The fictional town of Khaufpur—the setting of Indra Sinha's Animal's People—is based on Bhopal, India, where a 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide chemical plant caused thousands of deaths and countless more injuries. (Corporate accountability being what it is, residents of Bhopal are to this day lobbying for reparations and cleanup.)
Sinha's novel is set in a town full of sickness and mutilation as grotesque and improbable as any fictive realms of magical realism. Here, though, the divergences from reality reflect not the flights of an author's imagination, but the effects of toxic chemicals on the lungs, wombs, and chromosomes of people unlucky enough to live in the shadow of a corrupt, shoddily run chemical plant.
The story is presented as a firsthand account, relayed into a tape recorder by a young man named Animal (so-called since the poisons released in the accident twisted his spine, leaving him to walk on all fours). Animal tells us right off that if we "want [his] story, we'll have to put up with how [he] tells it"—and how he tells it is in prose that's coarse and conversational, riddled with French and Hindi, often funny at the same time as it's deeply hopeless.
Animal's story really begins when he is hired by Zafar, an activist who has spent years lobbying the "Kampani" (as residents of Khaufpur call the American chemical company that owns the plant) to take responsibility for the effects of the disaster. When a young American doctor opens a free clinic in Khaufpur, Zafar suspects the doctor is in league with the Kampani, and he encourages locals to boycott her clinic, though she offers free services they desperately need.
Animal plays both sides of the fence, befriending the American doctor while working for Zafar; screws slowly tighten as Zafar increases pressure on the Kampani, and tensions rise between the doctor and the community.
The last 15 pages of the book are difficult to read—aesthetically difficult, that is; not emotionally—but the 300 up 'til that point are brilliant. Animal takes his milieu for granted until the perspective of outsiders forces him to consider the reality he lives in—these moments of clarity are brutal, and all the more painful because of the historical circumstances in which they are rooted.