A Conversation with Indra Sinha:
(Reprinted with permission from The Book Depository.)
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Animal's People?
Indra Sinha: In 1996, I made some notes for a screenplay titled Green Song, which was an attempt to tell a fictionalized account not of the Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal, but of its aftermath -- of the suffering, the wicked neglect, and the struggle of its people -- people I know very well -- for justice. The story of Bhopal is almost beyond belief. In October 2002, Outlook India wrote:
"Bhopal isn't only about charred lungs, poisoned kidneys and deformed foetuses. It's also about corporate crime, multinational skullduggery, injustice, dirty deals, medical malpractice, corruption, callousness, and contempt for the poor. Nothing else explains why the victims' average compensation was just $500 -- for a lifetime of misery...Yet the victims haven't given up. Their struggle for justice and dignity is one of the most valiant anywhere. They have unbelievable energy and hope...the fight has not ended. It won't, so long as our collective conscience stirs."
This was the background, but novels are about people, not issues. I knew Bhopal too well. To write freely, I had to imagine another city. In this fictional place, which I called Khaufpur ("khauf" is an Urdu word that means "terror") the characters could come to life. Even so, the attempt to transcribe screenplay to novel at first wouldn't work. No matter what I tried, the matter remained dark and lifeless. One day a friend said he had met a boy who went on all fours. Two days later my daughter Tara told me about an old Frenchwoman she had met, who had forgotten how to speak all languages except her childhood French and thought everyone else was just making meaningless noises. Thus were Animal and Ma Franci born. Animal decided that he, not I, would write the book. And he did.
MT: How long did it take you to write it?
IS: I began in the autumn of 2001 and finished early in 2006. This included two years when no actual writing got done because I was working eighteen-hour days as a volunteer for the Bhopal justice campaign. What triggered this was the fear that a friend would die in a desperate hunger strike. The story is told here. This is how I knew what it was like to fast without water in temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Later I would learn about the duplicity of politicians and the stubborn bravery of those left to suffer. Like trickles flowing into a river, all these experiences found their own paths into the novel.
MT: What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the Booker prize?
IS: It's thrilling. The media attention is fun but won't last long. The best thing is that the novel will now be read and have a chance to find its audience, because word of mouth is what creates lasting success for a book. The greatest accolade that a writer can have is that their book has become popular because people who read it loved it enough to recommend it. Animal and I have been lucky. A lot of very good novels disappear without a trace each year. We will never have the opportunity to rediscover them or to know what has been lost.
MT: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the response to your work? Have you learned anything from it?
IS: I've had some magnificent reviews. No stinkers so far, although one will surely be along soon. People seem to like Animal despite his foul language and questionable behavior, although some find his syntax irritating. Critics often disagree with one another. One said Animal's hallucinogenic sojourn in a forest disappointed him because it was "a Rushdie not a Sinha ending," whereas another reviewer, a novelist, praised the "extraordinary tension" of the last hundred pages. After a novel is published, I think the author has to stand back and let the work speak for itself. Sometimes it's difficult to hold one's tongue. I am hoping someone will sooner or later start wondering about the alchemical motifs that run through the book.
MT: Your book uses the disaster at Bhopal as its backdrop. Does your novel have a polemical point to make? How are things now in Bhopal?
IS: I hope that Animal's People can make a difference to the Bhopalis and help them in their campaign. But it can only do this if it succeeds in its own right as a novel. After twenty-three years, the Bhopal issue is so complex, its various strands -- legal, medical, social, human, environmental, political -- so intertangled that it would take a Ph.D. to unravel them. For the novel, all of this had to be simplified -- a catastrophe years earlier, the company refusing to come to court, the factory still poisoning, people still ill, children being born with terrible deformities, politicians selling their own people down the river in return for dollars -- hardly ever do these issues come into the foreground, and whenever they do, Animal is there to debunk and deride, dissolving polemic in the acid of his own cynicism.
MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?
IS: Directly into an Apple Notebook. I've been writing one way or another since I was ten and learned to use a typewriter at fifteen, so the keyboard feels natural to me. The advantage of the computer is being able to do endless versions, but this is also the main disadvantage. You are never obliged to commit yourself. If I get stuck, or am traveling, or out in nature, I carry a notebook and write with a fountain pen, usually a Rotring 600 Newton with hexagonal barrel. But the best fountain pen I have at the moment is a Bic. The hand-written sentences flow faster with less reflection and contain ideas that haven't been intercepted by the busybody editor in the brain. The computer makes it possible to achieve deep layering, but one has to be careful. As Kingsley Amis used to say, overworked prose has "a whiff of the lamp."
MT: What do you do when you are not writing?
IS: Read, listen to music, watch movies. Vickie and I watch more television now that our French is improving. We live in a dilapidated water mill with the river on three sides and underneath us. There's a weir complete with sluice gates that are our responsibility to manage. On our third day here, we woke to find the mayor climbing into the garden in a state of some agitation. "Monsieur, the Ministry says we must clean the weir immediately. If the village floods that's me hanging from the next lamppost." "Next lamppost to what?" "To yours!" Three days of cutting, weeding, and scraping, in gloriously hot weather cooled by dips in the river, and it was done.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" readers? Did you write specifically for them?
IS: In Animal's People, the Kakadu Jarnalis urges Animal to record his story on tape and says: "Animal, you must imagine that you are talking to just one person. Slowly that person will come to seem real to you. Imagine them to be a friend. You must trust them and open your heart to them, that person will not judge you badly whatever you say." This is pretty much how I feel. I know that I don't like every novel ever written and that some people won't like mine. I know it's a bit of a cliché, but I try to write what I think I'd enjoy reading. If I had to identify an ideal reader, I'd point to the book bloggers. They read books for the love of it, are better read than most professional critics, write intelligently, without rancor, and have to gain an audience by the quality of their writing.
MT: What are you working on now?
IS: A novel set in Patmos in the year 95 CE. It tells of Yokhanan, a very old man who, earlier in his life, had been part of a radical movement for change in Palestine. I'll leave you to surmise the rest, but whatever you surmise, I promise it won't be like that, and it is most definitely not a historical novel. After Yokhanan, I have a story set in England in 2043, followed by a tale spanning two centuries in Europe, then two stories set in France -- one near the Bordeaux coast and the other I am not too sure about as I only had the idea yesterday.
MT: Who is your favorite writer? What is/are your favorite book(s)?
IS: All time favorite? Very difficult, a list inevitably colored by childhood. The only criterion is that these are books I have loved. The choice is from:
I hate to choose, but if forced, I'll say Lawrence Durrell. His work is not
to everyone's taste, but he was a writer's writer and had lived a very romantic,
literary life, ending up in the south of France, not far from where we now live.
Nearly thirty years ago, Vickie and I backpacked around France in a sort of
homage. I carried a portable typewriter and recall tapping away on a table under
a tree with ripe plums splatting all around, smoldering Gitane and glass of wine
to hand. I felt like a real writer, just like Larry Durrell.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer?
IS: Work hard and don't give up. Don't be discouraged if you can't find an agent or a publisher. The Internet is changing things. There are now many more ways to find a readership. Believe in your characters, and write for the sheer joy of it. I have some stuff for writers on my Web site, www.indrasinha.com, plus an even longer list of classic fiction.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
IS: Buy Animal's People, or Animal will get you.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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