I read Life of Pi, for the first time, in three days in the birdsong of an Assamese tea estate. I relished each page, absorbing Yann Martel’s masterpiece with a pointed mindfulness.
I was left spellbound.
(In case you have not read Life of Pi, this section has a spoiler alert:)
I read the tale of adventure and courage with credulity. At times, the storyline of the 16 year old boy called Pi who survives on a lifeboat for 227 days with a tiger, was written with such intense details it read like a survival manual. Was this a true story? I would ask myself.
I was enchanted by Pi’s curious nature, exploring religions, animals, zoos with candour and his mental probing of faith versus reason. And in its final chapter, there suddenly emerged a secondary plot that completely blind-sided me and left me presented with a choice – the sumptuous path of the better story, or the grey, credible one of macabre realism.
l was left in a state of wonderment, yet although I had finished the book, I hadn’t finished with the book, for its scent lingered on. I backtracked and re-read chapters. I felt that magnetic pull to stretch the make-believe a little longer and to visit the book’s initial setting, a seaside town in the south of India, called Pondicherry.
The monsoon was fashionably late in 2003, playing hard-to-get with the dry coastline of India – her satellite image on the TV weather resembled a whirling dervish, spinning in the ocean with a a splayed skirt of clouds.
I flew down to Bangalore where I boarded public buses, trains and boats around the southern tip of India. I marvelled at old Keralan churches that rose out thick groves of coconut trees; I visited glittering palaces at Mysore and stared wide-eyed at the awesome spectacle of the Thrissur Pooram, a festival of hundreds of elephants with golden head-dresses; I travelled to the southernmost tip of India where the two seas and an ocean met in an angry, frothy surf.
Finally, the public bus from Chidambaram juddered north, passing salt pans that resembled snow piles, till we entered a town of white-washed houses, with orderly streets all arranged in right angles. We passed street signs of Goubert Avenue and Dumas Street, past carved hardwood doors in front gardens of flowers watered with rainbow topped sprays. The bus driver proclaimed “Pondy”, the affectionate name for Pondicherry. And there it was. The objective of my sojourn – the setting of Life of Pi.
Beyond the canal, towards the sea, there was the unmistakable hint of the Cote D’azure, in this ex-French colony – Indo-Gallic charm of Alliance Francaises with cows in front of them, restaurants that served Bordeaux, and Indian police with the peaked caps of the French Gendarmes. Despite being owned by India since 1954, the Frenchness of Pondicherry clung in the air, like a faint wisp of herbes de Provence.
Strolling the esplanade in Pondicherry
Instead of seeing the town, or even seeing it as the author may have seen it, I tried to picture what Pi Patel, the 16 year old protagonist of the Life of Pi, may have seen.
Down the main seafront road at Goubert Salai, parents were busy buying ice creams and pink fuzzes of candy floss for their children, with helium filled balloons that yearned to elope with the evening sea breeze. Pi Patel could have been right there having an inter-faith dialogue with a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian. I imagined him talking to the black statute of Mahatma Gandhi walking forwards out of a white gazebo, discussing the commonality of religions. At the Botanical Gardens, I strolled amongst its collection of trees and plants – there was a toy train, aquarium but of course, no sign of a zoo and there never was but in the parallel reality of credible make-believe, there’s always a hypothetical that asks what if there had been?
The conversation with the waiter in the Indian Coffee House
Things got curiouser. On my final day I visited the Indian Coffee House which Martel mentions at the start of the book.
I ordered a strong Nilgiri Hills coffee for three rupees, and sat amongst the chattering families on plastic chairs under high ceiling fans. I caught the eye of a passing waiter.
– Yann Martell, he came here didn’t he? I asked.
I held up a dog-eared, bruised-cover copy of Life of Pi pointing at a paragraph.
The waiter was unflustered as if he’d seen many of my type pulling out their tiger cover books from their backpacks. He wobbled his head and said:
– Certainly he did, he sat right here.
He pointed to the chair I was sat on. I thought perhaps this was a sales puff for there were rows and rows of tables and plastic chairs and I chose to sit on the same one as the author?
The conversation took a bizarre turn. I showed him the paragraph where Martel writes he met an old man with white hair who told him about Pi, the zoo and the tiger.
– And Francis Ad-i-ru-bas-am-y? I asked reading it syllable by slow syllable.
– Oh-ho you have just missed him, he replied collecting up some cups and saucers. Mr Francis comes here often.
I was bamboozled. Where did fiction and fact meet? The coffee house and the author were real, Pi Patel, the tiger were figment’s of the author’s imagination, but ‘Mr Francis’ was suspended by his white hair in a netherworld.
Meeting Yann Martel, the author of Life of Pi, in London
In 2007, Life of Pi’s author, Yann Martel, came for a book-signing in London following the publication of a handsome new hardback edition of Life of Pi with illustrations by Tomislav Torjanac .
I told Yann Martel about my journey and the visit to the coffee shop and the conversation with the waiter.
– Was any of it real? I asked. He smiled, shook his head and said:
– No, I made it up.
– All of it? I asked.
– All of it.
He smiled, nodded and signed my book in his distinctive, joined-up writing
– May india always live in your heart.
Beautiful words in one of my most cherished possessions.
(So you have two stories, both have the same ending: 10 million delighted readers and a Mann Booker Prize. In the more credible story the author has made it all up. In the other story, the author learns the tale from an old white-haired man who tells him about a crazy tale of a boy who survived on a boat with a tiger called Richard Parker. Now which is the better story?)
The enduring message of Life of Pi is more relevant now than ever
My fascination with Life of Pi has endured. Its millions of readers have read it and read in to it, the counterweights of doubt and belief, reason and faith, the credible story or the better story.
Since it was first published, significantly on 9/11, our world has become more insular, our times more troubled.
At the heart of Life of Pi is harmony. A boy who finds harmony with a tiger. A boy who survives 227 days finding harmony with the Pacific ocean. A boy who is a Hindu-Christian-Muslim and sees harmony without incongruity in his own set of beliefs.
We each have our own tigers, and these we can embrace or ignore at our peril, for our only chance of survival is to focus on what binds us together like the rope that bound Pi’s raft. Our our destinies, like Pi’s and the tiger’s, are intertwined.
Post script: My own legacy from Richard Parker
Life of Pi had a personal legacy for me. I had always hated cats – I found them selfish, scratchy and, when needing food, manipulatively charming. A few years ago, my wife persuaded me to get a stripey kitten which we named Monkey because of her incessant desire to climb anything. So began my own journey of co-existence and changing attitude with a feline friend as I transformed from cat loather to cat lover. Yes, that was my own little adventure with an every hungry cat.