Monday, March 26, 2012

"To be trapped in an animal body is hell, if you dream of being human..."

“Grim animal living without hope, that’s how I saw myself. I asked nothing, expected less and was filled with anger at the world.” (Animal’s People, 83)
I have just finished Indra Sinha’s novel ‘Animal’s People' and enjoyed it far more than I thought I would. Sinha based the novel on the events in 1984 where a factory leaked poisonous chemical gases near Bhopal, India. The effects were catastrophic and the American owned company Union Carbide were never really brought to justice. Over 20,000 people died from the effects, others were left horribly deformed and with permanent side-effects. Various compensation agreements have been reached but there is still widespread feeling that not enough was done for the victims of this tragedy. (  Sinha himself went on hunger strike, as do some of his characters in the novel, to try and get the Indian government to act, at least to listen, – a quest for the simple right to justice.


This word is very much the epicentre of the novel. The protagonist is named ‘Animal’ because of his deformation which causes him to move on all fours but he longs to stand ‘upright’ so that he can be loved like any other human being. This internal battle emerges gradually, Animal actually tries very hard to give the impression he wants nothing of humanity and vehemently refutes it when his friends try to describe him as human. His recourse to animalism could be seen as a kind of defence -he is vulgar in his expressions of his wants and needs but also has moments of profound sincerity, compassion and emotional vulnerability. This emotional emergence coincides with the arrival of the American doctress Elli Barber, who takes an interest in his condition, and speaks of a possible cure.
There is a hint of post-colonialism in both the problems posed by the arrival of Elli, and the negotiation between Animal and the journalist/ ‘Jarnaliss’ who wants to record his story. Animal is cynical about this:
“My story you wanted, said you’d put it in a book. I did not want to talk about it… what difference will my story make? You told me that sometimes the stories of small people in this world can achieve big things, this is the way you buggers always talk. I said, many books have been written about this place, not one has changed anything for the better, how will yours be different? You will bleat like all the rest. You’ll talk of rights, law, justice...” (AP, 3)


“you were like all the others, come to suck our stories from us, so strangers in far off countries can marvel there’s so much pain in the world. Like vultures are you jarnaliss… drawn by the smell of blood. You have turned us Khaufpuris into storytellers, but always of the same story… always that fucking night” (AP, 5)

Always the same story, the story of the disaster. For really, it is a humanitarian event which prompts the West to actually take interest in the plight of others. And when they do, their interest is often too focused on one event, one story, and not the whole picture. I couldn’t help feeling this myself when watching Sport Relief. Of course Sport Relief is a positive thing - it always raises a vast sum of money for very good causes and does raise awareness but only on a very emotional level. It appeals to the heart, not the mind, and it is in fact the mind which would do more good. We get one minute video clips of children dying, but rarely the bigger picture. The notion of the ‘single story’ is brilliantly talked about by Chimamanda Adichie (the ‘danger of the single story’, TED conference,

“What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning, pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her, in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.”

The ‘danger of the single story’ is one that Animal picks up on, especially after discovering there is already a plan for the book: ‘How can foreigners at the world’s other end, who’ve never set foot in Khaufpur, decide what’s to be said about this place?’ (AP, 9). But to analyse this book solely in the context of post-colonialism would be doing it a disservice. It is far more complex than that and has far more to say.  Animal will only tell his story on his own terms and makes this clear from the beginning:

“Eyes, I don’t know if you are a man or a woman. I’m thinking the things I am telling are not suited to a woman’s ears, but if a person leaves things unsaid so as to avoid looking bad, it’s a lie… if you feel embarrassed throw down the book in which these words are printed “ (AP, 79)

I am often put off by unnecessary and extreme passages of crude sexual or violent depiction but Animal reasons in such a way that it makes it kind of beautiful when it does occur. He sets a challenge in a very admirable way. If you don’t like it  - look away. I came to have such an immense respect for this character.  Other key players in the book are Zafar, the somewhat messianic character who attempts to lead the Khaufpuris in their struggle for justice, and Nisha, Zafar’s girlfriend and the girl Animal lusts after.
So why does Animal both consciously choose to be an ‘animal’ and also maintain that he has no choice in the matter? This is an underlying tension throughout his story. ‘I’ll never do it’, he insists, ‘if I agree to be a human being I’ll also have to agree that I’m wrong shaped and abnormal. But let me be a quatre pattes animal, four-footed and free, then I am whole, my own proper shape’ (AP, 208). Farouq, another member of their group, argues that Animal’s choice is to ‘escape the responsibility of being human’ (209), but Animal counters this by accusing everyone else of having treated him like one. He also admits that ‘to be trapped in an animal body is hell, if you dream of being human’ (210). He is essentially torn between two worlds. It takes a while to realise that a lot of what Animal professes to be is actually a fa├žade, to mask his vulnerability. If he were to see himself as human he’d have to reconcile himself to many troubling thoughts:

“Animal mating with human female, it’s unnatural, but I’ve no choice but to be unnatural… many times I would dream that she and I were in love… in such dreams was my back straight? Did I stand upright? No and no. I was exactly as I am now and it did not matter. Such dreams! I woke from them shaking with hope. This frightened me, I despise hope” (AP, 78)

The trauma of his situation is almost too much to face and he once more rejects society when Nisha refuses to marry him. ‘It’s because I am an animal,’ he argues, ‘that’s the real reason isn’t it, that you can never marry me?... I’ll always be nothing but a fucking animal’ (AP, 333). And you cannot help but cry with him because Nisha cannot answer, she never does – that is the tragedy of his situation. Zafar claims to believe in humanity, an innate goodness, but Animal justifiably cannot, ‘because there’s no evidence for it in the world’ (AP, 207). Nevertheless, Animal comes to appreciate life, when Zafar and Farouq come to bring him back to society- he realises that there are people who love him and will forgive him no matter what.. Most important is the sense that his telling his story is a means of catharsis. It emerges that it is a means of finding the answer to whether he wants to undergo the operation in America that could make him upright, or if he wants to remain as he is. Finally convinced of his self-worth he muses:

“Is life so bad? If I’m an upright human, I would be one of millions, not even a healthy one at that. Stay four-foot, I’m the one and only Animal’” (AP, 366)

Indra Sinha
I think what he wanted most of all was to have value and it takes the length of the novel for him to realise it might mean something different than what he thought. There is so much to say about this novel – I know I’ve rambled on a bit but it is really worth a read. The struggle of the Bhopal victims is still going on and still deserves attention and Indra Sinha has done a brilliant job of writing a story that is both heart-warming and thought-provoking.

Meanwhile here are some other key quotes:

“Once you’ve seen it in someone’s face it’s always there, I won’t say beauty, but whatever you might call the thing you love” 81
“the kampani and its friends seek to wear us down with a long fight, but they don’t understand us, they’ve never come up against people like us before. However long it takes we will never give up. Whatever we had they have already taken, now we are left with nothing. Having nothing means we have nothing to lose. So you see, armed with the power of nothing we are invincible, we are bound to win” – Zafar, 54
“hope is a crutch for weaklings. The strong carry on without” 75
“I feel desolate because in the end we are condemned to lose everyone we love” 144
“Elli I don’t need a watch because I know what time it is. It’s now-o’clock. Look, over there are the roofs of the Nutcracker. Know what time it’s in there? Now o’clock, always now o’clock. In the kingdom of the poor, time doesn’t exist.” 185
“hope dies in places like this, because hope lives in the future and there’s no future here, how can you think about tomorrow when all your strength is used up trying to get through today” 185
“Elli says, ‘I mean that things work when we keep our promises to eah other and to ourselves, when we don’t keep our promises, things fall apart’” 204
“Whoever I talk to, seems the main reason for having a religion is to cheat death and live again, here or in heaven, wherever. Well, I don’t want another life, thanks, not if it’s anything like this one” 207
“A promise involves a thing that can’t be measured, which is trust and I can’t speak for rain and the sea and the moon, but I can ask why people keep their promises and maybe the answer in the end is love” 251
“friends, for a moment think what’s really going on here. What is terror? The dictionary says it’s extreme fear, violent dread, plus what causes it. on that night our people knew terror beyond what a dictionary can define. Who caused it? our people continue to feel extreme fear, violent dread, because they don’t know what horrors might yet emerge in their bodies… our people want justice in a court of law...” – Zafar, 283
“You can hurl what curses you like, but I’ve already lost my place in the human world, plenty of people already despise me, but you are dead and I am alive” 275
“While we have life we have the world” 284
“I look up and there are placid clouds drifting across the sky. This shakes me. Outside of ourselves nothing cares.” 310
“my father’s precious justice is of no use, our government’s of no use, courts are of no use, appeals to humanity are no use, because these people are not human, they’re animals” – Nisha 332
“a broken rib may mend’ says the lizard. ‘but your nature you can never change. You are human, if you were an animal you would have eaten me” 346

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Since it's World Poetry Day I thought I'd share a couple of my favourite poems at the moment and say a few things about them! I find it sad that I only remembered it was world poetry day because it trended for a couple of hours on twitter... people should know - how can they celebrate and embrace it if they aren't aware? Google didn't snazzify it's logo or anything...

Anyway the first poem I want to mention is from the Victorian era and addresses the search for spiritual consolation in the wake of religious uncertainty. This is of course the era of Charles Darwin, his theory of evolution and the 'survival of the fittest', an analysis of existence which does not necessitate God and indirectly lays bare the possibility that our lives may have no divine purpose, they may, essentially, be meaningless. Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold thus predates Camus' 'Absurdism', the notion of an indifferent universe - where human affairs are not central by any means, which makes a lot of history, our perceived notion of duty and valour and war - seem ridiculous.

Dover Beach - Matthew Arnold (

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

There's something beautifully melancholy about this poem and its elegaic lament. There's a gentle build up to the final verse, a desperation for companionship and comfort in the face of a revelation. The coupled lines of listed negations is especially effective, both as a straightforward list and as a cumulative one - 'neither joy, nor love, nor light, / nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;' It's like every previous 'certainty' is being negated in a definitive and unsettling way - a complete inversion of what had come before. Suddenly the struggles and fights of men seem absurd and 'ignorant', and the image of the 'darkling plain' connotes a great expanse, but one that is somewhat desolate and empty. Faith no longer offered the same comfort, the 'girdle' was loosed. The first verse seems comparatively tranquil but on closer inspection the lexical choices seem definitively Darwinian. The 'sea is calm tonight' is actually misleading, there is still the 'grating roar', the waves 'draw back' and 'fling' the pebbles  - nature seems innately hostile, competing for its own survival. This poem is one of my favourites because it encapsulates so beautifully a certain mood, the sense that religious certainty is withdrawing, stepping back, losing its thrown, and rather bleakly prompts the consideration of a new way of looking at existence.

The second poem I want to mention is 'As I Walked Out One Evening' by WH Auden. I won't post the whole thing because it's pretty long but here's the link:
It also concerns existential matters - particularly temporality and the human condition. At first it seems like an ode to love, its supposed capacity to endure to death and beyond - until the pivotal sixth stanza where all the clocks begin to chime, and time is personified in a distinctly eerie way, shattering the lovers' illusions:

'...O let not Time deceive you,
   You cannot conquer Time.

'In the burrows of the Nightmare
   Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
   And coughs when you would kiss.

'In headaches and in worry
   Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
   To-morrow or to-day'

Time is thus portrayed as a menacing and conniving presence, a sinister figure in the fairytale which upsets our idealistic expectations. In the face of impending doom and mortality how does human nature adapt? The poem turns again in the 13th stanza:

'O look, look in the mirror,
   O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
   Although you cannot bless.

'O stand, stand at the window
   As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
   With your crooked heart.'

Despite all the uncertainty and imperfections of the human condition, things which cannot be escaped, we are still here and we can still live and feel and make choices that we feel we are responsible for and make an impact on the lives of those around us. The poem, itself constrained by time, ends in the late evening, the lovers having gone and the river, perhaps reassuringly, simply running on.

There's so much to gain from just reading and experiencing these poems that right now I just can't put into ordered words - so I apologise if this has been a bit incoherent!