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The making of a political novel

An article in The Guardian describes how Indra Sinha, author of the Man Booker-shortlisted novel Animal’s People, came to write the novel, which is based on the experience of the people in Bhopal, India, where a chemical leak from a Union Carbide factory killed 8,000 people and caused long-term health problems and suffering in the community.

Sinha, who was a successful and wealthy advertising copywriter in England before becoming a novelist, has been campaigning for compensation for Bhopal since 1993, when an activist asked him to help raise money for a clinic.

Animal’s People is both novel and polemic, but Sinha is clear that it must work as fiction if it is to have any impact. “It has to be a work of art – if you will excuse me using that expression – first,” he says, “and if it can’t succeed as that, it could have no power to change things.”

The author says he had been working on a novel with intertwining stories of people in a Bhopal-like setting, but had trouble making the book live until he found the main character:

Animal, a 20-year-old whose spine was wrecked as a result of the leak and who has been reduced to walking on all fours. “I used to be human once. So I’m told,” he says at the outset. Animal curses, masturbates while spying on a naked woman from up a tree, and tries to poison the leader of the justice campaign. He is the anarchic centre of an angry, yet warm-hearted, book….

Sinha says it was finding Animal – and his violent, vibrant voice – that was the key to the book. “I had tried first person, third person, all sorts of things, and it just wouldn’t work,” he says. “It remained resolutely, totally dead, and then one day someone said to me, ‘I’ve met this young man in Bhopal who goes on all fours.’ I didn’t know anything more about it than that, and the fact that he was quite a feisty character with a chip on his shoulder but also a sense of humour. I thought: maybe that’s what this thing needs.”

The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced on Oct. 16.