Indra Sinha was born in 1950, the son of an Indian naval officer and an English writer, Irene Elizabeth Phare, who wrote under the name of Rani Sinha.
He attended schools in England and India before moving to Britain with his family in 1967. He studied English Literature at Pembroke College, Cambridge, after which, having failed to persuade the BBC to let him make documentaries, he became an advertising copywriter in London, notably with Collett Dickenson Pearce. He was voted by his peers one of the top ten British copywriters of all time. While working in advertising he translated Vatsyayana's Kama Sutra into English, the first new translation published in the west since Sir Richard Burton's. This was followed by a monograph on the origins of tantrism.
In 1995 he left advertising to become a full-time writer, producing a non-fiction memoir of the pre-internet generation, The Cybergypsies (1999). His first novel, The Death of Mr. Love (2002), is set in Bombay and weaves a fictional story around the notorious Nanavati murder case which led to the abolition of the jury system in India.
Indra Sinha has campaigned and fundraised for the poisoned citizens of Bhopal since 1993. He co-founded the Bhopal Medical Appeal, which offers free medical care to people affected by the gas and water poisoning. His most recent novel, Animal's People (2007), is set in the Indian town of Khaufpur, and is based on the Bhopal disaster. Animal's People was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book).
Indra Sinha lives with his family in Southern France.
After publishing several works of non-fiction, including the well-received memoir The Cybergypsies (1999), Indra Sinha made his fiction debut with The Death of Mr Love (2002).
This epic tale, itself a celebration of storytelling, centres around two people who discover that their families are connected to a notorious Bombay society murder.
The novel’s narrator is affectionately portrayed by Sinha as a kind of well-meaning if naïve hero. Bhalu – ‘known to his playmates from an early age as Bhola Bhalu. Bhalu the Innocent. Bhalu the Fool’ – is a middle-aged, slightly overweight and not very accomplished second-hand bookseller, still teased by his writer mother Maya, and whose earlier infidelity casts a quiet shadow over his marriage.
After spending his first years in the city, Bhalu relishes an idyllic childhood in rural India, playing in the forests and mountains around his family’s home. For periods he is joined by Phoebe, the daughter of Sybil, one of his mother’s English friends, and the two form a close bond. But all is not well and first Phoebe and Sybil, and then Bhalu and Maya, abruptly leave for England, with little explanation. It is only when Bhalu meets Phoebe again many years later, just as he is starting to explore a mystery hinted at by his dying mother, that he starts to understand the troubles that lay behind his carefree childhood. Sybil’s diaries suggest her involvement with a murdered man, but gradually another linked crime emerges which has ended in a very personal tragedy. Bhalu and Phoebe revisit the scenes of their first friendship to uncover the truth. But Phoebe is no longer the girl she once was: now stunningly beautiful but with problems of her own, the grown-up Bhalu must also decide how he feels about her.
This is an ambitious first novel. The mirrored settings of tranquil Ambona and busy, dirty, and often dangerous Bombay, along with rural and urban England, are handled with real skill. The storytelling is compelling. The complex plot, fusing fictional lives around a real-life murder case, weaves together elements of thriller and will-they-won’t-they love story, but its ending avoids resolution. The reader’s uncertainty about Phoebe’s motives, and her sanity, build towards an apparent climactic scene on a storm-swept jungle-covered mountain. But the expected confrontation never quite happens. Similarly, the issue of Bhalu’s fidelity, and whether he has learnt from his experiences, is also far from resolved.
Sinha’s follow-up, some five years in the making, was Animal’s People (2007). It is a more successful, even if it cannot comfortably be called a more enjoyable book. Though again set in India, it is a very different beast. Telling the story of the aftermath of a large-scale industrial catastrophe based on the Bhopal disaster of 1984, it is a vivid portrayal of life at gutter level among the dirt-poor of the fictional city of Khaufpur. Sinha depicts a claustrophobic world of sickness, filth, scamming, surviving on four rupees a day, and above all, the ongoing suffering of those afflicted by an explosion at the local chemical plant on what is always referred to simply as ‘that night’.
Animal is one of the most distinctive narrators in contemporary fiction: a teenage boy whose twisted back forces him to go about on all fours and who does not consider himself human; who hears the voices of, and converses with, the living, dead and inanimate; whose orphaned upbringing on the streets has left him at times hard-hearted and selfish; and who swears profanely and is obsessed with sex. However he is also quick-witted and intelligent, speaks several languages, and is devoted to the nun who looked after him as a child.
Most readers will know that the book is based on a true story with no real happy ending. But the quality of the writing, and its overarching humanity, compel the reader to continue. In this way Animal’s People achieves one of literature’s highest purposes – helping us look into the dark places we would normally shy away from. At the same time though, there’s nothing 'worthy' about the book. In an interview on the ‘Khaufpur website’, Animal insists that ‘my story is not about tragedy, it is about small people who live their lives in the shadow of giant words’. And amid all the sickness, poverty and hardship of Khaufpuri life are humour, camaraderie, loyalty, and plenty of thoroughly normal teenage obsessions. For the book is also the coming-of-age story of Animal, who falls in love for the first time, tries desperately to get laid, discovers who his friends really are, and comes to an understanding about his much-touted lack of humanity.
One of the triumphs of the book is the richness of Animal’s language. When offered help he quickly picks up French and some English; he maintains a regular torrent of curses and scatological reference; chats and insults in fluent street-speak; and converses with people and things that nobody else can hear. On life from his all-fours perspective, for instance, he says:
‘The world of humans is meant to be viewed from eye level. Your eyes. Lift my head I’m staring into someone’s crotch. 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. In my mad times I’d shout at people in the street, “Listen, however fucking miserable you are, and no one’s as happy as they’ve a right to be, at least you stand on two feet!”’
But when a fictional journalist on the Khaufpuri website asks him whether his language isn’t a little too strong, Animal answers in words which could be not just Sinha’s, but those of every writer who has tried to help a just cause: ‘to those who know of our suffering and do not speak up, I say, your silence is a greater obscenity than any word I could utter.’
Susan Tranter, 2008