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Indra Sinha
What inspired you to write Animal’s story?
I had begun a story about a singer who had lost his voice after inhaling poison gas in a fictional disaster similar to Bhopal’s. There were other characters, his daughter, her activist boyfriend, and an idealistic but misunderstood American doctor, all of whom appear in Animal’s People. At first my story wouldn’t work. Nothing I tried would make it come to life. A Bhopali friend urged me to try writing from the perspective of the poorest people, the ones whose stories are never usually told. The problem was that I had never lived as they have to, in hutments with no sanitation, sky high rates of disease, I have never been hungry or lacked shelter. Then I saw a picture of a young man whose back was twisted and who was obliged to go on hands and feet. I knew nothing more about him than this, but in that instant Animal came to life in my mind and immediately began talking to me. He insisted on taking over the narrative, and rather rudely told me to get out of the way. It took me a long time to learn to trust him, but gradually I came to love that beastly boy. When the writing was over I could not bear to part with him or Ma Franci or the others, so I created a website,, where he can continue to live.
You dedicated Animal’s People to Sunil Kumar. Please could you tell us why.
Sunil was a good friend, a kind and funny man who bore his great suffering with a lot of dignity and humour. He lost most of his family in the gas disaster, and brought up his surviving younger brother and sister alone and without help, at the age of 12 working eighteen hour days at two different jobs. He became a leader of the survivors’ movement and was well known and much loved. Later in his life he began to hear voices and was diagnosed as mildly schizophrenic. Sunil used to call this his mad time. He became depressed and tried on a number occasions to take his life. Once he rang me from Bhopal and said, “Indra, I just drank rat poison. Guess what, it tasted sweet.” We were worried about him, but there is little help in Bhopal for people with mental problems. Last July, Sunil took his own life. The book had been dedicated to him all along, but he never lived to see it published. On behalf of his friends I wrote a tribute to him, which can be read at ,
The city Khaufpur is clearly based on Bhopal. Why did you disguise it?
Two reasons. First, I simply knew too much about Bhopal and had to get away from that knowledge because it would have stifled the fiction. So I had to imagine a different city, one where very similar things had happened, but not the same. The name Khaufpur is derived from the Persian word “khauf” meaning “terror”. This became the city in which Animal and his people lived and breathed. Khaufpur became so real to me that when I went back to Bhopal after finishing the book, I found myself surprised to find things not where I remembered. The second reason for not identifying Bhopal was that I wanted people to respond to Animal’s People as a novel, not to dismiss it as a piece of propaganda. I was not trying to score points for the Bhopal campaign, I was trying to create a satisfying story with living characters that one could care about.
Congratulations on being short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. This will undoubtedly draw attention to the ongoing Bhopal tragedy. Do you feel that novels are a good way of raising awareness?
I don’t see the work of writing novels as having anything to do with raising awareness. What I ask of a novel is compelling characters in a story well told. If a book can go on to do some good in the world, so much the better. Dickens was a great social activist, but his novels could have had no force unless he had first been a great storyteller. Having said this, I do have a soft spot for writers like Dickens, Orwell, Mulk Raj Anand, Sartre who saw writing as a way to change things.
You are one of many great story-tellers from the Indian sub-continent writing in English. Where does this gift originate?
Ironically from my English mother, who was a writer. I grew up in India surrounded by English and European literature. My mother made me read Gorky when I was eight, and in her bookshelves I found Faulkner, Lawrence Durrell, Beckett, Joyce. Mulk Raj Anand, the grand old man of Indian belles lettres was a family friend who urged me when I was a child to write and when I was grown up to write about my childhood. Later when I went away to school I was taught the great Indian writers, poets like Kabir, Surdas, and Ghalib, novelists like Premchand. Later still, I was mesmerized by the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto and the films of Guru Dutt. I think I was very lucky to grow up with two such strong cultures. Now that we live in France of course, I have the enormous pleasure of discovering a third.
Your previous books are quite diverse. What, in general, inspires you to write and what are you writing now?
Diverse, yes, but at some buried level all my books are part of the same story, bits and pieces of which surface here and there, like islands in the ocean, only appearing to be separate. This is certainly true of my next project, which is a novel set on the island of Patmos in the year 95 CE and featuring a man called Yokhanan who decades earlier had been an eyewitness and participant in some obscure events in the countryside south of Lebanon. The novel after that will be set in England in the year 2043. After that I have several more ideas, but will have to learn to write faster, if they are ever to appear.
Indra Sinha has kindly offered to answer questions visitors may have about ANIMAL'S PEOPLE. If you would like to ask him anything, please email us at and we will pass it on to him and add it to the site.
Indra Sinha

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