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Intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying fictional take on the Bhopal Disaster
on August 8, 2013
In December of 1984, a gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India killed more than 2,000 people in a single night. 8,000 more people died within two weeks, and official estimates suggest an additional 8,000 have died in the years since. The nearly 20,000-person death toll does not include the thousands of people - many of them children - who were cripplingly injured as a result of the most horrific act of corporate negligence in global history.
This novel, written by a longtime Bhopal activist, is narrated from the perspective of one of those injured children. "Animal," as he is called, has a twisted spine as a result of the disaster, and therefore cannot stand upright, but instead must drag himself along the ground like an animal. When the book opens, his only real friend is another 'animal' like him - a stray dog. The book dramatizes Animal's long struggle to be understood as human in the eyes of those around him.
I ordered this book because I was considering putting it on a world literature syllabus. I was fascinated by the way that Sinha attempted to tackle such a huge, unthinkable, highly politicized event through the eyes of a single character who struggles to gain a broader perspective on events, and I thought that the book might make a good pairing with the works of JM Coetzee, which also addresses fundamental ethical questions by asking "what makes us human, and distinguishes us from animals?"
Ultimately, though, I found the book unsatisfying. The book is written in an idiom that is familiar to anyone who has kept up with Booker Prize winners over the years: a lilting, fractured, in this case, amusingly scatalogical English that put me in mind of Aravind Adiga's "White Tiger." Maybe I'm just burnt out on this style of writing, but his voice quickly came to wear on me. I was jarred by the endless jokiness and direct addresses to the reader, and found myself continually putting the book down.
Maybe I was just not the right reader for this book. I think my curiosity about the facts of Bhopal made me less patient with this books' endlessly showy pyrotechnics of character and voice; others may certainly feel differently.