Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Faith of Pi

I was about half-way through Yann Martel's Life of Pi when I heard it had just been made into a movie.  I had just finished reading when the film was released.  By that point I was curious about what had been made of it, and dubious that the movie could retain the impact of the book.  Two weeks worth of feedback later, my doubts remain.  Though Roger Ebert, whose opinion in such matters I well respect, has reviewed it highly, I've decided just the same not to see the movie until the book has receded further into the deeps of memory. I don't want to be disappointed. It's better to wait until I'll be better able to judge the film on its own merits.

The movie trailer I've seen looks beautiful, romantic, and fanciful. The book, though full of vivid imagery and gut-wrenching story telling, was not, to me, a grand scale adventure. Or perhaps I should say, it was an adventure, but an adventure described as adventure feels to those who really experience it, as a series of close and terrifying realities. Hearing adventures or dramas told, or seeing them acted, can be exciting and even entertaining. The reader and the watcher are safe. Actually living one is more like hell.  It is to Martel's credit that, Life of Pi, could be beautifully written, vividly painted, charming, and sometimes funny, but also deeply unsettling.  

Life of Pi is about an Indian boy, a teen really, but one whose naivete makes him seem much younger than that to me. His family owned and operated a zoo. It was also their home. There Pi lived a nearly idyllic childhood. In it he gained a world of wisdom and an allegory for just about every truth in life and faith. "I have heard nearly as much nonsense about zoos as I have about God and religion," says Pi. "Well-meaning but misinformed people think animals in the wild are 'happy' because they are 'free'."  But a good zoo like his family's, Pi explains, provides all that the animals really need and would spend all their energies looking for in the wild:  food, defined territory, comfort, mates, freedom from predators, etc. It is their home and within its confines all their wants and needs are met. So it is with faith.  
"Close them all down if you want (and let us hope that what wildlife remains can survive in what is left of the natural world).  I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces.  Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both."
As it happened, it is here in the confines of the zoo that Pi first fell under the influence of an atheist, Mr. Kumar - his biology teacher.  Pi's zoo is Mr. Kumar's temple.  Its empirical truths reinforce his need for  structure, and thus were a source of comfort. His atheism was a result of the unanswered prayers of his childhood bout with polio. "What a terrible disease that must be," Pi reflected, "if it could kill God in a man." Yet Pi felt a kinship with with him.  As he put it, this Mr. Kumar gave him his "first clue that atheists 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."

Pi's real name is Piscine Patel. Piscine means swimming pool in French.  His father's love of swimming bordered on religious.  In time Piscine's would too.  Though his guilty pleasure was to betray his own name by sneaking off to swim, not in a swimming pool, as his father preferred, but in the sea.  Unfortunately, Piscine, spoken in English, sounds an awful lot like pissing. So, fed up with the inevitable adolescent school-boy taunting, he crafted a new name for himself and launched it with theatrical flourish on the first day of his first year in secondary school at the beginning of each class period. To his great relief, it caught on.
"In that Greek letter that looks like a shack with a corrugated tin roof, in that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge."
In this simple statement we are given the first hints at themes that are bigger than just Pi. Perhaps the life of this Pi might also be a tool to understand the universe.  We are not meant to mistake Pi for an ordinary boy.

Pi loves God. Or, you might say, he loves the idea of God, which is sometimes but not always the same thing.  I can't tell which it is with Pi.  What is unquestionable is that he loves religion, and his love is sincere. Like the sea, he, once he had discovered the joy of it, plunged into it at every opportunity. He was not brought up in a religious home.  It would be a relative of his mother's who would bring him for the first time into a Hindu temple. The smells, the sights, the rituals, and beauty of it all sowed in his heart "a germ of religious exaltation, no bigger than a mustard seed."

But," he assures,
"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....I have been a Hindu all my life. With its notions in mind I see my place in the universe."
His Hinduism is lovely, formative, and surprising:
First wonder goes deepest; wonder after that fits in the impression made by the first.  I owe to Hinduism the original landscape of my religious imagination, those towns and rivers, battlefields and forests, holy mountains and deeps seas where gods, saints, villains and ordinary people rub shoulders, and, in doing so, define who and why we are.  I first heard of the tremendous, cosmic might of loving kindness in this Hindu land. It was Lord Krishna speaking.  I heard him, and I followed him. And in his wisdom and perfect love, Lord Krishna led me to meet one man. I was fourteen years old - and a well-content Hindu on a holiday - when I met Jesus Christ.
On holiday with his parents, Pi would be drawn to a faith with a beauty of a different kind. Three hills ringed the hotel where they stayed.  Each of these hills was crowned with a place of worship: one donned a Hindu temple, another a mosque, and the third a Catholic church. Though the school he attended was nominally Christian, Pi knew little of Christianity beyond its reputation for violence and for operating good schools.  Curious, he climbed the hill to the church and wandered in.  He spied on a priest immersed in quiet study and prayer - not very violent-looking.  He moved on to the sanctuary proper and wondered at the gruesome image which hung there: a cross on which a bloodied man hung, dying. "It was hard to connect this torture scene with the priest in the rectory....Catholics have a reputation for severity, for judgment that comes down heavily.  My experience with Father Martin was not at all like that.  He was very kind."

Through the kindness and patient teaching of this priest, the reputation Pi had of the severe Catholic God was called into question. 
"That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand.  The gods of Hinduism face their fair share of thieves, bullies, kidnappers and usurpers.  What is the Ramayana but the account of one long bad day for Rama?  Adversity, yes.  Reversals of fortune, yes.  Treachery, yes.  But humiliation? Death? I couldn't imagine Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged through the streets and, to top it off, crucified - and at the hands of mere humans, to boot.  I'd never heard of a Hindu god dying...divinity should not be blighted by death.  It's wrong.  The world soul cannot die, even in one contained part of it.  It was wrong of this Christian God to let His avatar die.  That is tantamount to letting a part of Himself die.  For if the Son is to die, it cannot be fake.  If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ.  The death of the Son must be real. Father Martin assured me that it was.  But once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected.  The Son must have the taste of death forever in His mouth.  The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father.  The horror must be real.  Why would God wish that upon Himself?  Why not leave death to the mortals?  Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect?
"Love.  That was Father Martin's answer."
Certainly love would replace the stench and taint of death with the aroma of pleasing sacrifice. Pi grappled with the ramifications of God incarnate.  Pi's own Hindu tradition overflowed with stories.  He was certain Christianity would too.  But Father Martin taught him that the many stories of Christianity together only point to this one. "It was story enough for them." (And so it is.) 

Day after day Pi meets for tea with the priest.  Agitated, he questions Father Martin about God's very human and unimpressive Son. (Any Hindu god can do better miracles than Jesus and without so much talking and sweating.) Yet day by day he could not get this Christ out of his head:
"The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him.  And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him."
On his last day of vacation, Pi ran to the priest to tell him he wanted to become a Christian.  Father Martin welcomed him happily into the faith.  Pi prayed for the first time to the living Christ, then left with a joyful heart.  He "raced down the hill on the left and raced up the hill on the right - to offer thanks to Lord Krishna for having put Jesus of Nazareth, whose humanity I found so compelling, in my way."

In less than a year we find Pi curiously exploring his hometown's Muslim quarter. "Islam had a reputation worse than Christianity's - fewer gods, greater violence, and I had never heard anyone say good things about Muslim schools."  He peeked into a mosque, then moved on to some tiny shops.  There he encountered a poor baker of flatbread, who invited him into his hovel.  It was time for the call to prayer, and  Pi stood watching.  "So it went the first time I saw a Muslim pray - quick, necessary, physical, muttered, striking.  Next time I was praying in church - on my knees, immobile, silent before Christ on the Cross - the image of this calisthenic communion with God in the middle of bags of flour kept coming to my mind." 

His name was Mr. Kumar.  (Kumar is a common surname in India.).  He was a Sufi mystic.  "He sought fana, union with God, and his relationship with God was personal and loving. 'If you take two steps toward God, God runs to you!'"  

Pi embraced Islam.  "I challenge anyone," Pi would later say, "to understand Islam, its spirit, and not to love it.  It is a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion."  

Piscine's conversion to Pi was but a first step on a long road of curiosity, investigation, discoveries, and conversions. Along the way he gathered and laced together beliefs, systems of thought, and perspectives on reality and used them to convert the world of his experience into something more beautiful and meaningful.  His story pleads with us to understand the human desire to gild this dismal life with the glow of faith.

His religious pursuits, I should mention, went on for quite some time unnoticed by his secular parents. The outing of his religion was a pivotal moment in his young life.  Pi and his parents were strolling one day along a beach on the Bay of Bengal. All at once, to Pi's horror, they were approached, from three different directions by a priest, a pandit, and an imam.  Each of Pi's religious leaders had spotted him at once and determined to greet him and to meet his father, the illustrious owner of the city's zoo.  In this way these secular parents and religious leaders learned that their son and pupil was not just a good Hindu boy, but also, a good Christian boy, and and a good Muslim boy to boot. A three-way argument ensued with each man of faith insulting the religion of the next until Pi's father silenced them.  

Then the pandit spoke, "'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.'" A blushing Pi responded, "Bapu Gandhi said, 'All religions are true.'  I just want to love God.'"'  Unable to answer his simple zeal and unwilling to argue with Gandhi, Pi's parents gave in and allowed him to be baptized a Christian, and to obtain a Muslim prayer mat.

With this foundation laid, we come the event that will comprise bulk of the story. I've been agonizing over how to discuss it without giving up the end.  Throughout the narrative we are reminded that this story has a happy ending, so to say as much is not to spoil anything.  I will try limit myself to what you might be able to surmise from watching the movie trailer: a series of turnarounds led Pi's parents to decide it was time to sell their zoo and emigrate to Canada. They sold the animals to zoos all over the world, and then boarded a cargo ship to cross the Atlantic, bringing with them those animals which they had sold to Canadian zoos.  In rough seas, the ship sank, leaving Pi and life boat full of wild animals as the only survivors.  With him were a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, a rat, and a large Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. 

Pi's life is now a survival epic - a brutal, sometimes beautiful, tragic, sometimes funny, months-long parable of the meaning of life and humanity - played on a massive theater of rolling seas and relentless weather.  Pi, and his boat-full of predators and prey are the players. Though there were moments that felt magical, I found little that was cute or fanciful about Life of Pi.  It is life, boiled down to its realest terrors, its glimmers of hope, its agonies, and its beauty. A little life-boat becomes a whole world of life fighting to keep living, a world of suffering, of desperation, and of faith bobbing and drifting, aimlessly and seemingly endlessly on a vast and impersonal sea. 

Like a sovereign deity, Martel artfully ensures that no detail is wasted. Every moment serves the end, and the end gives meaning to all that came before it. The rhyme and reason of it all, if there is any, will not be discovered until the very end. 

At heart, Life of Pi  is about religion. It is a passionate appeal on behalf of faith, or at the very least on behalf of religious tolerance and understanding. I found a tight and unified theory of religion at work. Every detail in Pi's story builds on it. Though Pi denies that he defends the rights of zoos to exist, implying he feels the same about religion, I think it is fair for me to say that this book is both an allegory and an apologia of faith. At the very least, it is an appeal for understanding and tolerance. Throughout the narrative we find Pi selecting from  his religions what he needs for the moment. In doing so he paints ugliness with beauty and invests chaos with meaning. In then end we are presented with two possible realities and, find ourselves along with Pi, looking back at the sea and the boat and asked to choose which story we prefer. The mind and the heart races - it is not an easy choice.

In this world where faith is ridiculed as unreasonable, where it is blamed (and often rightfully so) for all kinds of evil, it is refreshing to see religion championed and valued for its very real ability to color life - with all its pain and tragedy - with meaning, to touch it with tenderness, quiet it with peace and tickle it with delight.  I'm happy as well to see atheists and the devout placed back on the level playing field where they belong. Pi brings us all together - united in our humanity, united in our ignorance, united in our weakness - right back to square one.

In my next post I will discuss Life of Pi from a Christian perspective: its value, its challenges, and its limits.

2 comments:

Kevin Faulkner said...

Great post, especially concluding lines. I much prefer to read about this book/film from you than a film-critic Laurie, because your insights are deeper. You've got me interested in this one, it's clearly inspired you to write beautifully and am looking forward to your next post! Have a warm and loving Christmas.

Laurie M. said...

Kevin, thank you so much for your encouraging words. I will try to have the next/final part up by Christmas, but I can't promise it. Our week is about as full as can be. I hope you have a very blessed Christmas as well.