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04 November 2002 — Life of Pi (2)
I should be reading Moby Dick for book group, but I'm not. I'm reading Yann Martel's Life of Pi instead.

I had heard the book was about a boy shipwrecked on an island with a menagerie. So far it's about a boy who a) dabbles in the three major religions and b) lives and plays in his father's zoo in southern India.

Still, I like it.

The protagonist, Pi, is an intensely curious boy. He is surrounded by Hindus, Muslims, Christians. He even encounters atheists and agnostics:

´┐ŻAtheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them -- and then they leap.

I'll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" then surely we are also permitted to doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.

Pi cannot choose one religion. He likes them all.

He is born Hindu:

I am a Hindu because of sculptured cones of red kumkum powder and baskets of yellow turmeric nuggets, because of garlands of flowers and pieces of broken coconut, because of the clanging of bells to announce one's arrival to God, because of the whine of the reedy nadaswaram and the beating of drums, because of the patter of bare feet against stone floors down dark corridors pierced by shafts of sunlight, because of the fragrance of incense, because of flames of arati lamps circling in the darkness, because of bhajans being sweetly sung, because of elephants standing around to bless, because of colourful murals telling colourful stories, because of foreheads carrying, variously signified, the same word -- faith. I became loyal to these sense impressions even before I knew what they meant or what they were for´┐Ż.

But religion is more than rite and ritual. There is what the rite and ritual stand for. Here too I am a Hindu. The universe makes sense to me through Hindu eyes. There is Brahman, the world soul, the sustaining frame upon which is woven, warp and weft, the cloth of being, with all its decorative elements of space and time. There is Brahman nirguna, without qualities, which lies beyond understanding, beyond description, beyond approach; with our poor words we sew a suit for it -- One, Truth, Unity, Absolute, Ultimate Reality, Ground of Being -- and we try to make it fit, but Brahman nigura always bursts the seams. We are left speechless. But there is also Brahman saguna, with qualities, where the suit fits. New we call it Shiva, Krishna, Shakti, Ganesha; we can approach it with some understanding; we can discern certain qualities -- loving, merciful, frightening -- and we feel the gentle pull of relationship. Brahman saguna is Brahman made manifest to our limited senses, Brahman expressed not only in gods but in humans, animals, trees, in a handful of earth, for everything has a trace of the divine in it.

Although Pi is born Hindu, he is drawn to other religions:

I was fourteen years old -- and a well-contented Hindu -- when I met Jesus Christ on a holiday.

[Father Martin] served me tea and biscuits in a tea set that tinkled and rattled with every touch; he treated me like a grown-up; and he told me a story. Or rather, since Christians or so fond of capital letters, a Story.

And what a story. The first thing that drew me in was disbelief. What? Humanity sins but it's God's Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine father saying to me, "Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas. Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate the camel. The week before it was painted storks and grey herons. And who's to say for sure who snacked on our golden agouti? The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided that the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed you to them."

"Yes, father, that would be the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up."

"Halleluhah, my son."

"Hallelujay, father."

What a downright weird story. What peculiar psychology.

The chapter in which Pi becomes a Christian is especially well-written and it is difficult to pick any one piece to excerpt; it all flows together in a beautiful, orderly manner, representing the thought process that leads him to add Christianity to his Hindu beliefs.

After becoming a Christian, Pi also becomes a Muslim:

[The baker] was explaining to me how the bread baked on these heated pebbles when the nasal call of the muezzin wafted through the air from the mosque. I knew it was a call to prayer, but I didn't know what it entailed. I imagined it beckoned the Muslim faithful to the mosque, much like bells summoned us Christians to church. Not so. The baker interrupted himself mid-sentence and said, "Excuse me." He ducked into the next room for a minute and returned with a rolled-up carpet, which he unfurled on the floor of his bakery, throwing up a small storm of flour. And right there before me, in the midst of his workplace, he prayed. It was incongruous, but it was I who felt out of place. Luckily, he prayed with his eyes closed.

He stood straight. He muttered in Arabic. He brought his hands next to his ears, thumbs touching the lobes, looking as if he were straining to hear Allah replying. He bent forward. He stood straight again. He fell to his knees and brought his hands and forehead to the floor. He sat up. He fell forward again. He stood. He started the whole thing again.

Why, Islam is nothing but an easy sort of exercise, I thought. Hot-weather yoga for the Bedouins. Asanas without sweat, heaven without strain.

"What's your religion about?" I asked.

His eyes lit up. "It is about the Beloved," he replied.

I challenge anyone to understand Islam, its spirit, and not to love it. It is a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion.

The presence of God is the finest of rewards.

Eventually:

After the "Hellos" and the "Good days", there was an awkward silence. The priest broke it when he said, with pride in his voice, "Piscine is a good Christian boy. I hope to see him join our choir soon."

My parents, the pandit and the imam looked surprised.

"You must be mistaken. He's a good Muslim boy. He comes without fail to Friday prayer, and his knowledge of the Holy Qur'an is coming along nicely." So said the imam.

My parents, the priest and the pandit looked incredulous.

The pandit spoke. "You're both wrong. He's a good Hindu boy. I see him all the time at the temple coming for darshan and performing puja."

My parents, the imam and priest looked astounded.

"There is no mistake," said the priest. "I know this boy. He is Piscine Molitor Patel and he's a Christian."

"I know him too, and I tell you he's a Muslim," asserted the imam.

"Nonsense!" cried the pandit. "Piscene was born a Hindu, lives a Hindu and will die a Hindu!"

The three wise men stared at each other, breathless and disbelieving.

Lord, avert their eyes from me, I whispered in my soul.

All eyes fell upon me.

So: although has not yet provided the promised shipwreck with a menagerie of animals (is "menagerie of animals" redundant?), I like it. The book is well-written, entertaining and thoughtful.

Comments

On 26 November 2003 (02:59 PM),
Icedragon said:

This is a wonderful, amazing, enlightening book. It has made me believe in God, thank you Martel, thank you Richard Parker, thank you Pi!

On 02 February 2005 (03:17 PM),
Kat said:

This book has the most amazing quotes... the insight is deeper than any mere mortal can hope to percieve. I cannot say that I loved the book, or even its plot but its message and theme are more moving than most. Read for detail for it is in these aspects that true feeling of the book is communicated.

On this day at foldedspace.org

2005Messenger   In which I race a bird.


Comments
On 26 November 2006 (10:15 PM), Marge Simpson said:

"Thank you, and so it goes with god."


On 18 December 2006 (10:07 AM), MysticSaint said:

the quotes are so lovely. brings back the beautiful memory of the reading.