Monday, July 26, 2010
Twenty-six years ago the city of Bhopal erupted in toxic fumes; sixty days ago the Indian Supreme Court delivered a disappointing verdict to compensate still-suffering victims. While the latter digest what little they’ve been awarded and newspapers publish concluding facts and editorials on the subject, it’s worth taking the time to read Indra Sinha’s ANIMAL’S PEOPLE and remember that sixteen and sixty years from now, Bhopal will still sting from the gas tragedy of 1984. As Sinha’s main character explains halfway through the book, “time doesn’t exist…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?”
A well-oiled machine in a factory hums with efficiency; India screeches and groans and whimpers, bearing the weight of one billion people. Some carry trays of vegetables on their backs calling out to customers, some stand with bent knees straight gazes fingers curled around a cricket bat as millions of eyes watch on, and some tap their feet with lazy urgency as they summon their drivers from airconditioned doorways. People face forward, their attention arrested at every angle by movie posters, honking trucks, buzzing crowds, brimming skies. When they look down, it’s to avoid garbage, shoo away a stray dog, or spit. Rarely is it to listen to a young boy with stumps for legs who locomotes around the slums of Khaufpur on a board with wheels.
ANIMAL’S PEOPLE is a book whose main character, Animal, makes the reader do just that, forcing him to confront exhaust pumps and feel the sun’s rays refracting off the burning roads. He is a young boy braving poverty and puberty with no legs, a birth defect, and he multitasks with attitude, dancing around pedestrians’ knees, developing a sore neck talking to people twice and thrice his height, and cursing passersby who annoy him. Animal teachers the reader to move a little slower, albeit more doggedly, towards food, friends and fights, proving over three hundred and fifty pages that he is the ideal narrator for a book about his people. Sinha operates close to the ground, creating his characters’ stories with an eye on their footsteps. Animal challenges the reader to acclimatize to a new topography; fitting for a city that now sits wearily on a fatal foundation of poison, for a community of people dehumanized enough that a main character prefers being called ‘Animal’ to anything else.
Animal is an orphan in a city orphaned by justice. Khaufpur is the fictional town that houses a factory responsible for the plague killing and affecting generations of its residents. The heart of the gas tragedy beats with each page of filth Animal shows the reader: “Platforms, ladders and railings are corroding. Its belly is a tangle of pipes like rotting guts…Look throughout this place a silent war is being waged…yet that night was a freezing night of stars.”
Animal’s friends and family share hearts and memories and money and homes between them since everyone lost something vital “that night.” Their voices rise with opinions and opposition, they orate about justice, protests, redemption. Animal faithfully shares these conversations with the reader in his unique language: he berates the “kampani,” wonders about the “jarnalis” eager for Animal’s story, learns “inglis” and confides in a doctress from “Amrika.” The closest person he has to a mother is a French nun, Ma Franci, and they share a methyl isocyanate-laced language of pidgin French and Hindi that only they understand. He loves a girl, Nisha, and suffers for it, expressing his unrequited love for her with pidgin attempts with words and scars on his knees from climbing trees. No real Indian story is complete without a love triangle or quadrilateral so Animal spends many pages on Nisha’s love, Zafar, and his love for judicial vendettas, while Nisha’s father and an American doctor navigate their own personal tragedies together.
Each street of Animal’s slum offers another story of devastation out of the days months years generations following “that night.” The poor writhe in smoke and dust, but the reader experiences fresh food and ripe relationships in Nisha’s part of town where musicians and doctors and philosophy exist. Animal learns about melody from Nisha’s father, hope from Elli doctors, research from Nisha, patience from Zafar, attachment from Ma Franci. His lust for happy endings—personally and publicly—propels the narrative through Khaufpur’s struggles and victories against the wretched factory’s retching curses: he desires girls, enlightenment, independence, pride, humanity, respect. Sinha bestows each of these on Animal in ways expected and unexpected; a parallel to the predictable and unforeseeable damage Khaufpur endures and overcomes, thus becoming a city worth writing about.
The Bhopal gas tragedy will always be worth reading about. Sinha’s book, a 2007 Man Booker Prize finalist, is a brutal and riveting place to start.
Book: ANIMAL'S PEOPLE, Indra Sinha, Simon and Schuster, 2007.
Monday, July 5, 2010
J'ai voyage au Sud de France avec mon cher Twin. Ces mots sont a lui.Nice, France: July 2007
By the time we arrive in Nice, we are hungry; that is all we can think about. The omniscient town sets about nourishing us right away. First, an appetizer of sunshine, some lightheartedness on the side. We free our shoulders of backpacks at the hostel and turn right back around, heading south south south to the enticing beckons of the sea. I can’t hear it yet but you are already smitten, and we go as far south as the tram will take us before setting off on foot to find food. The wind whips our hair into a frenzy and sculpts curls into them. Afternoon gold is sprinkled our eyes causing everything around us to glitter. Street performers are dressed in rainbows and outrageous smiles, dancing to the rhythm of the frenzied crowds parading by. The restaurant tablecloths lick at our laps, teasing us into little dances of our own as we dig into crisp pizzas and fresh juices. And then we are off again, discovering the shadows that only a brazen sun and coy, narrow alleys can create. We climb so many stairs, we can’t tell if our hearts are beating from the beauty around us, the high altitudes we feel like we had reached, or the sheer exercise of countless steps beneath our tanned feet. Fresh-faced young children and terribly old men point us in all directions -- to their wares, their ancestry, their pets and their sea. And at once we become a part of their scenery, diving in and out of the shadows, hovering over tombstones and under outstretched trees as nimbly as the wind tugging at our souls and drawing smiles all over our faces.
With the sea in the background and the foreground, we nap. We pay refuge to the shaded greenery of Nice's history; laying down and watching the coast look back up at us. Our cheeks kiss the grass, our hair snuggles amongst the blades, our legs darken a little. The wind wakes us up and calls us down to the shore, where the sea froths cheekily at us. You are off in a flash; you are a part of the scenery long before I was. You are dolphining around while I get cosy on the pebbles, steadily intoxicating myself on the complacency that beaches generate so copiously. The sun jeers at us, daring you to swim farther and me to scandalize myself, and it is blushing a deep red when you emerge from the sea, clean, emptied and refreshed. I wait for more encouragement from the sun, scurrying in, praying for collective blindness. What a ride! What a sensation to completely let go and be carried by an entity bigger and deeper and richer than anything one can imagine on land. It feels like floating in space, or flying through the sky, and being constantly reminded of the matter around you as it whispers in your ears and tickles you in your depths, gently pushing you away from unwavering shore and drawing you into its blurry arms, tossing you occasionally back against the impassive beach to remind you of the potential the vast depths of the sea held, and pulling you back out again.
When we are both done confiding in the currents of the undiscovered, we rest, breathless, dripping. Back on the beach, we mark our territory with wet hair, cooling skin and shy bodies. The sea's hues of blues compete with the sun's array of reds, oranges, yellows, purples. Sunset comes upon us like an unsatisfied painter blotching his canvas without a thought for balance or buoyancy, yet somehow creating both with thousands of points of color. The sun, in its sagacity, knows to connect these dots and draw invincibly long rays of unrivaled, unadulterated color. Each ray demands an answer from our minds, an answer to the thoughts bouncing around our minds, as numerous as the rays in the sky. Can one capture happiness? Can one by kidnapped by it? What future lies hidden beyond the horizon, ablaze with the convergence of earth, water and fire? Can only silence match the sky's symphony? What is appropriate to be discussed as the sun sings its final aria of the evening, allowing the waves to smudge it away? Partly wet, partly dry, with water on our eyelashes and pebbles massaging our backs, we sat in stupefied silence, listening to the song of the ocean. The buildings respectfully drape themselves in evening robes of shadow. You, me, we sing the song of Nice and sunsets and cemeteries and old age and romance.
Then we walk. Into the lights and away from them. Into the crowds and out of them. With a sunset buzzing in our eyes, the sea lingering in our ears, having been cleansed, we walk. Where to next? But we don’t have to seek anything out. Intimacy invites us into its arms, embracing us with succulent food, heartfelt music and a decor as elaborate as a museum. We write our history, talking over candlelight and letting the musicians echo their sentiments off our bodies. Nourishment in Nice comes forth, whether we ask for it or not.
As we eventually climb up north towards bunkbeds in a hostel of starstruck strangers, we are treated to one last Nicoise overture of spontaneity and comfort. Three old men, jolly with age and waddling with good health sit robustly in the tram with memory and nostalgia fresh on their lips. Their muse appears as if on cue—a bedraggled busker with a guitar on his arm—and before long, all are singing along to old French songs while embarrassed granddaughters look on, strangers smile to themselves and tourists calibrate success on their cameras. One street performer with a guitar and three men with childhoods erase time from that tram, bringing us to the dizzying juncture of past and present, gifting us with an era we haven't lived in but get to participate in that very night.
From the streets to the gardens to the sea to the tram: it is all one nourishing, mothering museum documenting hope, happiness and insight yet to come.