDS in China, to have a better understanding of the effects blood donation campaigns had on a long term and the way goverment tries to solve this problem or to understand how the lack of education still favors the spread of the disease.

Finally, I add a short documentray about the problems teens with AIDS face nowadays, the way society and even their own family behave in this situation.




Censorship & Identity – Post Apartheid South Africa

Welcome to Our Hilbrow describes itself as “a novel of Post apartheid South Africa”. Throughout the novel, we are able to observe the effect of the Apartheid on society, and the remnants with regards to the political situation. During the post apartheid time period, the issue of censorship remains predominant in the daily lives of the people. We find that publishers did not permit writing in the ‘African language’, and rather, texts should be written in English or Afrikaans. The novel describes how taboo subjects can be spoken about in Afrikaans, however it is banned in the native language. This is reflected in the following passage (pg. 56)

 “She did not know that writing in an African language in South Africa could be such a curse… Calling shit and genitalia by their correct names in Sepedi was apparently regarded as vulgar by these reviewers, who had for a long time been reviewing works of fiction for educational publishers and who were determined to ensure that such works did not offend the systems that they served. These systems were very inconsistent in their attitudes to education. They considered it fine, for instance, to call genitalia by their correct names in English and Afrikaans biology books – even gave these names graphic pictures and escorts – yet in all other languages, they criminalised such linguistic honesty…Now, for nearly fifty years, the system of Apartheid had been confusing writers in this way. Trying to make them believe that euphemism equals good morals.”

 It is important to remember the context of post Apartheid South Africa. In the book The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and Its Cultural Consequences, the author

“reveals that apartheid’s censors saw literature as central to creating a white and largely Afrikaans national identity… the banning of books, the listing of authors, the use of state oppression, and the constrictions of self-censorship were aimed at erasing the very idea of a nonracial South Africa …black writers were always treated more harshly, and this undermined the possibility of cross-racial alliances. Es’kia Mphahlele warned against “sink[ing] to the degenerate level of Afrikaans writers in South Africa who have always censored themselves and not dared to challenge the government” (176).”

This is clearly reflected in Welcome to our Hilbrow where censorship played a role.



Sickly Community in the land of The Red Gold

In Dream of Ding Village the poor community bearing the same name is suffering from “the fever”, an outbreak of AIDS that was spreading through the Chinese countryside as a result of the state-sponsored blood-collecting anxiety that took place a decade earlier; an incident that can be considered as a social disease that led the way to the literal pathogens that would later kill these villagers.

To some selling blood became an addiction, as described by the woman of the wealthier Cai county:

“It [i.e. selling blood]’s more like once every ten days or a fortnight. If you don’t sell at least that often, your veins start to feel swollen. It’s like being full of milk and not being able to nurse your baby.” (pg 37)

… To others the blood industry was a testimony to their greed, such as Ding Hui, who kept exploiting his countrymen, who disrespected the memory of his dead mother, and who built a three-story house just to prove his superior wealth and power to the rest of the village.

But it’s too easy to say that Ding Hui was the only corrupt member of that society. There’s also Li Sanren’s wife, who got jealous of her friends’ new homes and bullied her husband into donating blood, which led to him getting infected as well. In addition, the taboo of selling blood was broken by the entire society: the blood comes off as a metaphor of health that the villagers were initially reluctant to give up, but their avarice was able to defeat their previous beliefs, accurately portrayed in the following quote:

“For decade the villagers had come to the temple to burn incense and pray for wealth, but when they started getting rich from selling blood, they tore down the temple. They didn’t believe in Guan Yu any more: they believed in selling blood.” (pg 24)

Can the disease be thus interpreted as punishment for the villagers’ previous actions? Since individuals chose to donate their blood in exchange for money, what responsibility do the different members of the Ding Family have in the spread of the disease in their village? What about the government officials?

Another issue to be raised from these first volumes is the issue of behaviour in the face of death, a topic we’ve already addressed in Pushkin’s A Feast during times of plague. Ding Liang’s dialogue on page 78 argues in favour of abandoning previous social norms, since there’s no longer a reputation to maintain.

“Family, older brother, younger brother… what does any of that matter now? You and I are going to die soon.”

However, if Ding and Lingling can yield to pleasures, why can’t the thief that was disrupting their utopian society also indulge to the impulses (or reasons) that motivated him? Is there any way to tell how individuals will react when facing their end; will they follow the norms or disintegrate into anarchy? If so, what is such determining characteristic? Do the thresholds of right and wrong remain unchanged during these times  of suffering?

Ding Liang’s argument echoes another subject from Pushkin, which is the new community of those dying. Grandpa Ding also makes reference to the new and stronger bonds that tie these people together, stronger then the ties of blood with their family members who abandoned them or condoned their exile in the village school:

“But I never thought you’d steal grain from people in the same situation as you, people who are dying” (pg 101)

Ironically, this new relationship is also made up of blood (and contaminated one, at that). But the sick are as happy enjoying the rest of their lives.

In what ways do the sick cope with the looming presence of death better than the healthy? Are the sick exempt from the usual social norms due to their claim to “enjoy the rest of their lives”? 

Rafa, Vlad and Liam