Animal’s People

Animal’s People  started life in 1996 as a sketch for a screenplay which, according to my notes of the time, was to have been called Green Song. It was about people living in the shadow of a great disaster. The idea of turning these notes into a novel came to me in the summer of 2001, when I was looking for a story to follow The Death of Mr Love.  At that time there was no Animal and no Ma Franci. The adaptation did not work. Despite trying every trick I could think of  the matter in the alchemist’s flask remained dark and lifeless.

Two unrelated events changed everything. Some  friends back from India mentioned having met a young man whose twisted spine obliged him to go on all fours. ‘A  good-looking chap,’ they said, ‘with an air about him. He took no shit  from anyone.’ A few days later my daughter Tara told me about an old Parisienne  she had met in a nursing home. She was  suffering from dementia and had lost the ability to recognise  any language  except her childhood French. When other people spoke she thought they were gibbering. She told Tara, ‘Thank goodness you speak properly, like a human being.’ Thus Animal and Ma Franci came into my story and into my life. Over the next few years they became far more to me than characters in a work of fiction, they were my friends, co-conspirators and closest companions.

animal_statue10

Animal sculpture by Eleanor Stride photographed at the
Stride Gallery in Vers, Midi-Pyrenées, France. [SEE MORE]

Animal’s first act was to castigate me for not understanding the people about whose lives I was writing. He was dismissive of  my earlier efforts  and  insisted on taking over and telling  the story himself. I couldn’t agree to this. Animal threatened to write to my publisher denouncing me as an fraud. He would tell them I had stolen his story. He demanded that I make him an email address so that he could dictate his letter, which he expected me to write down and send. I thought this was a funny idea, so I registered him as animal@khaufpur.com

I had written   Animal’s email for him and was on the point of sending it  when a sixth sense warned that  it would be a very   bad idea.  A publisher wouldn’t see the funny side. I foresaw  a long correspondence with lawyers. So I gave in. Animal  dictated the book to me.  When I baulked at the  foul  language  he habitually used, Animal  demanded that not a word be changed. It took me a while  to learn to trust him, but once I did  the writing became easy.

So this was  how it got done. The things I didn’t know about life in the Khaufpur slums, Animal did. Strange how  one can know things one can’t possibly know.  When we were nearing the end of the writing Animal asked, ‘So will my name be on the cover?’ I said  it would not. ‘Fuck do I care,’ said he. ‘You have written down my life, but I lived it.’

Even now that our book  is printed and we have had the thrill of seeing the finished copies, and having it nominated for  literary prizes (it even won one), the story has not finished.

Animal refuses to behave like a character in a novel. He continues to inhabit  his scorpion-infested corner of my mind,  laughing at me and mocking my  pretensions. He has written some stories about his new life as a literary figure. He says they are better than anything I could have written. (They’re linked on the right.)  I  have  known the wretched boy for many years  and he is as alive to me today as on the day I first met him. I hope you will enjoy his company as much as I have.

For Sunil

Animal’s People is dedicated to our friend Sunil Kumar, who died in July 2006, aged 34. It had been dedicated to him from the moment I began writing it. He didn’t live to see it published.

When the book was up for prizes a   BBC reviewer said  it chronicled Sunil’s life, I want to make it clear that it doesn’t.  He was  not the boy my friends met, who went on all fours.  The character of Animal is entirely fictional, as are his antics.

Some of the stories Sunil told me about his life found their way into the novel. Animal’s ability to live on 4 rupees a day (£0.05, €0.07, $0.10) and his sense of humour were certainly inherited from Sunil. Sunil went about the city on foot and once accused me of being “an auto-riding superstar” just as Animal later accuses Elli doctress. He also once ran away to the jungle to live like a wild creature.

New York Magazine called Animal’s People “scabrously funny”, which delighted me and made Animal chuckle,  but Sunil’s life was anything but.

He was a Bhopali who  lost most  of his large and loving family in the gas disaster. The two siblings who survived were much younger than Sunil.  Aged 12  he became the family breadwinner and right up to his death his first thoughts were always for his sister and brother. He was kind to other children, helped form an organisation of orphans and threw himself into the survivors’ struggle for justice, becoming one of its best-known characters.

His death, in July 2006, and particularly the manner of it, was reported all over the world. This tribute, which I wrote on behalf of all his friends, ran in UK newspapers in September 2006.