Monday, October 22, 2007

Campaigning Animal

Animal's People (which I reviewed yesterday in in yesterday's Starmag) was one of the two Booker shortlisted titles I enjoyed the most this year. It is a remarkable book written with a much larger agenda than simply to entertain (although it does that admirably).

I remember hearing the TV news about the unbelievable horror of the Bhopal Disaster: it was December 3, 1984, and the world's worst industrial accident when a leak deadly Methyl Isocyanate gas killed approximately 3,800 people, while several thousands more were disabled. The horror of that night is captured by this description on the website of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal:
There was no warning, none of the plant's safety systems were working. In the city people were sleeping. They woke in darkness to the sound of screams with the gases burning their eyes, noses and mouths. They began retching and coughing up froth streaked with blood. Whole neighbourhoods fled in panic, some were trampled, others convulsed and fell dead. People lost control of their bowels and bladders as they ran. Within hours thousands of dead bodies lay in the streets.
But issues drop from the news, the attention span is short. And how much, really can any of us really care about people we don't know and have never met, especially when the news is always moving on to the next disaster (floods, earthquakes, famine, wars) in which thousands die?

For me, as for most of the world, the incident slipped beneath the radar. I do remember vaguely reading an article in Time or Newsweek about corruption and the money not reaching the poorest of the victims, and feeling angry about it all over again. But that was really all. Until Indra Sinha's series of harrowing advertisements began to appear in the British press and some of the personal stories were told (left - click to fully enlarge).

Sinha (below), once voted one of the ten best British copywriters of all time*, gave up his career to concentrate on issues which were of much more importance to him after he was approached to help raise funds for a free clinic for the people of Bhopal.

It is a cause he has remained passionately devoted to ever since and Animal's People, set in Khaufpur (a thinly very disguised Bhopal) draws deeply on the stories of real people he was involved with. Animal himself is based on Sunil Kumar, a Bhopal survivor and Sinha's friend, to whom the novel is dedicated. Sunil died in 2006, aged 34.

Until I read the novel, I had not realised that the effects of the disaster were still being felt today, not only because of the initial injuries suffered by the population, but also because poisons (including agents causing cancer and birth defects) continue to leak from the plant and have and have leached into the water supply.

There is of course the official version of things put out by a multinational corporation (Union Carbide was taken over by Dow Chemical) and the politicians, and then there is the story of the victims themselves who lack a voice because they are poor and largely uneducated. (It's very interesting to read these two pages side by side the Union Carbide Statement and the page from Bhopal.con.)

I hope anyway that this post has made you curious enough to pick up the book, and also to explore the bhopal.net website to find out more about the background to the issue. I have still more, about the book itself, to write.

Of all the articles I read on Sinha, I enjoyed this interview with with Anil Thackery the best.

(*Thought you'd like to know: other copywriters who have made successful novelists include Fay Weldon, Joseph Heller, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie.)

5 comments:

Greenbottle said...

sharon;

your 'review' in starmag of animal's people or 'synopsis' of the book rather(?) did not move me to read the book but this post certainly do! goes to show that book reviewing isn't just explaining what the book's plot is.

and my interest is closer to home because i'm now working for this MNC which has a funny tendency to buy out crappy companies. previous to this we had a problem with that silicon some of you gals put in your breasts.the company that manufactured this was also bought over by Dow. and recently dow bought over a company which has a product that is a favorite target of some NGOs...but good for me as this problem gets me to travel all over the place saying things are ok!

bibliobibuli said...

thanks greenbottle, and you are quite right about the review. i was screaming with frustration at the word limit (supposed to be under 500 words so everything could be squeezed on the page). i scarcely even got to talk about the characters, i couldn't say much about the language of the book, i didn't get to say actually what i didn't like so much about the book!! i still need another post to manage all of that.

aiyoh man ... how can you say things are ok? boo hisssssss (actually i thought of you as i was writing this blog post. i hadn't made this connection till just. can you still stay on the dark side after reading the novel and the website??)

may this book do a bit of world changing

Greenbottle said...

sharon;

perhaps you should tell the STAR, unless they lift the 500 words limit rule, NO more reviews! It's ridiculous to give a 500 words quickie like that and expect anybody to get interested in reading literary books.

it's all right for stupid books like harry potter, these books got hyped up in kind of crazy places and don't need any reviews at all.
i think it's to the good of STAR newspaper too if they expand their literary pages. their closest rival NST is merely another stupid paper these days.

i'm defintely certain that you and people like Animah can do justice to reviews if given the chance and freedom.it'd be great if one day soon we get to see full length reviews like those in the guardian or sunday times (UK) or like NYT's michiko kakutani's.I know you're up to the challenge if given the chance.

...and about all these big companies doing bad things...well bhopal is unfortunate...it's simply EHS and product stewardship issues (as they say in this milleu)...not exactly intrinsic problem of the chemicals itself..same as the product that i'm involved with...it's abuse problem...

with regards to the silicon thing...well, why the hell women want to put them in their body in the first place?...i like them natural....

bibliobibuli said...

perhaps you should tell the STAR, unless they lift the 500 words limit rule, NO more reviews! It's ridiculous to give a 500 words quickie like that and expect anybody to get interested in reading literary books.

i know how hard the battle has to be fought to give books even the space they have now. it really would help if you dropped an e-mail to the editor to say thanks for what we have but how about some more?!

starmag@thestar.com.my

if enough people speak up, we book-lovers might be heard. and how about your most eloquent self writing some reviews? i know you haven't for ages but i think you'd do us all good!

*cough cough* "unfortunate"? aiyoh nice word.

do we have a malaysian bhopal in the making?

i agree with you about silicone boobs though. silly pointy things.

October 22, 2007 6:01 PM

Madcap Machinist said...

Very curious about this book.

"A longer review, like this one by Tim Kindseth in Time magazine, seems overlong though. Does he give too much away at the end, I wonder.

Yes it's highbrow but here's a memorable paragraph from the review:

Animal scorns his patron-reporter: "You were like all the others," he gibes, "come to suck our stories from us." And he similarly repudiates us, his audience of genteel readers: "They only know what I tell them," he gloats. But beneath the braggadocio and blustery egocentrism is a crippled soul, his swaggering misanthropy a crusty carapace to hide and protect the psychic pain rooted in his physical deformity. Six years after the accident at the chemical plant, the lingering poisons from that night began to ruin him, quickly buckling his back: "When the smelting in my spine stopped, the bones had twisted like a hairpin," Animal grouses. Since that mangling, his gimpy back has defined and misaligned his relationship with the world. Animal is the Quasimodo of Khaufpur.

It sends tingles down my spine. Then again, further down, "[Animal's] peculiarly expressive patois — jagged street slang flecked with artful snatches of French, which he has learned from a daft nun...", does not tell me much about the texture of his voice, unlike your review does.

Would have been fun to read a review written in that style! The shorter format seems to lend itself to that kind of experimentation.

Sinha's touristy website for Khaufpur is also a great idea, yet another way to connect with an online audience (and get plugged into cramped review pages!)