Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Animal's Eyes: Spectacular Invisibility and the Terms of Recognition in Indra Sinha's Animal's People

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Animal's Eyes: Spectacular Invisibility and the Terms of Recognition in Indra Sinha's Animal's People

Article excerpt

Dominant narratives of poverty in the global south exacerbate the invisibility of the marginalized poor, blinding observers to all but a spectacle of abject destitution. Paying attention to narrative and the question of visibility in the context of recent globalization, this essay considers how Animal's People represents disempowerment without disempowering.

As the site of perhaps the charismatic mega-trauma of recent globalization, Bhopal, India, has become defined by the spectacle of the Union Carbide pesticide plant explosion. On the night of 2 December 1984, a poisonous gas-cloud of methyl isocyanate erupted from the factory's stack, spreading over the slums around the plant. Between 1,754 (Indian government estimate) and 15,000 people (eye-witness estimates) died in the immediate aftermath, and between 200,000 and 300,000 were injured. (1) Fittingly, then, the narrator of Indra Sinha's 2007 fictional re-working of the disaster, Animal's People, embodies the spectacle: he walks on all fours, his spine bent by the residual toxins from that night, earning the nickname Animal. His bent posture makes him physically remarkable, something to stare at: symbolically he bears the burden of the event that locals refer to only as "that night." He is seen as a passive spectacle, as a compressed image of destitute, deformed poverty all too familiar to cosmopolitan eyes. Animal and his people are "invisible" in the sense that, even when literally seen, they are only seen through the spectacle of "third-world poverty" that structures seeing.

At the same time, Bhopal and Sinha's fictional counterpart, Khaufpur, are remarkably invisible to those who might hold the power to effect justice, restitution, and redress. As the spectacle of that night in 1984 faded from world view, the factory grounds in Bhopal have remained unremediated; after the disaster, responsibility shifted from Union Carbide to Dow to the Indian government to no one, and fifteen to twenty people still die each month of illness related to the chemicals. (2) In the novel, Animal and his people are invisible to their own government and to the "Amrikan kampani" responsible for the disaster, just as they are to the foreigners and privileged Indians who would rarely, if ever, actually see a slum-dweller like Animal. The poor are "marginalized," subsisting at the edge of life in various senses: socially (ignored and unseen), economically (mostly working in the informal economy), geographically (living in the unregulated urban fringe or rural dark spaces), and politically (publicly unrepresented). Above all, their marginal status serves as a textual metaphor: the narratives of modern life exclude the poor, and when included leave them as undeveloped characters, foils for the cosmopolitan protagonists who consume the share of textual space.

In this sense, Animal and his people represent the spectacular invisibility that defines third-world poverty under recent globalization. Spectacular invisibility suggests a simultaneous state of literal invisibility and deceptive visibility, which is in fact distorted by spectacle. This is the double bind of the marginalized poor: they are both invisible and spectacle. So even when the poor are seen, they are misrecognized, envisioned through spectacles shaped by unselfconsciously received narratives of destitute and hopeless or, alternately, romantic and idealized poverty. For while the poor are certainly invisible in a literal sense--to those in government and industry who disproportionately control the narratives of modern life--they are also invisible in this more abstract sense. Even when we "see" the poor, preconceived narratives of poverty blind us to anything but our own vision of the world in front of us. (3)

If John Berger was right that the "way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe" (8), then what do we know or believe about poverty in the global south, and how does that affect the way we recognize the poor? …

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