Reading this book was like watching certain episodes from Tom Hanks’ Cast Away. Except that there’s a clever twist of representation from each character, especially of Piscine Molitor Patel (who’s nicknamed “Pi”; that of 3.14159 value in our Physics class) who is the sole human survivor in a cargo ship that sunk in the blue Pacific (Manila was mentioned on page 131*). It’s an uplifting and amusing story of how a 16-year old survived on the same boat with a hyena, zebra, orangutan and 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger.
Given that the story is really inventive, hence bagging the 2002 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, one of my favorite chapters was pre-ship tragedy when he was exploring and experiencing test of faith. Although it’s not the actual case, but I felt the particular chapter was talking to me. As you probably know, I’m based in UAE wherein several religions are observed by different people (it’s a fact everywhere). But in this part of the world, most of the people are Christians/Catholics, Muslims and Hindu. I was nodding and non-maliciously smiling as I read this part:
Note: Without his parents and religious leaders knowledge, Pi embraces three religions and on that fateful day they coincidentally met in Salai seaside esplanade. That his secret exploded like a bomb.
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 the 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. “Piscine 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.
“Piscine, can this be true?” asked the imam earnestly. “Hindus and Christians are idolaters. They have many gods.”
“And Muslims have many wives,” responded the pandit.
The priest looked askance at both of them. “Piscine,” he nearly whispered, “there is salvation only in Jesus.”
“Balderdash! Christians know nothing about religion,” said the pandit.
“They stayed long ago from God’s path,” said the imam.
“Where’s God in your religion?” snapped the priest. “You don’t have a single miracle to show for it. What kind of religion is that, without miracles?”
“It isn’t a circus with dead people jumping out of tombs all the time, that’s what! We Muslims stick to the essential miracle of existence. Birds flying, rain falling, crops growing – these are miracles enough for us.”
“Feathers and rain are all very nice, but we like to know that God is truly with us.”
“Is that so? Well, a whole lot of good it did God to be with you – you tried to kill him! You banged him to a cross with great big nails. Is that a civilized way to treat a prophet? The prophet Muhammad- peace be upon him – brought us the word of God without any undignified nonsense and died at a ripe old age.”
“The word of God? To that illiterate merchant of yours in the middle of the desert? Those were drooling epileptic fits brought on by the swaying of his camel, not divine revelation. That, or the sun frying his brains.”
“If the Prophet – p.b.u.h. – were alive, he would have choice words for you,” replied the imam, with narrowed eyes.
“Well, he’s not! Christ is alive, while your old ‘p.b.u.h”is dead, dead, dead!”
The pandit interrupted them quietly. In Tamil he said, “The real question is, why is Piscine dallying with these foreign religions?”
The eyes of the priest and the imam popped put of their heads. They were both native Tamils.
“God is universal,” spluttered the priest.
The imam nodded strong approval. “There is only one God.”
“And with their one god Muslims are always causing troubles and provoking riots. The proof of how bad Islam is, is how uncivilized Muslims are,” pronounced the pandit.
“Says the slave-driver of the caste system,” huffed the imam. “Hindus enslave people and worship dressed-up dolls.”
“They are golden calf lovers. They kneel before cows,” the priest chimed in.
“While Christians kneel before a white man! They are the flunkies of a foreign god. They are the nightmare of all non-white people.”
“And they eat pigs and are cannibals,” added the imam for good measure.
“What it comes down to,” the priest put out with cool rage, “is whether Piscine wants real religion – or myths from a cartoon strip.”
“God – or idols,” intoned the imam gravely.
“Our gods – or colonial gods,” hissed the pandit.
“Mr. Patel, Piscine’s piety is admirable. In these troubled times it’s good to see a boy so keen on God. We all agree on that.” The imam and the priest nodded. “But he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose.”
“I don’t think it’s a crime, but I suppose you’re right,” Father replied.
The three murmured agreement and looked heavenward, as did Father, whence they felt the decision must come. Mother looked at me.
A silence fell heavily on my shoulders.
“Hmmm, Piscine?” Mother nudged me. “How do you feel about the question?”
“Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God,” I blurted out, and looked down red in the face.
Father cleared his throat and said in a half voice, “I suppose that’s what we’re trying to do – love God.”
During Pi’s most struggling days to survive from the ship tragedy, he prayed to different gods at different circumstances.
*“We sailed from from the Madras across the Bay of Bengal, down through the Strait of Malacca, around Singapore and up to Manila. We were in Manila for two days, a question of of fresh feed, new cargo and, we were told the performing of routine maintenance and work on the engines.”