Sunday, October 21, 2007

Animal's Manhood!

Why do people write novels when they don’t have any story to tell? Take for example Booker Short listed Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People. What is it all about? Is it about the sexual predilections of a 19-year old four-footed boyish man in Kaufpur, a city ravaged by the after-effects of a Gas tragedy? Is it a story of weak vs.strong, when finally the weak who have ‘nothing to lose’ triumph? Is it a bizarre love story told in the backdrop of a dying city? It is all these and much more.
I wanted to read the book after reading a bombastic review on a blog. The review on this much admired blog left me gasping for more and I wanted to delve deep into Animal’s Spirit and have my fill to my heart’s content. But somehow this book didn’t in any way knock me down. I will tell you why.
The Title: The name of the novel is Animal’s People but you will find that it is less about the people in Animal’s life than about Animal, himself.
The Method: Animal’s People is about a 19-year old boy (or man?!) who walks on all fours because of gas leak tragedy in his town which twisted his back and rendered his legs useless. He calls himself bat-eared ape and the people call him Jaanwar, Animal since he is four-footed. The novel is not divided into chapters. The novel is the translation of the story recorded by Animal in 23 tapes. Indra Sinha must have been patted by several for finding a new way of telling a story, but it did not impress me much. The tapes are often of uneven length and I found it very strange.This new method did not work with me because if the boy has told the story to a tape recorder how can the lengthy conversations between several characters be narrated unless he was reading it from a book. And moreover I felt that since Animal is the narrator of the story he is forced to register his presence in all places even when he could not have been there for eg when Elsie and Somraj are having an intimate one-to-one conversation. Pray tell me, how Animal could have recorded descriptions such as the following if he was just telling the story to a tape recorder:
A frown appears on that high forehead of Zafar’s. He pushes back his specs like when he’s about to make a speech.
If the story has been narrated orally then I felt it should have been a monologue instead of several dialogues and arguments between several characters. That can work wonderfully well, I mean if you have read either Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground or Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, you would know.
And in the very beginning of the novel itself, I guess somewhere while still in page no.5 or 6 where Animal is laughing at the stupidity of the foreign journalist somehow I got the feeling that it is not actually Animal that is speaking but the author, Indra Sinha who has put himself in the shoes of Animal and describing how he would have felt in such a situation and passed it off as Animal’s feelings and words. I am not supposing that Animal can’t think like but I found it bit incongruous.
I found the monologue towards the end when Animal recounts his experience with death as the only part worth reading the book for. That part comes truly alive with the spirit of Animal and the times he lived. Only in that section Sinha’s creative wings have been allowed to fly freely and I assure you even you would enjoy that flight. You writhe in pain as Animal struggles to come in to terms with his love disappointment and craves for great escape i.e death. You listen to several voices that speak to Animal, which mocks him, sympathizes with him, feels grateful to him and patronizes him. It’s when he really understands the sweet temptation of life.
The Plot: I have this habit of closing my eyes after I finish halfway through any book when I sum it up for myself. So after having read about 210 pages when I closed my eyes I was startled to find my mind’s eye drawing up the picture of a boyish man on all fours, looking at his enormous phallus and trying hard to lick it like the way dogs do. You see, its only brouhaha about Animal’s craving for sexual experience that gets registered even when you have finished more than half of the novel.
When a story has been told with the backdrop of an actual incident, often the backdrop eclipses the story of the main characters. For eg Dr.Zhivago or Gone with the Wind. There are many novels like that, but only these two are coming to my mind. I feel, that’s where the beauty of the narration lies,when it pulls you in to those times without your knowledge. But in Animal’s People you are treated with only sketchy descriptions of ‘that night’ or the days and nights that followed ‘that night’.
The story of Animal is told with the background of Gas Tragedy. The novel is also about the struggle of Kaufpur people affected by the tragedy for compensation and justice. It recounts how Somraj, Awaaz-e-Kaufpur- Voice of Kaufpur loses his voice in the tragedy. That’s where I think the novel’s greatest loophole lies. Any man-made tragedy killing/affecting thousands of insignificant creatures can go unnoticed after a while but let it affect a celebrity, even a small time, heaven and earth will suo motto start moving to bring the justice to his/her doorsteps. I fail to understand why Zafar, part-time lawyer, part-time lover of Somraj’s young daughter, part-time activist, part-time PR man for Kaufpur people affected by the tragedy, does not think of using Somraj as cause celebre.
Characters: The best characters in literature are often not created by authors rather they create circumstances which actually chisel them. Take for eg Heathcliff. You are not told directly that he is a bitter and vengeful man. You can’t find faults with this monster of a character from Wuthering Heights. One feels that it is but natural that he behaves the way he behaves. Actually at the end of the novel you feel sorry for that rancorous man. But Animal, I found the efforts to explain why he has become what he has become are too less and also half-hearted. His longing for sexual experience and all, looks foolhardy. There are many characters in the novel, which neither find enough space they deserve nor their characters have been fully developed. For eg Kha in the Jar or Anjali or Aliya or Faqri. I guess they all belong to Animal’s circle instead of only Nisha, Zafar, Elsie or Farooq. Even their characters do not come out properly. Nowhere in the novel the Indians who managed the Kampani’s affairs in Kaufpur get mentioned. I mean it’s not fair. Come on, you cannot put the entire blame on the gora babus. Your own men and women must have been the country heads of this company and you not talking about them exposes your prejudiced eye.
a) Many French phrases and dialogues have been left untranslated. So a non-french speaking person like myself feels not only cheated but also betrayed since all the hindi words and phrases find a ‘kaufpuri glossary’ at the end of the novel. Instead of a kaufpuri glossary if Sinha had given ‘Animal’s glossary’ including both I would have been highly obliged.
b) The cover page of the novel has a picture of a boy who is about 9- 10 yrs and the novel is about 19-yr old Animal!
c) The book for the most part reads like an unedited script for a bollywood movie. Illogical and completely out of touch with reality. For eg Elsie’s husband being part of Kampani’s lawyer’s team and she making a deal with him or Zafar going on hunger strike and Nisha breaking down because of it or Elsie’s fight with Somraj and they finally getting married. Or take for eg Animal’s age. In the slums kids grow up very fast. I mean, a boy of say 12 or 13 behaves like a man of 18 years. That’s why school drop-outs in slums are very high. So Animal as a 19-year old boy?? Difficult to accept.

d) People of Bhopal use the word ‘Apan/apun’ extravagantly. But it doesn’t get reflected in the book.
e) You will never know whether the tragedy affected the entire city or just a part of the city
f) Indra Sinha takes dig at almost every section of the society, politicians, kampani fellas, police, bureaucrats etc. But is he totally blind or completely idealistic to have no knowledge of the fake people who in the garb of ‘social activists’ are serving their own causes.
At one point of time I was just laughing away because the book is such a sham thing. It’s not a well-researched book.

I usually do not do this. I mean if I don’t like anything say a book or a movie or a music album or a person I quite forget about it. I don’t try to dissect the reasons. I am really good at picking up feel-good things from anything and enjoy doing it. But cribbing about the negative things is not my cup of tea. But I wanted to note down why I didn’t like Animal’s People by Indra Sinha because as I mentioned earlier I read this grandiloquent review about the novel on a blog, which is really overwhelming. The review was tooo good. If the book were at least half as good as the review I wouldn’t not have minded. But the book completely underwhelmed me. Instead of writing a two liner obituary for the novel I thought let me try and write why the novel failed to impress me as much as the review that completely mesmerized me to the extent that I bought the novel from a bookstore instead of from the footpath paying 5 times the money I would have otherwise paid if I had bought from either M G Road or Jayanagar foot paths. Since I paid little more than 500 bucks, I am now having all the pangs for having not got my money’s worth from the novel. And moreover, I don’t feel that it has any shelf value. Pity me!

I gave up reading Booker books long back. I think I gave out the temptation of checking on Booker nominated books after reading Coetze or somebody. But I read God of Small Things on a boring Sunday and it gladdened my heart. Its simple not so grandiose style of story telling swept me off my feet. Midnight’s children and God of Small Things are among the few Booker novels that I have actually enjoyed reading. I guess two generations from now would definitely enjoy reading them as well.

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