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Apocalypse of Memory

“My story has to start with that night. I don’t remember anything about it, though I was there, nevertheless it’s where my story has to start. When something big like that night happens, time divides into before and after, the before time breaks up into dreams, the dreams dissolve to darkness.” – Indra Sinha, Animal’s People

I am reading Animal’s People by Indra Sinha about the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, often called the worst industrial disaster in world history. This novel is on my syllabus next semester for my new “Environmental Apocalypse” course.

My reading of literature could be divided into three categories: (1) memoirs, which I read obsessively to study the form as I write my own book, (2) literary works that I use in my Environmental Studies classes in my job as a professor, and (3) essays and novels I read purely for pleasure with no productive goal in mind. But when I read, these boundaries pretty much fall away, and all blend together. For example, teaching Environmental Apocalypse overlaps with my memoir: living in, steeped in, childhood trauma, and not knowing if you will survive feels apocalyptic in many ways. I didn’t have that language as a child or a teenager. I would never have said, My parents’ marriage is an apocalypse.” Because in many ways I was born into a world already fallen apart, where my life was regularly threatened. There was no previous safe space that disappeared as the anchors of reality floated away. Apocalypse was everyday. In Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, military vet and philosopher Roy Scranton says something similar: living through the war in Iraq, where his life could end any moment, has prepared him for climate collapse.

In Animal’s People, the protagonist, Animal, has been born into apocalypse. My story has to start with that night. He had a few years of life before the Union Carbide plant exploded chemicals into the slums of Bhopal, but he can’t remember them and that doesn’t matter. I don’t remember anything about it, though I was there, nevertheless it’s where my story has to start. My own childhood had a few possible years before the violence began. (I wrote about those years in “Perfect Times,” an essay published by fellow Afghan-American writer Tamim Ansary.) What you don’t remember is still filled with stories, others’ stories, who tell you want that time meant. You weave those accounts–often/sometimes fabrications–into your own memory.

Animal’s People makes apocalypse a buried memory, prelinguistic, installed by others–in contrast with the fear of apocalypse in popular (and even academic/intellectual) culture today. A well-known eco-critic, Lawrence Buell, once wrote, “Apocalypse is the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal.” Apocalypse as metaphor, apocalypse as narrative ending–that is not what apocalypse is for those who have survived trauma. In Animal’s People, apocalypse is not a projection into a future. It’s not a threat, the possibility of horror and the fall of civilization. In Animal’s People, apocalypse is an already-happened prelinguistic memory. In Animal’s People, apocalypse is a town. The novel is set in Khaufpur, a fictional name meaning, literally, Town of Terror. Narrating his beginnings, Animal explains, When something big like that night happens, time divides into before and after, the before time breaks up into dreams, the dreams dissolve to to darkness.

Looking for images of Indra Sinha, I was excited to find this one. It is a still from an interview found on YouTube. The setting looked familiar. The gate, the grass, the courtyard, the brick walkway. Upon closer inspection, I realized that Indra Sinha is at Reid Hall, in Paris, which is part of Columbia University, where I studied French many, many summers ago while studying for my PhD. Sinha was participating in a literary conference held there.