Friday, November 02, 2007

A Boy Called Animal

“I used to be human once,” declares Animal at the start of the novel. Just for a moment we wonder what strange kind of black magic might have brought about this transmutation of boy to beast.

The truth is far more devastating. The fictional Indian city of Khaufpur where Animal lives, is in fact a thinly disguised Bhopal, and Animal is one of the victims of the world’s worst ever industrial accident which has left him a twisted spine. The now derelict chemical plant is still leaching toxic substances into the water to cause cancer and birth defects.

Animal records his story on a tape-recorder given to him by a “jurnalis” in a distinctive voice which echoes the rhythm and word order of Hindi for the benefit of “the eyes” - all those people in the outside world who might bear witness to his remarkable story.

He describes himself as a “hard bastard”. But underneath the rough exterior and the crude speech we quickly recognise that he has a compassionate heart, a wicked sense of humour and a sharp mind. He manages to eke out a living on the streets, ferreting through garbage and sometimes even selling his blood, until he finds employment as a messenger and go-between for a group of activists headed by the charismatic Zafar, who has left his studies to take up the cause of the poor and to fight for justice in the corrupt court system.

It’s a really challenge to an author to take a character who is so completely good, and make him interesting to the reader, yet Sinha manages this with Zafar who becomes Animal’s rival in love in a hilarious love triangle with Nisha, a music teacher’s daughter, who provides Animal with a daily meal and reading lessons.

Matters are complicated when an American woman, Ellie Barber, turns up in town to provide aid for the survivors of the disaster. Zafar and his friends order a boycott of her clinic, because they fear that she is in fact a spy of the kompani. Animal also reinvents himself as a bit of a James Bond character;(“Namispond. Jamispond.”) Much of the time, though, he’s up a tall tree in her garden watching her in various states of undress. He finds himself as something of a double-agent as he knows Ellie might be the one person able to help him by sending him for surgery in Amrika.

Although the subject matter of the book is often dark and painful, and there is no flinching away from the horror of the night of the explosion or the ongoing suffering of the people, the novel is balanced by some wonderfully comic moments, a rollicking plot worthy of a Bollywood movie, and a full complement of larger-than-life characters whom we come to care about.

“I am a small person, not even human, what difference will my story make?” asks Animal at one point of the book. The answer is that former ad-man Indra Sinha who has worked tirelessly to bring the story of Bhopal victims to the wider world might have launched his most powerful campaign yet.

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