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:
- Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
- Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
- Charles Dickens, Hard Times
- Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor
- Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Books
- Dion Clayton Calthrop, The Guide to Fairyland
- H. G. Wells, Tono-Bungay
- John Buchan, Witch Wood
- Mulk Raj Anand, Untouchable
- George Orwell, Animal Farm
- Don Marquis, The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel
- Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
- Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
- Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
- Saadat Hasan Manto, every short story he ever wrote
- John Steinbeck, Tortilla Flat
- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
- William Golding, Pincher Martin
- Vladimir Nabokov, Ada
- Nikos Kazantzakis, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel
- Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals
- Terry Southern, Blue Movie
- Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
- Susan Wills Goss, Memory's Dancer
- Iris Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea
- Paul Scott, Staying On
- Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum
- Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children
- Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot
- Kazuo Ishiguro, The Unconsoled
- Annie Proulx, The Shipping News
- Richard Flanagan, Gould's Book of Fish
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.