Animal's People is a grand novel, combining the epic with the personal.
On the epic scale, we have the fight of the victims of an explosion in a poison factory to seek their justice through the corrupt court system in India. And on the personal level, we have the individual drama of the victims as they seek to live their lives and love their loves in the shadow of the factory, coping with their various forms of damage.
The setting for the novel, Khaufpur, is a thinly disguised representation of Bhopal, which did suffer a chemical factory tragedy in 1984. The star of the novel is Animal, a child whose bones warped in the chemical fire and now walks on all fours. Animal has an engaging personality, a huge bundle of hope, a libido that is out of control, and a rather irritating style of syntax. Having grown up under the protection of Ma Franci, a French nun, he is taken under the wing of Zafar and Nisha, who run the campaign for justice. Animal falls madly in live with Nisha, but knows that Nisha will choose Zafar over him because of his deformity. Much of Animal's life is spent, then, wishing he could walk upright because then he might have more chance with women.
Then, the campaign for justice scores a hit as a court is willing, 20 years on, to consider seizing the assets of the "Kampani" if it doesn't come to court to answer charges relating to the poisoning. But this is set against a backdrop of political scheming and corruption, apparently led by the Chief Minister himself. A doctress then arrives in Khaufpur, Elli Barber, to run a free clinic for people suffering the after-effects of the poison. Elli-doctress finds things hard going as the town tries to decide whether to trust her.
Without giving the game away, the schemings carry on at a fair old pace, as various characters have to balance their loyalties to one another against their loyalties to the campaign. The plot is rich and satisfying.
The characterization, too, is of the highest order. Animal, in particular, is painted in bright colours. He has a scatological sense of humour, and an unhealthily selfish streak of which he is not ashamed - he just tells people he is an animal, not a human. Ma-Franci, Somraj, Zafar, Nisha and Elli-doctress also have a great deal of depth and complexity. Zafar, in particular, gives an excellent depiction of the charismatic leader, prepared to put the personal aside for the cause of the people. In one section of the novel, Zafar takes a different view of the best course of action to most people - and uses his charisma to get people to follow his preferred course against their better judgement. This section was highly convincing.
The novel is quite excellent - save for the irritating device of using Animal's convoluted syntax and spelling to deliver the narration. This is unnecessary. The novel is good enough to stand on its own feet, without resorting to gimmicks. Moreover, the syntax sits ill with a character who is supposed to be highly intelligent and who uses such glorious language to produce such a vivid picture of Khaufpur and its denizens. The irritation factor does abate with time, but it spoils what would otherwise have been a perfectly balanced novel.
For those who are interested - Indra Sinha's Khaufpur website is worth a look just to marvel at his intense level of detail.