Monday, September 17, 2007

Animal Planet


Put A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, Midnight’s Children’s Saleem and The True History of the Kelly Gang’s Ned into a blender, toss in plenty of obscenities and add some small-town Indian flavour along with fragments of French. That’s what Animal, the narrator of Indra Sinha’s new novel, sounds like, and it is a voice that is distinctive and gripping.

Animal lives in Khaufpur, a fictionalised Bhopal, and has to walk on all fours as his spine has been malformed because of the leaking gas of the “Kampani”. Among his friends are Pandit Somraj, sometime classical singer with now-ruined lungs, his daughter Nisha, whom Animal covets, Ma Franci, the half-crazed French nun, and Zafar, devout activist. The voyeuristic, scabrous Animal, beset by libidinous impulses, tells of the blighted lives of Khaufpur, of the “people of the Apokalis”, in particular of what happens when the American Dr Elli Barber arrives to set up a free clinic. Is she to be trusted, and will Zafar’s dreams of securing justice for the afflicted come true?

It is entirely to Sinha’s credit that no part of this novel sounds polemical, despite the subject matter: there’s a strong narrative drive unhindered by proselytising from beginning to end. In addition, the city of Khaufpur is also brought compellingly to life. Yes, the prose tends to become overheated on more than one occasion; yes, some of the characterisation is skimpy; and yes, the ending is a bit of a cop-out, but it’s the voice, with its antics, revelations and acrobatics, that sustains the novel and stays with you after it’s done.

Worth your while? Certainly, but be warned that this is no teddy bear’s picnic you’re going to read about.

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