I’ve been approaching my reading of the Booker longlist titles in much the same way I approached my dinner as a child: get through the vegetables first and then you have the meat to look forward to. So for the second of the longlist titles I hadn’t read, I chose Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (it would have been A.N. Wilson’s Winnie & Wolf, but it hasn’t arrived yet). Great! Another boring book about India. It doesn’t even look like a novel: the cover design resembles an exotic form of misery memoir, perhaps an account of life stunted by the Union Carbide chemical disaster in Bhopal in the 1980s.
Well: more fool me. In fact, mea maxima culpa, because like Nikita Lalwani’s Gifted, Animal’s People has shaken off my preconceptions. And unlike Gifted, it has shot straight to the upper levels of the seven Booker longlisted titles I’ve read so far, and is one of my finest – and coarsest – reads of the year.
It doesn’t take long to see that Indra Sinha has given us something special in Animal’s People: even on page one, his crippled narrator’s boisterous voice is fully developed and alive:
I used to walk upright, that’s what Ma Franci says, why would she lie? It’s not like the news is a comfort to me. Is it kind to remind a blind man he once could see? The priests who whisper magic in the ears of corpses, they’re not saying, ‘Cheer up, you used to be alive.’ No one leans down and tenderly reassures the turd lying in the dust, ‘You still resemble the kebab you once were…’
Our storyteller is Animal, a nineteen year old boy who, ever since ‘That Night’ in his home town of Khaufpur (a fictionalised Bhopal), when ‘the Kampani’s’ factory leaked poisonous chemicals all over the soil, water and air, has been unable to walk upright and instead must get along on all fours. “The pain gripped my neck and forced it down.”
Animal (“I used to be a human once”) is telling his story into the ‘tape mashin’ left behind by a foreign reporter (‘Jarnaliss’), and his vigorous, foul-mouthed style makes him one of the most memorable narrators I’ve read in ages, and a vividly painted tragicomic freak almost of the scale of Owen Meany. He has a twisted syntax (“I wake with head’s singing. Still dark it’s but can’t sleep”) which fortunately doesn’t too often come out like Yoda, and doesn’t interfere with the flow of his story.
He lives among a community of the sub-poor, and what keeps many of them going beyond the day-to-day is the hope of seeing justice through the courts against the Kampani for the poison which has crippled and killed thousands of their people. At the same time they are “terrified that one night the factory will rise from the dead and come striding like a blood-dripping demon to snatch them off.” Animal sometimes manages to do the right thing even though his motives are usually selfish, not least involving his ‘lund’ which is one part of his body which still works:
it has become huge and hard, reared up it’s, feels like a log, with each beat of the heart it’s battering my belly.
It’s this desire to satisfy his “heavy monster” which leads him to covert spying missions on both his childhood sweetheart and the pretty ‘Amrikan doctress’ who has come to open a free clinic to treat the ill townspeople (“I’ve been seeing a lot of Elli and Nisha, albeit without them knowing”). Yet despite his crudity, selfishness and doubtful trustworthiness, I found it impossible not to warm to Animal: it’s all, I suppose, in the language.
Chunaram says I should be a Hindu because of all I’ve suffered in this life, I’m sure to get a better deal next time round, more than likely be a prince or politician or something. Trouble with that way of looking at things is by the same logic my situation is the result of evil things I did in my past lives, some people do look at me as if they’re wondering how many children I murdered last time round.
Sinha’s achievements don’t end with this expert ventriloquism. He has an ability too to deal with large subjects – from poverty to ideology – head-on without giving us an ear-bashing, and to make his story invoke sympathy without sentimentality. The only disappointment is what seems like a slight failure of narrative nerve toward the end.
It was with some amazement that I discovered not a single national newspaper in the UK reviewed Animal’s People when it was published earlier this year. No doubt (like me) they’ll all now be playing catch-up, but in the meantime we have to give thanks to the Booker judges for alerting us to this meaty, joyful, feast of a novel, filled with violence, energy and humour, which should without doubt reach the shortlist and must stand a very good chance of winning. And I managed to write a review of it without once using the word colourful. Almost.