Animal in Bhopal

[i]

Ever since that book of mine, Animal's People, came out, I have become quite a traveller. Used to be that hardly did I set my four feet outside the bastis of Khaufpur. Only once in my life had I left the city, which was when I quit the vicious world of humanity and ran away to live in the jungle. But since my story was published, the humans have sought to reclaim me as one of theirs, and I've been invited to scores of places – their names clamour in my mouth – London, Oslo, Roma, Napoli, Stockholm, Yerushalayim . . .

Most recently I was in Paris, to promote the edition française of my book, which has been nicely translated by Dominique Vitalyos. 'You do crazy things,' Farouq had said to me in the original. In translation this became 'Tu fais les trucs dingues', which makes me laugh aloud from sheer pleasure in the sound of the words.

The lady from the publisher accompanies me everywhere, to radio and TV studios, to cafés where I sit and practise warnings. 'La société va s'éffondrer,' I endlessly intone. 'Aujourd'hui c'est nous, mais demain c'est vous qui serez les pauvres, c'est vous qui êtes le peuple d'Apokalis.' If you don't know français, it means, 'Society is going to the dogs. Today it's us, but tomorrow it's you who'll be poor. It's you who are the people of the Apocalypse.' This has them all nodding.

Later, perhaps as a reward, she takes me up to the top of the tower of Montparnasse, the highest building in Paris. 'What makes this such a wonderful view,' she says, 'is that from here one sees the entire city . . . except the tower of Montparnasse.'

Whilst in Paris, I bump into Nabanna Mistri, fashion editor of the Khaufpur Gazette, and she invites me to a party thrown by Karl Lagerfeld and Claudia Schiffer to launch the 1995 Dom Pérignon Oenothèque. Hopping from my taxi, courtesy of my publisher, at the Palais de Chaillot, I wonder if the few passers-by take me for a walking gargoyle crawled down off the fascia. But inside, in the Musée de l'Homme, I find Nabanna with our famous hosts and Indian publisher Alex Kuruvilla, who is weighed down by several kilos of gold medals, awarded to him for the success of his all-singing-dancing bollipop of Indian Vogue. 'Animal, darling, what a pleasure!' cries Nabanna when she spots me among the feet of the other guests. 'Paris in any season is simply la vie en rosé. How are you finding the not-Khaufpur world?'

'Trouble shitting, I've,' say I, who has not got used to backing onto Western-style sculpted porcelain. 'It is so much simpler to dung in the open. Be honest, Nabanna, don't you find it so yourself?'

'I love Indian culture,' Karlo growls, as Shilpa Shetty shimmies past in a Tarun Tahiliani harlot dress.'Trouble shitting, I've,' say I, who has not got used to backing onto Western-style sculpted porcelain. 'It is so much simpler to dung in the open. Be honest, Nabanna, don't you find it so yourself?'

I reach up for a glass of champagne from a tray lofted by a passing waiter. Unfortunately he is extremely tall and I've wobbled, three-legged, trying to keep the stuff in the glass.

'Careful,' says Lagerfeld. With his black glasses, leather coat and chermanic tone, it's like he's auditioning to be the next Terminator. 'That glass is worth more than the champagne in it. I designed it in the exact shape of Claudia's breasts – well, naturally – you see Marie Antoinette's bosoms inspired the original champagne coupe.'

Claudia Schiffer, ah, my view of her begins at knee level and sweeps upward like a delicious ski slope to the formidable champagne founts, a double overhang that unfortunately hides her face.

'As you see from the example you are holding,' continued Lagerfeld, 'the cup sits on top of three diminutive bottles of Dom Perignon on a platter – if you buy it as a package with a bottle of the 1995 Oenothèque, it will set you back three thousand one hundred and fifty dollars.'

'One and a half lakhs.' I resist with difficulty a temptation to drop the dreadful piece of kitsch. I'm not going to ruin the evening, as Zafar if he were here would almost certainly do, by pointing out that one and a half lakhs could run Elli's clinic for a couple of months and give free medical care to a couple of thousand people.

Lagerfeld stands staring through his black glasses. Perhaps he wants to give an impression of being blind. Abdul Saliq the Pir Gate beggar liked to do this sometimes when he was bored with his one-legged, pissed-on-skeleton look – except he did it by rolling his eyes up so you could only see the bloodshot whites. I used to be able to do this myself. I try it out on Nabanna.

She turns to Kuruvilla, staggering under his burden of gold bullion. 'Alex, so happy for your new magazine, but are you trying to filch off my readers?'

'Oh no Nabanna,' replies the gallant fellow. 'Never could Vogue hope to prise away the loyal fashionistas of the Khaufpur Gazette.'

I turn my rolled-eye gaze on him.

'Animal, I have an idea,' says Kuruvilla. 'Why don't you write something for us? Fashion from your point of view.'

Nabanna sniggers. I think she is regretting having asked me. Typical of these people. I get on literary prize lists and the television and, voilà, reptiles of her sort are slithering all over me.

'In fact, Alex, I do have an idea.'

'Let's hear it then.'

'Take a good look around this room.'

He duly looks, and the others do too.

'The theme is beauty secrets. All the women in this room can afford the most expensive make-up, designer clothes, hairdressers, shoes etc, so it is hardly very surprising that they look elegant. Their secret? It's just money. So here's my idea – come with me to the Nutcracker slum in Khaufpur, and I'll show you beautiful women, ones who despite their hard lives look lovely without spending a cent, because they haven't a cent to spend' – I'm thinking of the eldest daughter of old Nafran Jehan, and also Gangu Bai's two girls – 'their beauty secrets would genuinely be worth having.'

Mont Dom and Mont Perignon swivel to Nabanna. 'You're from his city. Will you accept this challenge?'

'We of the Gazette fashion pages are in no way blind to the sufferings of those who are unfortunate enough to be poor,' responds Nabanna rather stiffly. 'Certainly, on my return I'll venture into the Nutcracker basti to get Mr Animal's take on life, love and fashion.'

I turn to Lagerfeld and give a tug to his smartly creased trouser. 'So Karlo, they say that Chanel is not enough of a challenge for you. Why don't you design a suit for me? Four-legged jacket, no need of pants.'

I am still laughing as the appalled Nabanna drags me away. 'Are you mad, trying to insult our friends? You are a horrible person, Animal. You don't belong in civilised society. Take my advice, go back to your slums.'

With what delight I left that place. The hotel mini-bar contained a half of champagne, which I sucked from the bottle. I wanted to sing, and still do. A kind of rotten French is dancing on my tongue, une langue tout à fait pourrie; but as I am advised to cease uttering uncouth and incomprehensible lingos, I will let it go. I shall not tell of my visit to Campania, sing 'O Sole Mio!' in phonetic Neapolitan, nor regale you with my memories of the Booker dinner in London when I drunkenly assured Ian McEwan that he would one day get the Nobel, and kissed Lloyd Jones's bald pate and called him a genius.

The city I wanted to talk about, before I got sidetracked, was, of all the places I have visited, the most bizarre, unlikely, foreign, and to me the most surprising of all.

[ii]

'We're going to Bhopal,' shouts Zafar, his words whipped away on the onrushing air.

'Where?' I yell back.

I'm perched on the back of his motorbike, clinging hard, as babool bushes whip past in a yellow blur. Beyond them the landscape unrolls at a more leisurely pace, small fields hedged with cactus, cows pulling at a rick of hay, a group of dwellings, mud-walled, roofed with thatch and roped-on bits of tarpaulin. Watching them pass, I realise with what care the bidonvilles, our dreadful Khaufpur slums, were built, by people who had come from the countryside, and tried to recreate their village homes using whatever materials came to hand.

'Bhopal. It's a city not very far from Khaufpur,' says Zafar, blowing on his glass of tea. We have stopped to enjoy that most precious moment of any journey, the rest at the roadside chai shop.

'How come I've never heard of it?'

'You and ninety-nine percent of the world,' says he, 'either have not heard, or have forgotten. It's a city where a horrible disaster happened twenty-five years ago.'

He begins to tell me about Bhopal, where a chemical factory owned by a giant Amrikan kampani had exploded, releasing a cloud of poison gases over the sleeping city. Eight thousand died in a night. Hundreds of thousands were injured. After twenty-five years there are one hundred thousand souls in the city who cannot draw a breath without pain. Every day someone else dies.

'But this is just like Khaufpur!' I exclaim. 'Incredible. A city close to ours where the exact same thing has happened, how come you've never talked about it?' Full of suspicion, I'm. Tale's too preposterous to be true.

'There are many places like Khaufpur,' says Zafar. 'Some look much like our city, others quite different, but in each the suffering of people, the diseases, and the causes, are the same.' He rattles off a list of names I've often enough heard before – Minamata, Seveso, Chernobyl, Halabja, Vietnam, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Toulouse, Falluja.

'Yes, but you have never mentioned Bhopal.'

There is definitely a mystery here, something he is keeping from me.

'Sometimes when you are very close to a thing, you don't really see it. Doesn't mean it's not there.'

'Another chai for me,' say I. 'It's so delicious. Nothing like it in the West.' A pleasant memory comes to me, sitting in grand sunshine outside the Café de la Mère Agitée off the Boulevard Raspail, tucking into a tajine de poulet aux olives while beyond, the tower of Montparnasse soars shining into the sun. Can I really have done such things? Does life exist, outside Khaufpur?

'For years we have been quietly helping the Bhopalis and they have been helping us,' says Zafar, polishing his glasses on his shirt-tail. 'We're going there to meet my friend Sathyu Sarangi, who works with the Sambhavna Clinic. It combines modern with herbal medicine, and gives treatment free to those injured by gas and poisoned water.'

'What? They too have water poisoning? And a clinic like Elli's?'

This is too much. Zafar is talking shit. Then I get it. Of course. Hasn't he been nagging me that I've been drinking too much? On my travels I have developed a taste for alcohol, which he dislikes, although bhang he doesn't mind because it's herbal medicine.

'Zafar, this clinic. Is it some kind of sanatorium?'

'I suppose, in a way,' he replies.

'Okay, let's turn around. I'm not going.'

'What? Why not?'

Why not? Hah! I know all about herbal fucking medicine. Me, I've been out of my head on Datura and don't fancy all that again. Plus, in London I met up with Jo Guest, who'd just come back from a trip to the Amazon. We lounged about her house gupping and drinking frozen Papa Doblés while she showed me a video of her experiences. The idea, Jo said, was to detoxify and heal, but after weeks of no alcohol, no meat and no sex, these witchdoctor types boil up some filthy roots into a brew that makes her sick and gives her visions of leopards.

'I refuse to give up kebabs,' say I, 'plus I'll take a drink if I want one, and I'm going to have all the sex I can get.'

Zafar sits there wiping his glasses. 'Animal,' he says at last. 'Don't do so much travelling. It stretches your head in strange directions.'

[iii]

The clinic in Bhopal is a lot bigger than Elli's. It is a spacious, cool building and all around it are gardens in which grow, I am told, the medicinal plants that are used to treat people. Still suspicious I'm, as we head into the office of Sathyu, who runs the place. I'd been imagining Sathyu like another Zafar, but the two of them side by side are very different. Sathyu is not as tall as Zafar; his beard doesn't jut, he is not constantly fingering it; and his specs don't have the same kind of gleam. But they embrace like old friends. Must have known each other a while. More mysteries.

'I've heard of you.' Sathyu looks at me like he's sucking a lemon, so I guess the stuff he has heard is not so good. But everyone knows I'm off my head, mad as a strip of bark, which I agree, fuck do I care.

'An important visitor is arriving here today. A great man, he has made generous gifts to this clinic and maybe he will help the Khaufpuris too. He is French, which Zafar says you can speak, so this is why you are here, to act as guide and interpreter and make him feel at home.'

'How can I guide him and make him feel at home if I don't know this place and it is not my home town?'

To this comes no reply. They talk together a while, ignoring me. The next surprise is Zafar saying, 'Sathyu and I have a meeting, Bhoora will take you to the station to meet the monsieur's train.'

Bhoora? Sure enough, outside the clinic is the rickshaw of Bhoora Khan, with Bhoora in it, as usual unpeeling an orange. 'I came ahead,' says he calmly. 'Zafar-bhai is remaining a few days, so I'll be taking you back to Khaufpur.'

'But Bhoora miyan, did you know about this city, Bhopal?'

'Of course. Where else is my whole family from?'

At the station, a strip of mangy red carpet has been unrolled and is hanging over the edge of the platform where the first-class bogie will stop. I am just wondering if they could not have found something less moth-eaten, when nearby starts up a familiar braying. Mando! It has to be! Those threadbare uniforms, that tarnished frogging, they couldn't belong to anyone else's band. Plus no one else plays such music, in such a simultaneous variety of keys and styles, getting notes and timings so approximately correct. This is Khaufpuri music at its most authentic, but what is it doing in Bhopal?

The band is playing as the train arrives, a sort of sustained blurry screeching, and amidst great excitement clinic staff stand ready to garland their guest. Alas, when the train rolls to a halt, his carriage is at the other end of the platform.

'Quick! Run!' someone yells. In a flash they've rolled up the carpet into a sausage, four people have tucked it under their arms and they're legging it down the length of the station. The band members likewise pick up their instruments and sprint, those encumbered by tubas and bass drums gradually falling behind. The trumpeter blasts the odd tattoo as he runs.

I refuse to run, so I walk leisurely down the platform. Ahead of me I hear the band strike up 'Auld Lang Syne', or it might be 'Rock Around The Clock', or 'Chaudhvin ka Chand', or 'She Loves You'. As I come up, the clinic staff are trying their best to shush them: 'Not yet. Wait for him to get off.'

At last we are again ready, carpet unrolled, band poised, garlands waiting. The carriage door opens, the great man steps down smiling and is instantly drowned in flowers. He opens his mouth to speak. The band proudly strikes up and drowns him in music. There is a hiatus as we get them once more to shut up. Our guest begins a speech, but every time he pauses to draw breath the band launch into one of their extraordinary renditions. It is hard to distinguish one tune from another, and this is part of the genius of Mando and his crew. Pandit Somraj, who hears music in all things, says that Mando is a nonpareil. In his music are all musics, all songs, all styles of expression, all at once. And it is fitting, says Panditji, that he should come from Khaufpur, because is not our town similarly a symbol and metaphor for all places that have been damaged, where small people suffer under the shadow of giant catastrophes and the weight of great injustice?

The ceremonies of greeting ended, everyone is garlanded, including me. Counting jarnaliss, film crews, etc, the foreign visitors number at least thirty. We pack ourselves and our garlands into a large coach and set off through the streets of Bhopal, which at a casual glance are much like the Khaufpuri streets I know so well. Soon, we're at our first stop, the kampani's derelict factory. It is all so familiar, a ruined chemical plant rising out of a jungle of neglect, a tall blackened stack from which gases flew to kill a sleeping city. There, lost among bushes, is the giant tank that leaked the gas. The factory is a place I know so well, it used to be my refuge from humanity. Over in that corner, I made a summer nest of grasses. In those trees there, I would sit.

Our group laboriously climbs up into one of the rusting structures. Up here with just the wind how quiet it's. Isn't always. You should hear the ghosts, the factory is full of them, when a big wind blows their souls fly shrieking up and down the empty pipes. Some nights, there'd be nothing here, just the ghosts and me, a four-foot creature climbing in the trees and pipes. Perched like a monkey on top of this poison-khana I'd watch the moon making shadows, and the stars cutting their circles, and I would look at the lights of the city and wonder; if this pipe had been mended, that wheel tightened, I might have had a mother and father, I might still be a human being.

I wake from my reverie to find myself alone, looking out over the city. Something is wrong. Where is the Nutcracker, that vast and desperate slum, my home, that should be stretching out of sight beyond the rail tracks? It is not there.

Then I remember, this isn't Khaufpur, but Bhopal, and I begin to feel that I am trapped in some endlessly repeating nightmare.

We are walking through a grim slum when an old woman comes hurtling out of her house and plants herself in front of our important guest. 'Hey you!' she yells at him. 'Yes, you! Big man! What do you want here, with your film crews and photographers and jarnaliss and hangers-on? We've had enough of your sort. You come here to gawp, and suck our stories from us, so strangers in far off countries can marvel there's so much pain in the world. Like vultures are you. Somewhere a bad thing happens, and look, here you come, drawn by the smell of blood. And when you're glutted with our suffering you'll salve your conscience with grand promises. Next day you'll go back to your own country, and for us here, nothing will change.'

'Now, mother –,' I feel it my duty to step in and correct her. 'Don't you know this man does so much for the poor of this city? You should not speak to him that way.'

'Qu'est ce qu'elle a dit?' the monsieur wants to know.

So I tell him and he says, 'Please tell her that I am going to open a sub-clinic right here, in this basti. It will have a doctor and compounder, and she will be able to get free medical help.'

I tell this to the old lady, but she does not seem convinced.

'And you?' she demands of me, who is still wreathed in flowers. 'You are one of us. Why are you parading around with these foreigners?'

I open my mouth to reply that I am in fact a Khaufpuri not a Bhopali, but I cannot find the right words.

'Darling, there you are,' calls a voice behind me. 'I heard you were here. I've been looking for you all over.' Behold, a pair of fur boots, and in them Nabanna, trying not to step in the filth of the lane.

'You? You're here as well?'

'Of course. I have a regular column in the Bhopal Chronicle. Didn't you know? Is this your beautiful slum lady?'

I look at the old lady, who is sadly regarding Nabanna. The picture comes into my mind of Huriya Bi, that old woman I loved so much, and of my dear Ma Franci, their old wrinkled faces peer at me through the face of this stranger.

'Yes, she is beautiful,' I hear myself saying. 'She is more beautiful than you could begin to know or understand or imagine in a million eternities.'

[iv]

'Animal, you're so opinionated,' says Nabanna. 'You need bringing down to earth, darling. I am going to interview you about your miserable little life.'

I see now that she is accompanied by a television crew. She produces a powder compact, checks her make-up in its mirror, works her lips to smooth the lipstick and turns to the camera.

'It is rather odd for me to be here because last week itself I was entranced in the too-chic surrounds of Bice in Milano, sipping la dolce vita with the starry likes of Calvin Klein and Christina Ricci, while watching the bel mondo saunter in the Via Borgospesso. Everyone knows I am from Khaufpur and all were asking about this young man, Animal, and his recent novelised memoir, so on my return I ventured into the slums to meet Mr Animal and invite him to bare his soul.'

'So many articles and books have been written on tragedies without having more than a shock impact. What makes you think your narrative about Khaufpur's tragedy could make any difference?'She swings round to me and the camera follows.

For a moment, I am tongue-tied. This is my line. 'So many books have been written about this place, not one has changed anything for the better, how will yours be different?' Wasn't it me who asked this of the jarnaliss? 'You will bleat like all the rest. You'll talk of rights, law, justice – on that night it was poison, but now it's fine words that are choking us.'

Didn't I say these things? Yes, but the truth is that I did believe my story would make a difference. Nabanna looks gloatingly at her crew. She thinks she has got me first shot.

I pull myself together, take a breath.

'Nabanna, tragedy is a useless word pinned to the arse of what can't be told or thought or felt. For years I narrated stories of that night, I spoke till my tongue ached and my teeth were ground smooth by the passage of words. I searched a thousand ways to convey the horror, the pain of what really happened to so many people, and you are right, nothing changed.

So I gave up talking of great calamities – my story was not about tragedy but about small people who live their lives in the shadow of giant words.'

'Oh very nice,' she retorts. 'But what difference will it make?'

'That's up to the people who read it.'

'Your Kakadu shorts are worn out, not to say disgusting, and during your European book tour you wore proper clothes tailored to fit. Yet since returning to Khaufpur you don again the shorts. Now that you are a celebrity, will you consider getting a decent wardrobe?'

'If I answer will you explain why you are wearing dead rats strapped to your feet?'

She sighs. 'Animal, you used to be so charmingly naive, but just a few trips abroad have made you a boring cynic. These boots are Manolo Blahnik Aziz's. The idea is Stone Age yet futuristic. They cost thirteen-hundred dollars a pair, but I paid zilch for them – because Manolito gave them to me.'

'Furry shoes are so last year.'

'Since when have you been an expert?'

Oh but Nabanna, I am. To me the street is a torrent of legs, trousers, caught-up dhoti ends, sari hems, people aiming kicks at me that fetch up short because they aren't really kicks, just ordinary steps, that flash towards me the entire output of the city's cobblers, you did not know there were so many sorts of shoe. And then there's the feet, like twisted roots, curved like swans, villagers' feet with thick cracked heels, feet with poking-out tortoise toes, and toenails, some polished and shiny as beetles, others yellow and so thick you could make a stew of them.

'Well,' says she, 'your view of the world is no doubt distorted by your physical condition.'

'You can't say that my view of the world is distorted just because it is not the same as yours. My condition is completely normal for me.'

She ignores this and fires the next question. 'Haven't you in fact turned yourself into a case on display, someone who people like Chunaram exploit for gain? Is that what the victims have turned into?'

'I think I am a case on display whom people like you exploit for gain. Why else are you interviewing me? You call us victims. I look round, I don't see victims. I see this one, that one, they have names. They love their children, like you do. If you hurt them they will bleed. What have we turned into? Don't ask us, ask yourself, did you speak up when we were gassed, sickened, destituted, poisoned a second time, swindled, repeatedly lied to, then beaten and kicked for daring to protest? No, you kept silent. I think we are your victims. Congratulations.'

'You are rather bitter. Did you think that sharing your bitterness is enough to win justice?'

'What justice?' I cry, responding I suppose to the sneer in her voice. 'Haven't you heard? The politicians are now denying that the wastes lying in the factory pose a danger. Just two months ago, Zafar was telling me, some clown minister called Jairam Ramesh said as much. The Bhopalis burned his effigy and got beaten up by the police. Now comes another joker called Babulal Gaur, he is a gas minister. He picks up a handful of dirt from the factory and says, "It can't be harmful because look at me, I'm still alive." He should know better, he was a lawyer who more than twenty-five years ago dealt with cases of cattle poisoned by the factory. To prove how safe the factory is, these wicked bastards have opened it to the public. "Come, see for yourselves! A happy day out for all the family!" What? Safe is it? Do people have x-ray vision to see the poisons in the soil, in the deep underground river? Will they taste the well water that stinks and burns the mouth? Anyone with eyes can see the children, born like me, deformed, fingers joined, hare-lips, tumours where should be eyes. These putain con politicians don't want to see, they just want to let the kampani off the hook. Don't talk to me about justice.' She starts to say something. 'No, let me finish. These political types, these gas relief ministers and chief ministers and prime ministers, these wicked scum deserve to be hanged for the death and suffering they have brought on our people.'

'Animal, I know some of these people well, and I assure you –'

'–You've probably been to bed with most of them, darling, sipping champagne paid for by the fucking kampani.'

After this outburst, there is a long silence. The cameraman, chewing gum, asks if he should switch off his machine.

'No,' she says, and I catch her fury. 'You say you speak from the heart, but what kind of heart does your language reveal? Don't you think it's a little too strong, too prurient, for decent tastes?' She produces a copy of my book and opens a pre-marked page. 'Listen to this: "Whole nother world it's, below the waist. Believe me, I know which one hasn't washed his balls, I can smell pissy gussets and shitty backsides whose faint stenches don't carry to your nose, farts smell extra bad." ' She slams the book shut. 'Can such filth be called literature?

''Okay, Nabanna, tell your decent readers that I will clean my language if you will all raise your voices to clean the factory. Clean our water. Clean our blood. Clean our mother's milk. You decent people who know of our suffering and do not speak up, your silence is a greater obscenity than any word I could utter.'

'Do you honestly feel,' she persists, 'that your account will go beyond mere literature to make people sit up and care about what happened on that night and its aftermath?'

'I do not know,' I replied, 'what is literature, nor what makes it mere. I have told you the truth. What you do with the truth is up to you.'

[v]

Nabanna is still standing in front of me, a microphone in her hand, but the interview is over. In the distance, the crowd of foreign jarnaliss is dwindling towards an open-air stage where will be speeches, promises, good intentions, hopes. I cannot bear any more. I turn and walk away.

Slowly, alone, I wander through the alleys, each a muddy stretch with sewage in the open drains overflowing, trickling down the middle, like canals of shit, a sort of hellish Venice, stinkier than the Serenissima. I loved Venice, it is made for walking à quatre pattes, but not as much as I love Khaufpur and its terrifying identical town.

Similar it is, but many things are missing.  There is no Paradise Café run by nine-fingered Chunaram, the ex-leper who so loved money that he charged people to see him rip off his little finger, which was hanging by a thread. Fine kebabs, Chunaram makes. I so want to go home, but home vanishes the moment you leave it.

What has happened to me? How did it begin, my new life? Someone saying, 'Animal come to Bombay for a litfest.' What is a litfest? I didn't want to look ignorant so I didn't ask. 'Lit' in français means bed, with luck it was some kind of orgy: this is the joke I tell against myself. Nabanna is right. I have become knowing and pompous. The world's endless questions are destroying me, I have become the answers I so often repeat. On French television I was asked, 'Do you see yourself as a hero?'

'No,' I replied. 'People like me are not heroes, we are struggling to survive.'

But even as I spoke, I knew these words were not true. Not that I have become a hero, but the truth is that I am no longer struggling, no longer poor, or at least not so utterly poor as I was. Nowadays I wear leather gloves on my hands when I walk. I don't have to wonder when my next meal might be. I have been often with jarnaliss to the Italian restaurant at the grand Jehannum Hotel. Thinking of the old lady who shouted at the man who had come to help, I understand all too well that I have become separate from those who were my people. I too am a stranger.

I yearn for the simple days when I was just happy-go-lucky Animal, arse up in the dustbins, hustling a crust. I cannot go back, but the change in my life has left me wounded in a way I never expected. I feel opened up, filleted, to think of the past is to feel the knife ripping my gut.

Lost and once again alone, I wander through the maze of mean dwellings, made of planks, sacks, bits of tin, doors half human height, perfect for an animal. In just such a place lived old Huriya with her ever-ready kettle, old blind Hanif and his parrots, and their naughty little granddaughter Aliya, who never stopped pestering me to let her ride me like a horse. This hovel here could be their place. If I twitch aside the sack that serves for a door, will I discover Ma Franci, chatting away in a tongue no one else can understand?

A child runs past, shouting an insult. I laugh, it's like the old times, then I'm in tears and suddenly I'm in Khaufpur and they are there right in front of me. Ma, little Aliya, old Huriya and blind Hanif, parrots on his wrist. They are standing in the alley, looking down on me and smiling.

'Granny? Hanif grandpa? Aliya? Ma? Is it really you?'

Oh, my dear dead ones, by what miracle have you appeared here in this Bhopali slum?

They don't speak. Slowly they begin to disappear.

'Don't go!' I cry. 'Stay with me! Let me go back with you! I want to go back. Oh how I wish, with all my heart, that I could go back.'

Their vanishing smiles pour out endless heartbreaking love.

~ Indra Sinha is a writer based in France. His most recent book, Animal's People, was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize and was a regional winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writer's Prize. 

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