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ANIMAL'S PEOPLE

By Indra Sinha

Simon & Schuster,

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374 pages, $19.99

In December, 1984, when poison gas leaked from a pesticide factory owned by the Union Carbide Corp. in Bhopal, India, its people awoke to a living nightmare that would last many lifetimes. The result was instant death for almost 3,000, and over the years the number of dead has increased to 15,000. But the thousands who died are perhaps luckier than the ones who are alive today, because the poison continues to infect the living. Even the unborn were not spared: Baby after Bhopal baby has come into the world deformed. Twenty-three years later, justice has still not been done.

This is the inspiration for Indra Sinha's Man Booker Prize short-listed novel, Animal's People. Bhopal has been replaced by the city of Khaufpur, and the corporation that owns the factory is simply called the "Kampani." The poisonous gases may have silenced many, but Khaufpur has not lost its voice. And what a voice it is: fiery, raging, ludicrous and ultimately hilarious. It emerges from the mouth of a young man named Animal, whose twisted body forces him to walk on all fours. He has eaten dry bits of skin when he was hungry, and has sold blood for food.

Animal has no recollection of the days before the tragedy, when he used to walk upright like everyone else. "It's not like the news is a comfort to me," he says. "Is it kind to remind a blind man that he could once 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.' "

Animal has no time for self-pity, but he has all eternity for self-loathing. His own shadow haunts him, makes him feel "raw disgust." Even though he constantly insists that he is not human, he hopes that one day he will walk straight and can leave his "crooked shadow behind." That is his only dream. That, and an overwhelming desire to get laid. "Well, at least one part of me can stand upright," he jokes. It is this bawdiness that makes Animal an engaging narrator.

Animal's existence is simple: He lives among the charred remains of the factory that is responsible for his deformity, scavenges for food and plays small parts in begging scams, until an American doctor named Elli Barber shows up in Khaufpur. Her free medical clinic fills his heart with hope, and her figure-hugging jeans send his hormones raging.

It may be Elli Barber who sends Animal's reproductive organs into a tizzy, but his heart belongs to someone else, a young woman named Nisha, who lost her mother in the tragedy and is fierce in her fight against the Kampani. The competition for the heart of Nisha, between Animal and Zafar, a local activist, reaches comedic proportions when Animal poisons Zafar's tea and sends him to diarrhea hell, almost killing him. In a town full of poisons, Animal is not afraid to use more, and his irreverence makes the reader chuckle. He will do anything to prevent Nisha from marrying Zafar.

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For Animal, the whole world is a cage. Even though he is free to roam anywhere in the city of Khaufpur (he even clambers up trees like a monkey to spy on a naked Elli), no matter where he goes, he is trapped by the fact that the world sees him as a creature on all fours. Over the course of the novel, he learns to break out from this cage. As Animal's personality becomes more and more human, he betrays, he hates, he hopes, he curses, he rages - and, finally, he allows himself to be loved.

There are a couple of questionable choices made by Indra Sinha. Animal tells us that he is not human far too often, and when he hears voices in his head and converses with fetuses, these magic-realist devices do not enhance an already powerful voice.

Even the end of the novel could have been simpler. Sinha tries unnecessarily to lift the novel out of reality to a higher plane, but a simpler, more realistic approach might have worked better. Animal returns to the jungle, a turn of events that is symbolic in itself; it requires neither hallucination nor poetry.

But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise beautiful work. From one of the worst industrial accidents in history has emerged one of the year's best books. Haunting in its images, poetic in its voice and surprisingly comic in its vision, Animal's People delivers beauty from the mouth of a beast.

Anosh Irani is the author of The Cripple and His Talismans and The Song of Kahunsha, which was chosen for CBC's Canada Reads 2007 and was nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize.

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