Elena Radwan: Place and Ecological Disaster in „Animal’s People“.

In the past decades the existence of a global ecological crisis has been frequently debated. Environmentally reckless human behavior such as toxic pollution and waste accumulation is said to have extremely negative effects on the planet’s ecosystem, most notably demonstrated by the global climate change. Strikingly, though, the results of these effects cannot be observed equally in all parts of the globalized world. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the word ‘global’ as something “of, relating to, or involving the entire world”[1]. This term, so often used in the same breath as ‘ecological crisis’, suggests that anthropogenic ecological disasters such as toxic pollution are affecting all places and people in the world. Yet, when it comes to suffering from ecological crisis, a certain pattern of locality emerges. It seems that certain parts of the world and thus certain people are more prone to ecological disasters than others.

The novel Animal’s People (2007), written by Indra Sinha, reflects on ecological disasters and their consequences such as the toxic gas leak of Bhopal, India, in 1984. The text stresses the significance of place for ecological disaster because the related social and economic dynamics of a place determine its vulnerability regarding an ecological catastrophe. The novel proposes that places which are inhabited by the economically weaker of the global society are regarded more dispensable than others and are therefore more often subject to ecologically risky behaviour in their surroundings. Animal’s People depicts the fight of a small local activist group against the corrupt and unfair structures that further favour those responsible for ecologically reckless behaviour (usually international western corporations) by allowing them not having to deal with the consequences of their actions. Place with all its social and economic implications is hence highlighted as a necessary and important factor in the debate on the global ecological crisis.

The fictional place in the novel Animal’s People does not only reflect on a specific ecological disaster but also serves as a pars pro toto for places where something similar occurred. The story is set in a city in India called Khaufpur, which shows strong parallels with the toxic gas disaster that took place in the Indian city of Bhopal in 1984. The website bhopal.org provides detailed information about the event.[2] In the night of December 2nd a plant of the American Union Carbide pesticide factory leaked and huge amounts of the toxic gas methyl isocyanate contaminated the site’s surroundings. The number of victims that died immediately from exposure to the gas varies greatly from report to report. Union Carbide talks of 3.800 dead while municipal workers claim that there were at least 15.000. Until today the American company has not taken responsibility and refuses to clean up the site as well as to compensate the victims properly. Therefore, approximately 25.000 people have died due to the exposure to the gas and the polluted water until today, and more than 120.000 continue to suffer from illnesses such as blindness, extreme breathing difficulty, cancer and gynecological disorders. Although charged with manslaughter, the Union Carbide CEOs never appeared in front of the Indian court.[3] There are many parallels to this disaster in Animal’s People. As in Bhopal, the leak of a pesticide factory plant causes thousands of sudden deaths during just one night in the novel. The responsible American cooperation rejects to clean up the site and to compensate the victims, wherefore the population of the surrounding slums continues to suffer from numerous illnesses decades later. In the story this is exemplified by the protagonist Animal, a physically deformed orphan of that night. Nevertheless, it quickly becomes apparent that the novel is not only a reflection of the Bhopal disaster. When Zafar, the local activists’ leader, goes on hunger strike, he asks Animal: “‘Is Khaufpur the only poisoned city? It is not. There are others and each one of has its own Zafar. There’ll be a Zafar in Mexico City and others in Hanoi and Manila and Halabja and there are the Zafars of Minamata and Seveso, of São Paulo and Toulouse […] ‘”[4] . He indicates here that the situation in Khaufpur is not unique. Throughout the world numerous places have suffered from ecological disasters, in which the victims had to fight for compensation, which has been denied in many cases. Thus, the fictional Khaufpur represents a certain kind of place which is more prone to ecological catastrophe than other places for a definite reason. When Animal sees footage of 9/11 on TV, he cannot believe it to be real, because “stuff like that doesn’t happen in real life. Not in Amrika [sic!] anyway. Here in Khaufpur it’s different. Here in Khaufpur we had that night.“[5] He refers to something very important here: Disasters like the toxic gas leak do not seem to happen in places like the fictional America, because they happen in places like Khaufpur.[6] This observation can be related to a process of what Rob Nixon calls “the transnational off-loading of risk from a privileged community to an impoverished one”[7]. Thus, in the case of Animal’s People, the Kampani (as Animal calls the American company responsible for the gas leak) did not only outsource labour but also outsourced the risk for the surrounding environment and population that such perilous work entails, by locating its highly dangerous manufacturing of pesticides to India. To imagine that a catastrophe like the one in Khaufpur were to happen in a city in fictional America means to assume that people would sue for and most likely receive compensation for the damage caused by the effects. At one point Animal wonders: “Do you suppose anyone can explain, why did the Kampani choose this city to make its factory? Why this land? Is it by chance that the old name for this place is Kali’s ground [goddess of death and destruction]?”[8].  In an ‘impoverished’ city like Khaufpur, a corporation can surely expect less resistance from its population and the government when they cause an ecological disaster. Zafar explains that contrary to themselves the American company “ ‘[…] has everything on its side, money, powerful friends in the government and military, expensive lawyers, political masseurs, public relations men. We people have nothing […]’“[9]. These distorted power relations of the ‘globalised’ world permit the Kampani to refuse to appear in front of the Khaufpuri court, ”claiming this court has no jurisdiction over them”[10], as Zafar puts it to the local judge who deals with the charges pressed by the Khaufpuri activists. Thus corporations like the Kampani in Animal’s People take advantage of their power over ‘impoverished’ countries and outsource the risks of ecological disaster there, which naturally increases the probability of ecological disaster in the so called Global South as opposed to the Global North.[11]

By displacing the risk of ecological disaster to certain places, the countries or corporations which Nixon calls ‘privileged communities’ classify these places as ecologically dispensable. Hereby they inevitably also pass a judgement on the communities that inhabit these places, as it can be witnessed in Animal’s People. The narrative employs a very striking imagery to demonstrate this. Within the global society the Khaufpuris are portrayed as ignoble people. When the Kampani lawyers finally make an appearance in Khaufpur, an old woman addresses them: “‘You were making poisons to kill insects, but you killed us instead. I would like to ask, was there ever much difference, to you?’”[12]. This reinforces the idea that not only the place that these people inhabit is ecologically dispensable, but (consequently) the people themselves are regarded as dispensable, a process which Nixon calls “conjoined ecological and human disposability”[13]. Thus, the occurrence of an ecological disaster sheds light on a certain social hierarchy in which the Khaufpuris are put on the same level as animals or even lower. David Harvey argues by referring to Mary Douglas that “some pollutions are used as analogies for expressing a general view of the social order”[14]. On the one hand, Animal’s People illustrates this on a global scale, as the constant comparison between the two fictional places America and Khaufpur reveals. For example, when Animal talks to the foreign journalist who wants to publish his story, he calls him ‘sultan among slaves’: “For his sort we are not really people. We don’t have names. We flit in crowds at the corner of his eye”[15]. But even within the disposable place of Khaufpur, ‘sub-places’ exist that are more dispensable than others. The protagonist Animal belongs to the lowest class within the population of Khaufpur: the “Kingdom of the Poor”[16], the Nutcracker-slum, where the population suffers the most from the consequences of the gas leak and hence the Kampani’s outsourcing of risk. Animal has to walk on his hands and feet because of his bent back and prefers to be classified as an animal, because “if I agree to be a human being, I’ll also have to agree that I’m wrong-shaped and abnormal”[17]. Again, this animalistic imagery demonstrates a social hierarchy. The local government, the people’s representatives, who could and should protect everybody and especially those living under the most difficult circumstances, live relatively unaffected by the disaster and do not show any interest in improving their poor citizens’ devastating situation. On the contrary, they are bribed by the foreign corporation and deny publicly that the drinking water of the community is contaminated. When the trial against the Kampani eventually makes progress, because a judge has taken up Zafar’s proposal to threaten to shut down the Kampani’s other assets in India, this judge is being transferred.[18] Overall, people who inhabit places that have been classified as dispensable are treated accordingly.

But being categorized as disposable has even more consequences than health and well-being being put at risk. Another aspect is also brought up in the novel: in addition to this physical suffering, the place of ecological disaster, and thus its population, is now completely reduced to this event and therefore deprived of its past. When Animal looks at the factory’s wall which is covered with protest writings against the Kampani he thinks: “[…] this wall is its [the city’s] history plus also where its history finished without warning when no one was expecting it”[19]. The place is now solely associated with the disaster. At one point Elli, an American doctor who comes to Khaufpur to offer free medical care to the people, tells Animal how an old doctor complained that Khaufpur’s formerly rich culture is being forgotten, because now the city’s name will always be connected with the disaster. She reacts enraged because she thinks that the fact that thousands of people lost their lives is more important than the erasing of the city’s past. Nevertheless, the Indian doctor brings up an important aspect here. The disaster has not only erased their past but also the acknowledgement of their culture. People are now primarily dealing with the pollution and its health consequences. The character of Somraj illustrates how many people are not only physically incapable of working but also physically unable to be culturally active. Having been a renowned and passionate singer for all his life until the night of the catastrophe, the toxic gases impaired his respiratory system so severely that he will never be able to sing again. Thus, the place is now exclusively representing the disaster which deprives its population of their past and culture, reducing them to victims of an ecological catastrophe.

The debate about the global environmental crisis is certainly a complex and controversial one and far from being closed. The novel Animal’s People draws attention to an aspect that needs to be taken into consideration, namely to the fact that locality is an important factor when it comes to ecological disaster. Through outsourcing of risks by so-called privileged communities, ecological disasters and the subsequent pollution are often transferred to the Global South. These places are therefore clearly considered as dispensable and as a consequence the local communities in these places are classified in the same way. They are deprived of health as well as of being able to identify themselves with their own culture and past. On top of that they lack the resources to demand proper compensation. Hence a spatial relocation of ecological risk and disaster also reflects a social hierarchy, a hierarchy between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the disadvantaged. Animal’s People presents a fictional place that reminds of one ecological disaster in particular, but overall reflects on the fact that certain places are more prone to ecological disaster than others. In the end, the novel does not offer a utopian solution which corrects all the world’s inequalities. Animal decides to decline Elli’s offer to take him to America to receive a treatment which might enable him to walk upright again. He prefers to keep his old, familiar life, musing: “[i]s life so bad?”[20].

Animal’s People leaves one frustrated with the deep-rooted power structures which cause such an unjust distribution of ecological disaster and suffering from its consequences. At the same time, it alerts to the fact that this cannot and will not continue infinitely. Population rates are increasing, especially in the non-industrialised regions of the world.[21] So the regions and populations which are currently regarded as more disposable are growing and growing. This will eventually lead to uprisings with a great impact, as Animal predicts. He finishes his story on a sinister yet hopeful note: “All things pass, but the poor remain. We are the people of the Apokalis. Tomorrow there will be more of us”[22].

FU Berlin, Sommersemester 2014

[1] “Global.” The Merriam Webster Dictionary. http://www.merriam-webster.com/      dictionary/global (visited on 15 January 2015).

[2] See, for example, “Union Carbide’s Disaster”, “Health Holocaust” and “Bhopal’s Second Poisoning” on http://www.bhopal.org (visited on 14 January 2015).

[3] See “Union Carbide’s Disaster.” http://www.bhopal.org. http://bhopal.org/what-happened/union            carbides-disaster/ (visited on 14 January 2015).

[4] Indra Sinha: Animal’s People. New York: Simon & Schuster 2007. p. 296.

[5] Indra Sinha: Animal’s People. P. 61.

[6] Of course, in non-fictional America they do happen as well. The Aliso Canyon gas leak in California on 23 October 2015, for example, caused methane emissions “equivalent to the annual methane output of a medium-sized European Union country” over the course of 112 days that it took to seal the leak (Oliver Milman: “LA gas leak: worst in US history spewed as much pollution as 600,000 cars.” http://www.theguardian.com. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/ 26/los-angeles-aliso-canyon-gas-leak-methane-largest-us-history [visited on 14 October 2016]). The novel rather argues that a higher probability of the occurrence of an anthropogenic egological disaster exists in certain parts of the world and reflects on the social structure which conditions this. Milman’s report on the Aliso Canyon gas leak at least seems to confirm one of the novel’s claims, namely that the complaints and protests of the US citizens have more impact than the Indians’. Even though it takes 112 days, the US leak is eventually fixed, while in Bhopal the damaged factory continues to pollute the water system.

[7] Rob Nixon: Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard         University Press 2011. p. 46.

[8] Indra Sinha: Animal’s People. p. 32.

[9] Indra Sinha: Animal’s People. p. 54.

[10] Indra Sinha: Animal’s People. p. 52.

[11] This simplistic division certainly implies the concept of Neocolonialism arguing that “developing countries are powerless in the face of the world economy being fixed in the interest of developed countries, especially the Western powers” (John A. Matthews: “Neocolonialism.” Encyclopedia of Environmental Change. http://sk.sagepub.com/reference/dictionaryenvirochange/n2611.i1.xml? term=neocolonialism [visited on 20 October 2016]). For a more thorough discussion of this categorization and its relevance, see J. Timmons Roberts and Bradley C. Parks: A Climate of Injustice: Global Inequality, North–South Politics and Climate Policy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2007, and Andrew Hurrell and Sandeep Sengupta: “Emerging Powers, North-South Relations and Global Climate Politics.” In: International Affairs 88.3 (2012). p. 463-484.

[12] Indra Sinha: Animal’s People. p. 306.

[13] Rob Nixon: Slow Violence. p. 4.

[14] David Harvey: “What is Green and Makes the Environment Go Round?” In: The Cultures of        Globalization. Ed. by Fredric Jameson/Masao Miyoshi. Durham: Duke University Press           1998. p. 327- 355. Here p. 346.

[15] Indra Sinha: Animal’s People. p. 9.

[16] Indra Sinha: Animal’s People. p. 185.

[17] Indra Sinha: Animal’s People. p. 208.

[18] See Indra Sinha: Animal’s People. p. 305.

[19] Indra Sinha: Animal’s People. p. 272.

[20] Indra Sinha: Animal’s People. p. 366.

[21] See Roy Fabian: “Fish’n’ Ketchup.” http://www.perspectivedaily.de. https://www.perspective   daily.de/article/74/rmXkclfw (visited on 29 September 2016).

[22] Indra Sinha: Animal’s People. p. 366.