- Post-Humanitarian Fictions
Indra Sinha’s novel Animal’s People (2009) is a thinly veiled account of the 1984 Union Carbide Disaster and its aftermath in Bhopal, India. Set in the fictional city of Khaufpur (literally translated from Urdu as “place of terror”), the novel is narrated through Animal, now a teenaged boy who survived the disaster as an infant but whose exposure has resulted in a twisted spine which necessitates that he walks on all fours. Animal thus literally embodies the disaster, which has structurally transformed him from human to animal. Animal’s birth name has been long forgotten and he comes to embrace the “inhumanity” signaled by his nickname. At times, however, he clearly vacillates between a desire to be a free animal — a being without a “master”—and a desire to be a virile human male (Sinha 2009, 342). This ambivalence is crystalized in the novel through the tensions between Animal’s sex (his corporeal frame exposes his well-endowed genitalia to public view) and his hetero-masculinist sexuality through which he desires deeply to penetrate (at times violently) a human female body. Thus while his body marks him as “animal,” his identification with a particular form of heterosexual masculinity also signals his abiding attachment to being “human.” Although sexuality is often imagined to be a crucial marker of the human’s abiding animality, in the novel sexuality turns out to be among Animal’s least “animal” aspects. While I won’t dwell in detail on Animal’s sexuality here, this slippage points toward one of the central concerns of this essay—namely, how material and ideological realms are always at play in the making and unmaking of particular subjectivities.
Animal is immediately set apart from other characters in the novel who never question their own status as human; yet he also signals the dehumanizing effects of global capitalism on those who, like the victims of the Bhopal disaster, have not been afforded basic human rights or recompense from the Western corporate power that has disabled them and poisoned their environments. Pablo Mukherjee emphasizes this reading of the novel by “taking the Bhopal disaster as an appropriate, if somewhat extreme, synecdoche of the everyday condition of postcolonial existence” (2011, 217). Tracing the events that led to the Bhopal disaster and the uneven international media coverage that followed it, Mukherjee illustrates how what is broadly understood as the world’s worst industrial disaster exposes the ongoing disparities between the [End Page 137] postcolonial world and Western neocolonial forces such as the Union Carbide Corporation. The novel, as Mukherjee argues, presses us to consider how the disaster and its aftermath upend the fraudulent logic that gives rise to “universal” human rights, a logic in which the human itself carries “radically different values in the global north and south” (217). Animal is thus an absolutely exceptional figure who teeters between the human and the nonhuman, and at once a symptom of the dehumanizing effects of neocolonial power.
Animal’s People is what I call a “post-humanitarian fiction,” a postcolonial literary text that pressures humanitarian action by revealing its dehumanizing functions. Along with other postcolonial literary texts, such as J. M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K and Mahasweta Devi’s short story “Shishu,” post-humanitarian fictions imaginatively link contemporary humanitarianism to the more explicitly violent enactments of colonial mastery over the colonies by drawing forth forms of dehumanization otherwise elided by discourses of modernity and progress. Post-humanitarian fictions saliently illustrate how the will toward mastery underlies even those pursuits commonly held as the most noble and altruistic. The humanitarian, whose profound desire is to work in the service of others less fortunate, finally cannot be extricated from the unequal power-relations s/he seeks to redress. Through a reading of Sinha’s novel, the figure of the humanitarian emerges as one that stands in opposition to the mastery of others but also unwittingly works alongside it. It represents the complex entanglement of politics and ethics through international and intra-national forms of humanitarian aid, and it offers an urgently needed perspective on the neocolonialism of humanitarianism as it is currently enacted. Despite the fact...