Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"A Nother World" in Indra Sinha's Animal's People

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"A Nother World" in Indra Sinha's Animal's People

Article excerpt

Early in Indra Sinha's Animal's People, the narrator, Animal, recalls that he was "six when the pains began, ... [a] burning in my neck and across the shoulders" (2007, 14). (1) The "pain gripped my neck and forced it down," as if "a devil ... with red hot tongs" was molding his spinal column into a permanent bow, he recalls: "Further, further forward I was bent" and "when the smelting in my spine stopped the bones had twisted like a hairpin, the highest part of me was my arse" (15). The industrial language of material design--"red hot tongs" and "smelting" heat--is here applied to the anatomical "neck," "shoulders," "spine," and "arse." Animal's body is wrenched by the leakage of industrial heat into living bodies, a metallurgical fever that softens and recasts the vertebrae's structure from the inside out. This posture represents a new kind of "factory life": it is not a matter of long hours of repetitive labor producing a "burning in the muscles" but of the factory living as a chemical prosthetic, traveling within Animal, touching and burning his hidden interior, neurological, and genetic self.

The metamorphic discharge of chemical heat from factories to bodies described in Animal's People is not merely metaphorical. Sinha's novel is, after all, a thinly fictionalized account of a very real and ongoing thirty-year-old industrial catastrophe in Bhopal, India. From December 1984 until today, a pesticide factory owned by Union Carbide and Dow Chemical (two US-based multinational petrochemical and biotech companies) has leaked into that city untold tons of toxic chemicals. Between 4,000 and 8,000 people suffocated from the initial airborne exposure to methyl isocyanate (MIC), and the people of Bhopal also continue to experience disproportionately high rates of "birth defects," cleft palates, all manner of tumorous growths, severe eye pain, respiratory problems, and neurological disorders. Including 20,000 subsequent deaths, most of the 100,000 to 200,000 people suffering from serious ongoing ailments have become sick due to a massive seepage of MIC from the unsecured factory into the city's groundwater. Union Carbide, the Indian government, and Dow Chemical have all refused to recognize the presence or health effects of MIC in Bhopal's water supply, despite a wealth of evidence. Key elements of what was once considered a mutually beneficial project for economic development, the factory, the chemicals, and the people of Bhopal have now been abandoned by their corporate benefactors, their national government, and the legal systems in India and the United States.

Even though the factory is "closed," this abandonment makes it no less operational within the terrain and bodies of Bhopal. And yet, troublingly, as Rob Nixon points out in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, "in an age that venerates instant spectacle, slow violence [like the ongoing spill in Bhopal] is deficient in ... recognizable special effects" (2011, 6). Where "chemical and radiological slow violence is driven inward, somatized into cellular dramas of mutation," it is difficult to reproduce that familiar "narrative containment, imposed by the visual orthodoxies of victory and defeat." Indeed, Animal is keenly aware of his readers' desire to understand the spill as a familiar narrative, as Dow and the Indian government have, to visualize it as a completed event that took place on a single, tragic night. "So strangers in far off countries can marvel," Animal argues, "you have turned us Khaufpuris into storytellers, but always the same story ... that night, always that fucking night" (AP 5).Throughout the novel, then, Animal negotiates with the demands for spectacle placed on him by his international readership. Addressing that readership, Animal states, "I will call you Eyes. My job is to talk, yours is to listen" (14). Calling for "Eyes" to listen, Animal interrupts the visual logic that would take his narration as the "same story" of "that night," as his framing constructs a synesthetic readership whose textual sensorium must be rewired. …

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