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In 1984 one of the world's largest industrial catastrophes happened; a pesticide factory in Bhopal leaked poisonous gasses into the surrounding area, thousands died many more were severely affected by the leak and the people responsible refused to take the rap. It was before my time, before I was even born and I am ashamed to admit I had never even heard of the disaster. Until I read this book. And if there's one thing I can get across to you, it's that you should read this book. If the Bhopal atrocity is something you remember, that occurred in your lifetime then you should read this to re-ignite your anger, indignation and your condemnation again. If you do not remember this crime against humanity, if like me you were blissfully ignorant, you should read this to educate yourself and to learn about something we should all be aware of. In any case you should read it because it's a fantastic book. It is a heartbreaking, harrowing insight into the damage that can be caused by a rich company's interference in another land. But it is also sweet, funny and deeply insightful into human nature. This is a book which should be read.
===I used to be human once===
This is what Animal tells us. "I used to be human once. So I'm told. I don't remember it myself, but people who knew me when I was small say I walked on two feet just like a human being." But this was before the poison from either the original leak or the exposure to the poisons which are still affecting the land and the water twisted his back, forcing him to walk on all fours like an animal. The book is told entirely from his perspective and is done through 23 tapes which Animal recorded for a journalist who came to ask him for his story; the journalists often came to talk about That Night, even though the spoke not a word of Hindi they came to ask for their stories. Sometimes Animal talked to them, sometimes he swore at them and sometimes he ignored them, but for this one he made the tapes, and in those tapes is the life of a boy who has shunned his humanity to become an Animal.
Animal is not a name he gave himself. Animal is a name he was given by the other children because of the way he moves. But it is a name he has adopted. He does not see himself as human and will categorically fight for his right to be Animal. He was born a few days after That Night, the one 'no one in Khafpur wants to remember, but nobody can forget.' Orphaned he was brought up by the nuns and Ma Franci, a nun who the gasses made so insane she cannot remember how to speak in any language other than French and won't accept that anyone else is speaking a real language. She is to put it bluntly "as mad as a leper's thumbnail". But that is not the story we are being told, we are not being given a full life history - Animal sees no point in that. This is the story of Animal at nineteen years of age and what was going on at the time.
When we first meet Animal he is scavenging on the streets, then he learns to beg and scam food out of other people and then he is picked up by Nisha whose boyfriend Zafar is key to the struggle against the Kampani (the owners of the plant which caused the devastation). This is a very personal story of one boy's life but it is also the story of the people of Bhopal's desperate attempts to get justice, to get help, to get compensation. Animal finds himself mixed up in politics and intrigue as Zafar continues his struggle to get justice for the people of the area. And into this steps Elli Barber, a young female American doctor who seems to desperately want to help the Khaufpur people but even then the politics take over and she is deemed to be trying to help the Kampani not the locals.
Animal's tale takes you through the hells and deprivations of a people who were completely betrayed not only by Union Carbide but also by their own government. It takes you to the lowest depths in the poorest and most needy areas of Indian society. But it does so in such a way that you are propelled through the book. It has wit, humour and above all it shows the brightest sides of humanity just as much as it shows the dregs. The poorest in society here are shown to have far more values, far more kindness and far more generosity than the politicians and the rich.
===If you want my story you'll have to put up with how I tell it===
Without a doubt the language is crude and some of the imagery and scenario's are sexually explicit, but what can you expect from a 19 year old boy whose dragged himself up from the streets. It's coarse. Of course his language is going to be crude, and sex is never far from most teenagers minds at the best of times. And when you consider that this is a teenager who is very much aware that his 'lund' as he puts it is the only part of him that will stand up straight it becomes even more of an important issue for him. He is only too vocal about his sex life...or lack thereof! I don't usually like swear words and cursing in a book, but in this one it didn't offend me and neither did the sexual references; this is probably because I saw it as fitting in with what was being written rather than being used as an extra purely for the sake of swearing - this is who Animal is and you take him or you leave him.
It's strange though because Animal shouldn't have been a likeable character; this is a boy who has openly admitted to spying on the woman who took him in, educated him and feeds him while she was naked. He is a liar, a thief and a cheat. But he is also kind hearted and somehow appeals to you; you can understand him. He is bluntly honest with you and is without self pity; he describes things as they are and you are forced to accept the world that he sees. The book can be a series of repeated punches to the solar plexus as we are forced to comprehend a world that is nothing like the one we live in. The voice of Animal literally grabs you, forcing you to keep reading; his use of English, Pigeon English, French and Hindi is endearing, his syntax is mangled and his bravado sometimes overpowering but somehow he captures you and drags you into his story.
I would not have believed I would have liked such a gutter-mouthed ruffian as much as I did. You cannot pity him; he will not allow you to. He is Animal, he is equal to you in his own way. His story is one worth telling.
===Well, I don't want another life, thanks, not if it's anything like this one===
With the life that Animal is living you could forgive him for curling up and giving in. He's a mutilated, stunted creature that refuses to even take the title of human. But he doesn't and probably the thing which makes this book is the humour and the sense of hope that pervades through it; Animal may be a stunted wreck, but he still finds it in his heart to love, to have friendship and even to care for an old insane nun. This is a book which will in turns have you laughing and smiling with him but you know from the moment that you turn the first page that it will also break your heart. The whole thing is helped by the fact that Animal shows a keen intelligence and a sharp view of other people's nonsense which to him includes religion; to say he is down to earth is an understatement. But his views on large political, philosophical and religious matters keep the book alive because it shows only too well the issues that they are going through in a very matter of fact manner:
"Chunaram says I should be a Hindu because of all I've suffered in this life, I'm sure to get a better deal next time round, more than likely be a prince or politician or something. Trouble with that way of looking at things is by the same logic my situation is the result of evil things I did in my past lives, some people do look at me as if they're wondering how many children I murdered last time round."
It does not come across as depressing, and that is because of the way Animal tells the story. This could be a simple sob story - look at me, I'm a wreck, I have nothing; pity me. It could easily have become exactly that, and the fact that it doesn't is what makes it such a work of genius. If I'd have picked it up randomly in a shop I probably would have assumed it is a sob story - do not be fooled, it isn't.
===How much has the Kampani paid you?===
The foul act of corporate homicide that should leave us all speechless was compounded by the politicans both in India and in the USA. It is something which should be taught to the next generation. It's something that should be forced into the open. This is not something that is taught in schools; but it should be. This book is a stunningly honest, brutal and compelling story of that atrocity and I would tell you all to read it. Not just for the message it proclaims; although it proclaims its message loud and clear and that is something we should hear. This is a truly powerful, emotive and stunning book of its own accord, and even if there was absolutely no message behind it I'd still be saying 'read it'.
But the message, the reminder, the damage that was done and still is being done is stunning. The fact that the corporation still refuses to face up to what it did and pay the piper is astounding. And the fact that I had no idea about it until I picked up this book is unbelievable. Read this book. Share this book. Donate this book to your child's school library...actually probably not with the language; you might get yelled at! This is a book which should have a far wider voice than it has. Read it.
"I used to walk upright, that's what Ma Franci says, why would she lie? It's not like the news is a comfort to me. Is it kind to remind a blind man he once could see? The priests who whisper magic in the ears of corpses, they're not saying, 'Cheer up, you used to be alive.' No one leans down and tenderly reassures the turd lying in the dust, 'You still resemble the kebab you once were...'"