This is the story of Animal (Jannvar), a young man who was born shortly before a chemical disaster in his city of Khaufpur. The chemical spill affects his body so that he has to walk on all fours, hence his name. The background plot of the chemical spill, how it affects the city and its people, and the collusion between the local government and the American company responsible for the disaster, are roughly based on the Bhopal disaster. Khaufpur is a fictional city, although it does have its own website.
I loved the characters in this book, especially Animal, whose portrayal contrasts favourably with the “plucky beggar boy” in John Irving’s A Son of the Circus. Animal is also a deeper and more complex character than Irving’s Dr. Daruwalla (who feels as if he doesn’t belong anywhere but makes little effort to belong or connect to others). Animal feels like he is an outcast from humanity, and embraces his animalness, but in contrast to Dr. Daruwalla, Animal is actively engaged in his community, has a strong sense of justice upon which he regularly acts, and values his connections to others.
Near the end of the book, things got a bit philosophical and mystical as Animal came to his own personal epiphany, and it lost me a bit. I think it could have ended sooner with no harm done. However, please bear in mind that by the time I finished the book, I had barely slept for a week, and so it could very well have been that I was just not able to follow the ideas and parse the phrases.
I enjoyed the book and I felt like it was a more realistic depiction of India. Not that I have ever been there or know much about it. But Irving’s book lingered on squalor and on the bizarre, whereas Sinha’s book was simply descriptive where description was relevant. Of course they are very different books with different goals and blah blah blah, but I preferred this one. I also liked the insertion of other languages (always fun!).
Weak points? The female characters were not as convincing as they could have been, and the heterocentrism was unrelenting. Strong points? Mental and physical illness / disability / difference was strongly accommodated and accepted. Religious tolerance. No gratuitous (as in non-plot-advancing) violence. Lovely depictions of a community working together toward a common goal despite their individual differences and antipathies.
Definitely worth reading!
Animal’s People by Indra Sinha. 2007. ISBN 978-1-4165-2627-8.