Animal’s People offers insight into the lives of people who experienced the trauma and the aftermath of the gas leak that plagued the Indian city of Bhopal.
The story is narrated by a nineteen-year-old boy who survived “that night,” and is written as a series of transcripts of oral recordings. The novel is about the fight between the American owners of the Kampani and the innocent people who are still facing the after-effects of the disaster. The main characters of the novel are involved in the struggle to get the Kampani to take responsibility for the disaster at the factory in terms of paying for ongoing medical problems, cleaning up and detoxifying the land and water into which poisonous chemicals continue to exist.
The catastrophe left the narrator half-crippled, his back twisted out of shape so that he has to walk on all fours. Hence, it is not surprising that he was named by peers as Animal and was mistreated by the society for his appearance. “People see the outside, but it’s inside where the real things happen, no one looks in there, maybe they don’t dare. I really think this is why people have faces, to hide their souls” (11), says Animal to justify their offensive behavior towards him.
The theme of societal pressure and its effect on the characters permeates throughout both Ibsen’s play Ghosts and the novel Animal’s People. In Ghosts the societal pressure or the need to maintain a good reputation haunted the Alving household, with Mrs. Alving financing an orphanage to maintain the falsified but well respected reputation of Captain Alving. This pressure manifests itself as the “ghost” in the novel and causes characters to feel trapped. However, in order to free themselves, the characters must break away and not conform to the norms, becoming outcasts.
Mrs. Alving suffers complete desolation at the end of the play, and the same thing is happening in the novel. Characters such as Animal are trapped by societal pressure, along with a personal desire to be what he used to be, as evident by his desire to walk on two legs and be like normal human. However, due to his appearance, which cannot be hidden, Animal was not the norm of society, making him an outcast. Though he is not the only person who was affected by the poison, he sure does get the spotlight for being the strangest of casualties. The other kids called him an animal, and it takes him a while to finally accept this title. He starts off attacking people much like an animal, biting others, and he ends up introducing himself as Animal. A contrasting case in the novel is Ma Franci. Ma Franci suffered very much from the poison herself. Once fluent in Hindi, she came out of the incident only being able to speak and understand French. When talking with Animal, she asks, “ Animal, if you can learn to speak properly, why do these fools talk rubbish all the time? “ She finally asks, “Why won’t they treat me like a human being?” (40). Language and communication have essentially rendered Ma Franci an animal too. Out of concern, Nisha questions how Ma Franci could possibly have lived in India for so long and not know any Hindi. Against her will, Ma Franci becomes even more displaced in a foreign land because she cannot understand its people. Even as a nun, a socially accepted position, Ma Franci manages to be an outcast. To her, there is absolutely no way she can accept that, because she honestly believes that she is completely fine. The problem lies with the blabbering society she has chosen to stay with and help. Animal has the upper hand when it comes to dealing with the people around him, because he knows exactly how they view him in such a way and why.
But what’s amazing about a person becoming an animal is the fact that the very cause of their societal exile is in fact a common one, shared widely. Tons of people suffered from that poison, but people like Ma Franci and Animal are either driven crazy by this or forced to accept being casting out. So, how much of a leveler was this poison, this widespread catastrophe?
I really like the point you make about how ironic it is that, in Animal’s case, shared suffering ends up being dehumanizing. However, I also think that the issue of humanization/dehumanization is worth considering especially in the wider context of “Animal’s People” as a (variation of?) a postcolonial narrative. When we think about this, I think the tension becomes more visible insofar as the novel seems to be humanizing a tragedy by dehumanizing many of its traits. From one end, Khaufpur acts as an allegory of Bhopal and the novel does provide an insight of the suffering of their people in the aftermath of the incident. However, Animal also plays with its (Western) audience’s inclination to favor tragic histories from the third world. This forces us to (re)consider our position as readers. What are we getting from this story? an obscure pleasure from looking at other people’s suffering or the necessary information to trigger a crusade for social justice?
In fact, at the very start of the novel Animal turned down the Jarnalis because he felt that the Western people only wanted to listen to his story for the “obscure pleasure from looking at other people’s suffering”. In that sense the narrator is already pushing the audience against from viewing this narrative just as a pity story. However, is this book really about providing information to trigger a crusade for social justice? I really don’t think so. While the suffering of is portrayed strongly in the book, it is by no means used to persuade readers to act on social change. This is evident from how the narrator never portrays the people in the Kauphur city as completely hopeless and desperate for foreign help. In fact, even Ellie’s foreign help is rejected for a moment. What I believe that this book tries to do is to provide the different perspectives on the Bhopal incident, and perhaps enhancing the voice of Bhopal people. It let the audience listen and understand more about the Bhopal disaster and even let the reader see how the people dealt with the disaster.
I think the question that you bring up in regards to how much the plague – or the catastrophe, in this case – acts as a “leveler” as there is an obvious gap between the extent of impact individuals like Ma Franci and Aminal have experienced as opposed to most of society. Such is the obvious, but on a figurative level it’s evident that Khaufpur is suffering a communal tragedy that’s reflected through how the all members of the community are stakeholders with the issues against the Company (Kampani) that endanger Khaufpur.
Its really cool that you brought up the communal struggle against the Company as well. Its amazing how the company pretty much persists against the community just as the poison in their bodies does. Both are invisible attackers too, as the Company doesn’t really have a face, and the poison evaporated with the night that it was unleashed.