Book Review: Animal’s People, by Indra Sinha

Posted on 22 Oct 2013 under Essays

Before I start this ‘review’, I should offer a couple of disclaimers. One – I love books that have a “bold” voice; books that are unapologetic in their view of reality, and present their story uncensored, no matter how vulgar. And two – it’s been a while since I’ve attempted a proper review of a book, so I’m rusty and this is likely not going to be up to my normal high standards (heh, I crack me up).

And now on to the review of Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People.

Cover of Animal's People, by Indra Sinha

Cover of Animal’s People, by Indra Sinha

Let me start by confessing I don’t know where to begin. Should I provide a synopsis of the story? I’ll leave that to Wikipedia:

Sinha’s narrator is a 19-year-old orphan of Khaufpur, born a few days before the 1984 Bhopal disaster, whose spine has become so twisted that he must walk on all fours. Ever since he can remember, he has gone on all fours. Known to every-one simply as Animal, he rejects sympathy, spouts profanity and obsesses about sex. He lives with a crazy old French nun called Ma Franci, and his dog Jara. Also, he falls in love with a local musician’s daughter, Nisha.

Just to clarify – Khaufpur is a fictionalised version of Bhopal.

So now you know that the protagonist is Animal. And you know his physical condition. That sets the tone for the novel. This is a gruesome book. A hard tale told by a hard young man, who has evidently been to hell, and maybe hasn’t quite returned. All the typical condition of life of India’s poor find their way into Animal’s story – poverty, hunger, corrupt politicians and policemen, and pitying foreigners who come to Khaufpur for the sad tale of human survival. But added to that are the problems of only being able to move on all fours, something that sets him apart from others, marks him out to be a freak, reminds him constantly that he is, as he likes to repeat again and again, not human.

Sinha’s voice for Animal is perfect. A blend of Indianised English, with plenty of slang that only Indian readers can appreciate. This book is not eloquent, but it doesn’t have to be. Sentences break, clumsy sentences abound, there are plenty of ramble-ons, but it’s all part of a plan that somehow just seems to fit together perfectly. The author has clearly chosen function over form. This freedom from the rules of grammar and perfection set him free. And the result is vivid descriptions, nuggets of poetry, a few sentences of French thrown in. It’s quite wonderful when it works. And that’s not to say that Sinha has limited himself as a writer. He shows plenty of skill as a writer of technique, bountifully sprinkling little poems into the mix.

The book is not for those who are easily repulsed by vulgarity, by dirtiness in any way. The author is not afraid to graphically describe sexual desires, genitalia and masturbation. There’s no hiding the difficult conditions of life, such as fighting with dogs for leftover meals thrown out of a restaurant. There’s no censor on Animal’s coarse language. The story itself keeps you hooked from the very first page, and its various branches and sub-plots grow out like the roots of a banyan tree. Towards the last third, it really picks up in pace and intensity. You feel like this moment has been coming for a while. It physically makes your heart beat a little faster, and changes your mood. I won’t give away the plot details, of course.

This book was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2007 and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Best book from Europe & South Asia), and I can see why. It’s different, from its tone to its story. With this kind of writing, it’s so easy to slip into hyperboles and extremities for shock value, but that’s where Indra Sinha controls it all so well – balancing perfectly between underwhelming conservativeness and overdone profanity. Pick this up, read it.

I don’t like rating books, but if I must, this is an 8.

3 Responses to “Book Review: Animal’s People, by Indra Sinha”

  1. Hey Gurdit,

    I have read this book a couple of months back. I really loved this book and the poetry used in it.Animal a teenage boy who, as a consequence of the bhopal disaster of 1984, which is here thinly fictionalized maybe for legal reasons, is bent at the bottom of his spine and thus forced to walk on all fours. on the day of the disaster his parents dropped baby Animal in front of a convent of french nuns, almost certainly before going to their death, and it is one of these nuns, Ma Franci, who raised him. Animal developed his deformity when he was no longer a baby, so his early years were normal and an object of much regret for him, who does not remember them except through Ma Franci’s stories.
    I loved many things about this book, and a number of long scenes and narrative threads are truly priceless, but let me mention here just one. the city of bhopal is renamed khaufpur (i wouldn’t be surprised if there were a play on words here).
    Sinha describes the khaufpuri poor as united beyond religion, which is saying something given the history of india. muslims and hindus mingle seamlessly in the slums of khaufpur because their enemies are outside – in the “kampani” that ruined their lives and the corrupt indian politicians who are colluding with it. when an american doctor comes into town to open a free clinic for the damaged poor of khaufpur, though, this dream-turned-reality doesn’t quite work. the poor of khaufpur find it impossible to accept the help of the american woman.

    I would rate this book 8 out of 10..:)

  2. Rajeev » Thanks for your comment.

    But why have you copied the review from here —

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