Sinha's unusual novel, Animal's People,
centers on a unique character Animal, a young man
who, after suffering severe poisoning from a violent
chemical leak at the local factory, is forced to
walk on all fours. His back is bent in half, and he
regales the reader with his perspective on life as
he looks at, and below, the waists of humanity. At
first, Animal is not easy to like. He is
foul-mouthed, defensive, and bitter. He laughs at
the world, and his dirty existence is difficult to
take in; however, as the story evolves, so does our
respect and sympathy for Animal and his situation.
Animal speaks to the reader in perhaps the best example of second-person narration I have read. Each chapter is divided into 'Tapes,' which creates a sense of believability. In fact, Sinha's use of verisimilitude, the literary method of implying truth in fiction, expands beyond the book to khaufpur.com, the 'official' website of the city of Khaufpur - a website created by Sinha in the likeness of the fictional city of Khaufpur found in the pages of Animal's People. The website includes an interview with, and photographs of a statue of, Animal plus the day to day goings on of the city including horoscopes and gossip column.
It is presumed that Sinha's purpose in creating such a realistic backdrop to his story is to increase awareness of the horrible chemical accident in Bhopal. Creating a character with an aura of real-life star appeal is likely to get and keep readers interested in the story, which will hopefully urge people to aid the victims of the disaster. However, even without the convincing media campaign, the fictional Animal leaps from the page like a unique, real person.
Animal's tale is told solely by him through the tape mashin (machine), and his tone and diction are the key ways the reader learns the story. Animal speaks English, French and Hindi - the narrative combining a mixture of all three, with phrases and words from French and Hindi haphazardly inserted into Animal's speech. Animal's sentences do not adhere to English grammar, and it becomes clear that this is a man who can cross the boundaries of culture, language, and discrimination.
The novel opens with Chunaram, a local shopkeeper, urging Animal to speak to yet another 'journalis' (journalist). Animal refuses at first; through a cynical arrangement between him and Chunaram, he has been exhibited to countless journalists who 'come to suck our stories', but he eventually agrees and, in exchange for the journalis' pants, his kakadus (khakis), Animal begins to record his tale on the tape mashin. The 'journalis' tells Animal that he wants to hear and understand his story, so that he can share Animal's experiences with the world. He tells Animal that millions of eyes will know his story as a result of his recordings on the tape mashin. Henceforth, Animal talks to the mashin and the millions of 'Eyes,' which he references directly throughout the novel. Animal's relationship to the 'Eyes' warms over his story, until it becomes clear that the 'Eyes' have become his conscience. He implores the 'Eyes' to understand him and not to judge him as he wrestles with his place in the world, yearns for a woman's love, and works to gain respect in his community.
Animal's greatest gift, and the reason he is so sympathetic as a character, is his sense of humor. From the Western perspective, his life is awful: he must walk on all fours, he must beg for food, he believes no one will love him, and he has no opportunity to better himself. To Animal, though, his plight is merely run of the mill; in fact, it's perhaps better than most because his condition has made him special. He can run like an animal, and he has the rare ability to understand the souls of other people, something he attributes to the poison. He hears voices in his head that urge him to make certain choices, or tune him into the thoughts and hopes of his friends. He argues again and again, as other characters urge him to think of himself as a human, that he is an animal amongst men, unique and special. His foul language that jars at the start of the narrative becomes hilarious as Animal uses his special way with speach to highlight other characters' issues and flaws.
Sinha's tale glistens with hope and humanity. Animal's language and story float off the page until we believe that we are in fact listening to his humorous voice rather than reading it. We are left at the end, as we watch Animal saunter away, with a sense of great insight, that we have seen how the 'weak can inherit the earth' and make us all strong.
This review was originally published in April 2008, and has been updated for the March 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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