Take a feisty young cripple, connect him to one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, and you have Sinha’s extraordinary, incandescent second novel, a Man Booker Prize finalist.
Thousands died after an explosion at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, in 1985. The British-Indian Sinha (The Death of Mr. Love, 2004) uses the catastrophe as a springboard; it’s now years later, but residents of Khaufpur (his name for Bhopal) are still dying from poisons as they battle the Kampani (the company). Grim material, but this is not a grim novel, thanks to Animal, Sinha’s narrator, a 19-year-old Khaufpuri. Abandoned on the night of the accident, he was raised in an orphanage; at age six, pains twisted his spine, forcing him to walk on all fours. He left the orphanage for the streets; the name Animal (a child’s taunt) became his badge of pride. Smart, tough, sneaky, horny and improbably upbeat, Animal is an astonishing creation with a bawdy, layered narrative voice, seasoned with scraps of French and Hindi. His story is inextricably linked to that of his wounded yet still hustling city. The plot revolves around the campaign against the Kampani waged by Zafar, a saintly young college graduate beloved by the poor. The other main characters are Zafar’s sweetheart, Nisha, coveted by Animal, and her father Somraj, a famous singer until the poisons destroyed his lungs. Zafar’s campaign is complicated by the arrival of Elli Barber, an attractive American doctor opening a free clinic. Suspecting she is a company stooge, Zafar imposes a boycott. Meanwhile, Animal is working to detach Nisha from her man, and why not? He’s capable of devotion; he’s got a fine torso; and he’s hung like a horse. There’s a gripping climax as company lawyers arrive and Zafar’s hunger strike threatens to kill him.
A double triumph for Sinha: The plight of the world’s powerless has seldom been conveyed more powerfully, while Animal is destined to be one of fiction’s immortals.