The haunting image captured of a child in 1984 by Rohu Rai titled “Burial of Unknown Child” in the rubble of the Bhopal industrial disaster mirrors Animal, the protagonist of Indra Sinha’s novel Animal’s People, a fictionalized account of the incident. Although Sinha doesn’t directly reference this haunting image, the resemblance is uncanny. The image of a small human body, in the throes of formation, partially buried, though not in a grave, has been iconic in its own right; it has been used on multiple occasions in rallies, protests, media coverage, and book covers related to the Bhopal disaster. Towards the end of the novel, we find Animal lying on the ground, deep within a forest, alone and nearly forsaken. The juxtaposition of the real-life, unnamed child in the embrace of the burnt, toxin-riddled ruins of the pesticide plant in Bhopal and the fictional character placed in the forest adjacent to the factory is undeniable. This parallel deserves scrutiny because one represents the countless casualties of such disasters, while the other is a character, who exists in a literary landscape and exist in a novel that is inextricably part of the environmental justice movement since Animal’s People forms part of the basis of Rob Nixon’s theory of slow violence.
The fictional Animal and Bhopal child seem like two mirror images; they are identical yet resist direct superimposition. Hence, I borrow the term ‘chirality’ from chemistry to elucidate how the two deaths captured in the image and in the novel are mirrored moments of toxic exposure. In chemistry, “chirality” refers to “mirror-images” of molecules that are non-superimposable (Chirality). This term was derived from the Greek word for “hand” because our hands are a classic example of chirality; they are non-superimposable mirror images of each other. A specific molecular distribution is required for such non-superimposable twins to take form. The image and Animal, to me, mirrors non-superimposable twins due to the embedded certainty of death for the child while Animal averts the inevitable. Both are formed by the similar instance of toxin infiltrating body while each experiences separate endings.
To provide a context for the dual role of the Bhopal child and Animal we need to revisit the infamous Bhopal disaster of 1984 in India occurring at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), a pesticide plant located in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. The factory was owned by the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) in the United States (Taylor). In a matter of hours, the disaster claimed the lives of approximately 3,000 people, but its repercussions continue to be felt through the birth of children with severe deformities. The ultimate death toll is estimated to be around 20,000. The majority of those affected by the disaster were impoverished individuals who lived near the factory.
Animal, representing one such victim, moves on all fours and named himself. He possesses remarkable mobility and self-sufficiency. He harbors a deep suspicion of anyone bearing the label “human,” expressing, “I’d be filled with rage against all things that go or even stand on two legs” (Sinha). In the novel, Animal navigates life within the toxic, desolate surroundings of the abandoned factory. The setting is vividly described in organic terms, with phrases like, “[i]ts belly is a tangle of pipes like rotting guts” (Sinha 30), blurring the lines between human and non-human elements. For Animal, the contaminated factory grounds represent his natural environment, and the burned-out factory carcass serves as his home. His act of self-naming is a deliberate act of resistance against carrying a human identity. By choosing his own name, he boldly declares, “I no longer want to be human” (Sinha). This assertion is not one of despair, but of pride with his unique story and the unique environment that produced it; he can move faster than most of his peers. The novel documents Animal recounting his life’s story to an Australian journalist. However, Animal is not a willing participant in this narrative sharing. He sees the journalist as one among many who have come to extract “our stories” for the benefit of strangers in distant lands, capitalizing on their suffering. Animal fittingly labels these outsiders as “vultures,” drawn to the “smell of blood” (Sinha). Vultures themselves on the brink of extinction due to ingesting pesticides and toxins, serve as a powerful representation of the new norm imposed on both the living and the deceased. The symbol of the vulture assigned to the journalist is not a simple metaphor. Human or nonhuman encountering the toxin and gaining access to contaminated blood either faces extinction or undergoes a mutation into the form of the new normal – Animal. Animal resists the old way of being human; in his extrahuman state, he has defied the expectations of normalcy by embracing a symbiotic relationship within his ‘ab’normal body.
Therefore, the line between reality and symbolism blurs when we revisit the image of the Bhopal child armed with this sense of the new normal. The child, encased in the toxic-infested rubble, seems to vicariously live through Animal, mirroring the actual disaster’s result in the birth of deformed children years later. As we approach the end of the novel, we find Animal in his diminished state, lying on the forest floor, seemingly baptized by the pouring rain. Through Animal’s perspective, we partake in his sensory connection with the natural world. He states, “rain is falling out there in the world softening the shapes of the forest, the lines of trees on the hillsides, all are misted in grey rain blowing across and water is dripping down from the rocks and pouring in white chutes down the slopes.” He calls this experience “paradise” (Sinha 352). This moment reflects a peculiar mirroring of perspectives. Animal discovers life in the act of imagining himself as if he were dead. In the photograph, we witness a nameless child with vacant eyes, exposed to harsh elements rather than the nurturing embrace of a quilted crib. The juxtaposition between Animal’s upward gaze as he lies on the ground and the child with lifeless eyes is striking, creating a shared thread that diminishes the distance between observer and observed. In both cases, they are either dead or imagining themselves as such, offering a sense of escape from the entrapment of the toxin-riddled body.
Similarly, the body, being the common site for death manufactured by toxin for Animal and the child, represents the condition of life that is non-superimposable because neither can survive beyond the toxin. In one way, Animal lives because the toxin exists, while the child is dead because the toxin wills it. In this superimposed state, both figures appear to face each other, despite one being alive and the other having passed away. Animal, in his determination not to narrate their story, reverses the role of the vultures, who are drawn to narratives of death. The child, on the other hand, epitomizes a material representation, embodying the collective memory of the Bhopal disaster. The imagery of the child, however, serves as a sensational symbol, having become iconic in representing the Bhopal tragedy. The mirroring of bodies entrapped in toxins becomes a complex interplay when we consider that Animal is a fictional character. The child’s silence is, in a way, filled by Animal’s fictional existence. The trouble lies in the fact that Animal’s longing for death within life is a product of fiction.
In reality, civil and criminal cases against the U.S.-based company, like the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), extended until 2012, with the cases being dismissed or redirected between countries. Eight Indian officials were sentenced, but they were soon out on bail after their sentencing. The lack of accountability is exposed when we see that the bulk of the consequences of the disaster remains with the victim while the accused walks away, highlighting the invisibility experienced by Bhopal victims over thirty years.
While Bhopal solidified Animal as a fictional character, he, in turn, seems to have filled the silence of the child who never got a chance to escape with their friends, as Animal does in the novel. In a cinematic twist reminiscent of Bollywood, Animal returns to his friends and renounces his animal state, declaring, “I don’t think I can bear to go on being an animal in a world of human beings” (Sinha 364).
Yet the image of the child remains hauntingly vivid: a small frame partly buried under dark and corrosive pebbles, an adult hand resting near their temple, offering a scale for the smaller frame. Plump cheeks hint at vitality, and wide-open eyes encapsulate a traumatic end. This depiction resists Animal’s attempt at vocalization. The toxin never leaves the child alone, nor can they escape its branding.
The body of the real child and the metaphorical one in Animal’s story are both steeped in tragedy; dwelling on them together offers nuances on the visible and the invisible. Yet, it remains baffling as the chiral nature of the two refuses to bond. In his depiction of voicing death from the location of some kind of end, be it the denouncing of humanity, escaping the “rotting guts” of the factory, or standing naked and vulnerable, Animal mirrors life in death, while the child mirrors death in life.
One speaks of extrahuman possibilities, living beyond the toxin, while the other remains silent, framed by a living hand.
Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011. Hathi Trust, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/010751129.
Sinha, Indra. Animal’s People. 1st Simon & Schuster hardcover [i.e. pbk.] ed., Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2009.
Taylor, Alan. Bhopal: The World’s Worst Industrial Disaster, 30 Years Later – The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2014/12/bhopal-the-worlds-worst-industrial-disaster-30-years-later/100864/. Accessed 22 Feb. 2023.
Image Source: Union Carbide pesticide factory, Bhopal, India, Bhopal Medical Appeal.