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‘Writers are like scavengers'

Indra Sinha, shortlisted for this year’s Booker, speaks about his latest novel and treating humans. Vijay Dutt reports.

books Updated: Sep 10, 2007 19:39 IST
Vijay Dutt

In a beige jacket and denim, Indra Sinha gives the impression of being a man of leisure. After all, he lives in the English countryside away from the mad rush of modern life. But Sinha, educated at Mayo College and Cambridge, could turn out to be the literary David to Ian McEwan’s Goliath in this year’s Battle for the Booker, with his second novel, Animal’s People.

Sinha’s family belonged to Nanpara in Bahraich district in eastern UP.

“I used to go there until my grandfather was alive,” he says.

Sinha was born in Bombay.

“I still find it difficult to call it Mumbai. I belong to three countries: India, England and France with my father a senior naval officer, who now lives in Colaba, Mumbai, posted in these countries.”

When 11, his parents divorced and he moved with his English mother to England when he was 17.

“My interest in writing started at the age of 10.”

Stories about the rebellion of ‘Native Americans’ got him interested in writing tales of their being wiped out by disease and brutality.

“I got focussed on the underdog.”

And his two novels vouch for that.

Despite the toff upbringing, his novels Death of Mr Love and Animal’s People are woven out of the denials and deprivations of ordinary people. But apart from facts forming the nucleus for his stories, the whole story is pure fiction. And the synthesis and the blending of the two is what makes Sinha the writer that he is.

“Writers are like scavengers,” he says. “We collect the dirt, grimness of life, misery, happiness, feelings of despair and elation, of hope and frustrations of the real people."

Facts, he points out, are turned into readable fiction that ultimately makes the reader ponder over the issues raised from those facts.

His first work of fiction, Death of Mr Love revolves round the Nanavati case.

“I got interested by the way Blitz treated the case. Prem Ahuja who appeared to be the victim became the villain.” But the rest of the story is pure fiction.

“Take for instance, Animal’s People. Everyone says it is based on the Bhopal Gas tragedy. I am trying to make it clear that over 23 years, issues have got tangled. It is so complicated that there is no scope for fiction, if one had to stick to the complex history of the catastrophe. The fear experienced that night is beyond words. Children who were affected have grown up not knowing what will emerge from their bodies.”

The story is told through the life of “this human whom people call jaanwar”. It is about a character whose world changed, from human he became an animal, no longer subject to human laws, “yet courageous and bold enough to face the human world."

In the book, tragedy strikes in Khaufpur (City of Fear). The main character becomes physically twisted and starts walking on all fours. He is full of anger, but has a tough strain and retains his sense of humour. This character is based on the real life of a 19-year-old Sunil. Sunil’s life story deeply affected Sinha. He has been raising funds to help run a free clinic in Bhopal.

Sinha believes that vernacular language writers need to be translated for their works to reach the world.

“My Urdu is not very good, but I would like to translate [Sadat Hasan] Manto’s short stories. I am a great fan of his."

Win or lose the Booker, he says, “I will be delighted if the book having been short-listed receives attention. I want messages in it to be widely read. About treating people with decency as human beings.