On December 3rd 1984 the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal India caught fire and exploded. The chemicals that were released into the atmosphere by the fire and the smoke caused horrific physical damage to all who were exposed to the fallout as well as the initial explosion. But what remains unknown to this day is the full extent of the long-term damage to the city's environment.
How much and what chemicals infected the water table? What were the long-term effects on male and female chromosomes from the inhalation of the clouds of poison gas that swept through the area along with the flames? Aside from physical damage, what long-term mental damage were survivors inflicted with?
There might not be so many questions about the long-term implications of the explosion if Union Carbide's head office in the United States would admit that their product had anything to do with people's problems in the post explosion world. Instead, they have fled the country and tried their best to provide as little compensation as possible to the people of Bhopal. On one of the websites that posts information about the case they have a running ticker counting the hours since the disaster and how much money each person has received on average in compensation; the current count stand at six cents.
I suppose the officials at Union Carbide had hoped the problem would just go away if they hid out in the States and refused to show up in court or obey court orders in India. The fact that Ronald Reagan was President and not inclined to let foreigners push decent Americans around let them get away with this behaviour, as any decent government would have enforced at least the compensation orders.
Try to imagine for a moment what if must be like to be the people of Bhopal who have lived for twenty plus years watching family and friends die, descend into madness or give birth to still born babies. Animal's People, the latest offering from Indian author Indra Sinha available from Simon & Schuster Canada does just that.
Through the twisted lens of the eyes of his lead character Animal we get to know some of the people of the small town of Kaufpur and learn about how the disaster affected each of them. There's also more than the disease eating away at the people; there's loss of faith in just about everything; and deep-seated despair caused by the certainty that nobody gives a damn about them.
Our tour guide through the hardest hit areas of the town, the poorest areas of the city where the hovels and shanties of the factory workers were only blocks away from their employment, is Animal of the title. Animal is a minor celebrity with visiting journalists who come to a do their biennial "what ever happened to the people of Kaufpur" looking for a story. Not only is he a good bit of local colour with his name and his attitude, he's also a great photo opportunity.
You see his name is derived from the fact that his spine is so crooked and bent that he has to go around on his hands and knees – like an animal. He's been told that he came into the world the night of the explosion and that his mother lost her life because of it. He was found in a basket and raised at an orphanage. His own earliest memories are of pain – of lying in bed as his body was racked with fever and his spine contorting.
When a journalist leaves Animal with a tape recorder and blank tapes for him to record his story the first he thing he does is sell the recorder. However, that only means he has to find another one when he finds he does have something to say about his life, the people he knows, and the events of one particular season.
The poor of Kaufpur have so little and have had so much taken away, that they are naturally suspicious of anything offered for free. So when an American doctor comes to town and opens a free clinic in the poorest part of the town, suspicions are raised that she is actually working in tandem with the bosses of the 'Kampani' who are on trial.
Somehow they are going to use the health records created by the doctor from her patient list to disavow themselves of any responsibility of wrong doing when it comes to the illnesses of those in town. So, in spite of desperately needing the services offered by the doctor they boycott the clinic to protest the underhanded nature of the bosses.
Indra Sinha has performed a virtual miracle with Animal's People. He has written a story about the survivors of a Bhopal type incident without once making them out to be victims. In fact, as Animal articulates to the new doctor, what he really hates is when foreign journalists or do-gooders come around and look at him with the kind of face they'd normally reserve for a stray cat.
Of course that is what it makes the book all the more powerful – for all their differences in culture and status from most of those who will be reading the book, the characters are easy to identify with and very real. From the frustrations of the doctor as to why people won't come to her clinic, and her growing realization of how foreign doesn't just apply to nationality, but life experience as well, to the brutal self-assessments of Animal when he examines his own motivations, they all have traits we can recognise or feelings we can associate with.
Animal's People is about people who are forced to live in brutal circumstances yet never surrender to them, and continue to rise above them on a daily basis in the slim hope that some day will bring improvement. Sinha manages to incorporate enough moments of beauty into their world to offer a small measure of justification for their hope. A small measure may not seem like much, but to a parched soul, it is a bounty.
Animal's People is a wonderful book about a horrible set of circumstances that might just change the way you look at the faces staring back at you in the newspaper from photos of a disaster on the other side of the world. Aid agencies are too quick to turn people into victims and doing them a disservice. Indra Sinha takes steps to reverse that process and turn them back into human beings.
(Originally posted September 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.