Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, set in the city of Khaufpur (meaning “the city of fear”), serves as a reenactment of Union Carbide city gas leak that affected the people of Bhopal in 1984. The story is set almost two decades after the leak, around 2001, when Animal reaches the age of 19. Unlike other novels and plays we’ve been exposed to in this class, the “contagion” being described was neither brought about by divine prophecy nor natural forces. Counter to other popular reads, the sufferings and terrible diseases affecting the people of Khaufpur was as a result of a man-made chemical spill in The Kampani — a pesticide plant. The people who survived suffer from terrible diseases that cannot be treated because of the poverty in the city. When doctor Elli Barber comes to Khaufpur to start a free clinic it is harder than she expects because everyone thinks she is part of the factory that caused destructions.
The audience of the text is quickly ushered into the novel with the lines, “I used to be human once […] people who knew me when I was small say I walked on two feet just like a human being.” Hence, before delving deep into the heart of the novel, we (the audience) begin to grapple with the question: What does it mean to be human? Does being human equate to able-bodiedness? Or the quality of being bipedal? Consequently, the book also draws to light the question of what it means to be an animal. Grappling with these questions led us to look up the term “animal” in the Oxford English Dictionary and we came up with the following definitions:
“A living organism which feeds on organic matter, typically having specialized sense organs and a nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli.”
“Any such living organism other than a human being.”
“A person without human attributes or civilizing influences, especially someone who’s cruel, violent or repulsive.
These definitions may be framed in terms of the literal sense of the word but it will be important to apply some of these definitions when assessing some of the qualities displayed by twenty-year-old orphan boy. The most obvious depiction of the boy is with his name “Animal”. Indra Sinha, thus far, hasn’t divulged the true name of the boy. The author and our main character choose to stick to the name “Animal”. Similarly, the audience is made aware of his seemingly crude behaviours, which include extreme aggression, biting, and eating his feet for pleasure (Sinha 13). Interestingly, these “animal behaviours” do not manifest because he is an animal, but because of society’s reactions to having such a “creature” in their midst. He had to learn to defend himself from the “humans” who treated him so callously because “…if you act powerless, you are powerless…” (Sinha 19). Perhaps, he’s adamant about not identifying as human because, ironically, being human doesn’t just entail bipedalism but the attributes of evil, callousness and the inability to tolerate anyone who’s “especially abled” (Sinha 23).
There are a lot of connotations that go with one’s name: “Zafar Bhai, Zafar brother” because people respect him,”Eyes” because of his abilities to read and perceive and interpret information, “Banjara” or gypsy because “she belongs nowhere and everywhere is her kingdom” (Sinha 18) and then “Animal” because he’s perceived as a four-legged creature. What is the significance of “names” in this text and how do they influence how characters in the text are perceived in their society?
The use of dark humour is also a noteworthy feature of the book. For the most parts, this humour creates a satirical, almost cynical tone of the whole post-leak situation, tickling the audience to laugh but then rendering them to feel guilty afterwards. Recall how Animal makes fun of his condition by telling a joke about “the turd lying in the dust” that still “resemble the kebab you once were” (1). The audience would definitely find this funny, but the realization that this joke is a form of lamentation told by a real person suffering from a real fatal consequence of a real event suppresses them from laughing. This troubling effect, in a way, is fostered by how the narrative perspective is played. The book is directly told by Animal, which is supposed to remove the possible gap between him and the audience that might exist if the delivery of his story was done by the journalist. Yet the use of dark humour in the book somehow reiterates the faint line that separates Animal from the audience. Animal makes it clear that he is the victim and we are just mere spectators. Of course he is entitled to satirize the gas leak and its impacts on the locals, but does that mean we, as outsiders, can appropriately laugh at his jokes? How should the relationship between Animal and the audience be perceived? What is the significance of humour in the development of this relationship?
Like most other texts too that we’ve read this semester, this one introduces a seemingly complicated love plot; Animal is in love or lusts after Nisha, a girl whom is presumably already in a relationship with Zafar. Because he doesn’t identify as a “(hu)man” Animal doesn’t feel like he’s deserving of Nisha’s affection because he’s abnormal. In his words:
“Of course I had no chance with Nisha. She was besotted with Zafar and my back was bent as a scorpion’s tail. Over and over I’d tell myself, if only I could stand up straight, it might be a different matter, that old guy wouldn’t have a chance. This made me feel better but changed nothing. What hope was there that my back will even unbend? I complained to Nisha that everyone else would one day get married, but no girl would ever look at me.”
The text, unlike other texts we’ve read, gives a different portrayal of “the foreigner”. In previous texts, the foreigner is depicted as the cause of the contagion. However, this text portrays the foreigner as both the cause of the chemical spillage and as the saviour of the Khaufpuris. The “Kampani” from “Amrika” has been blamed from the onset of the novel as the leading cause of the oil spillage. Zafar is even adamant about taking them to court and bringing them to justice for the sufferings inflicted on the Khaufpuris. On the other hand, it’s the American doctor — Dr. Elli Barber — who abandons her job in America to come start up the Khuafpur free clinic geared towards the poor and destitute. Why are foreigners depicted as literally the cause of and probable solution to the problem of the Khuafpuris? What is the significance of this portrayal to the nature of the contagion in the book?
Throughout the book, we are presented with scenes where Animal displays an incredible talent of hearing voices unheard by other characters. His ability to translate French without having knowledge of the language, his awareness of Aliya’s calling him out to play even though she is nowhere in sight, his talking to Kha-in-the-jar who is literally just an aborted baby — all these scenes make the audience question whose voices Animal is hearing. One would probably be inclined to think that this is just a reinforcement of Animal’s identity as a dog-like creature. Dogs in general have the capability to perceive sounds with frequencies twice to human’s range, and they can even sense the arrival of someone or something from as far as 80 feet away just by hearing their footsteps. Given the frequent mention of Animal’s equation with dogs, is it possible that these voices attempt to signal Animal to pay attention to whatever’s coming his way? Do these voices, coupled with his disability, instead enable him to carry out his spying mission? We definitely need to keep note of this as we read through the rest of the book.
Happy reading! And here’s an Animal sculpture by Eleanor Stride photographed at the Stride Gallery in Vers, Midi-Pyrenées, France.
Odera, Dayin, Noora and Nada.