Friday, 9 July 2010
‘Animal’s People’ by Indra Sinha
'I used to be human once. So I'm told. I don't remember it myself, but people who knew me when I was small say I walked on two feet just like a human being.'
These are the opening lines of an extraordinary novel that I read a couple of years ago. Shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, it is narrated by the central character, Animal. He recounts his story in shocking detail, the difficulties and obstacles of his existence set out without sentiment and often with robust humour. His language is, by turns, lewd, obscene and scatological; his two major preoccupations revolve around walking upright again and sex! He tells how life changed after 'that night' when an explosion in an American chemical factory in his slum changed life forever. There is a vibrancy about this story as Animal demonstrates his resilience as a severely disabled youth living at the lowest level of poverty in the fictional city of Khaufpur, the City of Fear.
Rather disingenuously the author, Indra Sinha, who now lives in France, claims, 'Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.' In fact, the city bears a striking resemblance to Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, where on 3rd December 1984 the American company Union Carbide, manufacturing pesticides, released 40 tonnes of lethal gas into the atmosphere. It remains the world's worst industrial disaster. More than 500,000 people were exposed and 15,000 people died, 8,000 within the first weeks, others in the ensuing decades.
Survivors of that nightmare are subject to spontaneous abortions and stillbirths and the babies that survive to be born suffer from a range of disabilities – some are blind or deaf or brain-damaged, others have missing or distorted limbs or facial disfigurements. Water is essential for life, yet the source for the people of Bhopal is toxic, abandoned chemicals still leaking into it, nearly 25 years after the initial disaster.
In June, 2010, seven former employees of Union Carbide, now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical Company, were found guilty of 'death by negligence' and fined around $2,000 each and sentenced to two years in prison. How can it be classified simply as negligence when in 1982 thirty major hazards were identified at the Bhopal plant but were not rectified while the same thirty major hazards were fixed at the company's identical plant in the USA? It shows, at the very least, a cynical disregard for life in Bhopal. Dow Chemical Company absolves itself of any liability for the tragedy in Bhopal because it did not merge with Union Carbide until 2001. However, it has undertaken all responsibility for more than 75,000 asbestos related law suits in the USA. These claims date from the 1940s and 1950s to the present.
India's cabinet has approved a decision to attempt to extradite Warren Anderson, the former CEO of Union Carbide. BP has spent $1.6 bn on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, in which 12 people died. It is expected to spend much more. Union Carbide has paid $0.6bn in compensation.
I have not included any photographs other than the one alongside this article – they are pitiful and horrific and immensely distressing. I, with thousands of others in the west, have the luxury of being almost certain that children and grandchildren will be born whole and straight and healthy. The women of Bhopal can have no such optimism.