Life of pi, p.8
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       Life of Pi, p.8

           Yann Martel

  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 strayed 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 properly popped out 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.

  It was hard to tell whose face was more inflamed. It looked as if they might come to blows.

  Father raised his hands. "Gentlemen, gentlemen, please!" he interjected. "I would like to remind you there is freedom of practice in this country."

  Three apoplectic faces turned to him.

  "Yes! Practice--singular!" the wise men screamed in unison. Three index fingers, like punctuation marks, jumped to attention in the air to emphasize their point.

  They were not pleased at the unintended choral effect or the spontaneous unity of their gestures. Their fingers came down quickly, and they sighed and groaned each on his own. Father and Mother stared on, at a loss for words.

  The pandit spoke first. "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.

  My embarrassment was contagious. No one said anything. It happened that we were not far from the statue of Gandhi on the esplanade. Stick in hand, an impish smile on his lips, a twinkle in his eyes, the Mahatma walked. I fancy that he heard our conversation, but that he paid even greater attention to my heart. Father cleared his throat and said in a half-voice, "I suppose that's what we're all trying to do--love God."

  I thought it very funny that he should say that, he who hadn't stepped into a temple with a serious intent since I had had the faculty of memory. But it seemed to do the trick. You can't reprimand a boy for wanting to love God. The three wise men pulled away with stiff, grudging smiles on their faces.

  Father looked at me for a second, as if to speak, then thought better, said, "Ice cream, anyone?" and headed for the closest ice cream wallah before we could answer. Mother gazed at me a little longer, with an expression that was both tender and perplexed.

  That was my introduction to interfaith dialogue. Father bought three ice cream sandwiches. We ate them in unusual silence as we continued on our Sunday walk.


  Ravi had a field day of it when he found out.

  "So, Swami Jesus, will you go on the hajj this year?" he said, bringing the palms of his hands together in front of his face in a reverent namaskar. "Does Mecca beckon?" He crossed himself. "Or will it be to Rome for your coronation as the next Pope Pius?" He drew in the air a Greek letter, making clear the spelling of his mockery. "Have you found time yet to get the end of your pecker cut off and become a Jew? At the rate you're going, if you go to temple on Thursday, mosque on Friday, synagogue on Saturday and church on Sunday, you only need to convert to three more religions to be on holiday for the rest of your life."

  And other lampoonery of such kind.


  And that wasn't the end of it. There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless. These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy begging for a few paise, walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, "Business as usual." But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.

  These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open
ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart. Meanwhile, the lot of widows and homeless children is very hard, and it is to their defence, not God's, that the self-righteous should rush.

  Once an oaf chased me away from the Great Mosque. When I went to church the priest glared at me so that I could not feel the peace of Christ. A Brahmin sometimes shooed me away from darshan. My religious doings were reported to my parents in the hushed, urgent tones of treason revealed.

  As if this small-mindedness did God any good.

  To me, religion is about our dignity, not our depravity.

  I stopped attending Mass at Our Lady of Immaculate Conception and went instead to Our Lady of Angels. I no longer lingered after Friday prayer among my brethren. I went to temple at crowded times when the Brahmins were too distracted to come between God and me.


  A few days after the meeting on the esplanade, I took my courage into my hands and went to see Father at his office.


  "Yes, Piscine."

  "I would like to be baptized and I would like a prayer rug."

  My words intruded slowly. He looked up from his papers after some seconds.

  "A what? What?"

  "I would like to pray outside without getting my pants dirty. And I'm attending a Christian school without having received the proper baptism of Christ."

  "Why do you want to pray outside? In fact, why do you want to pray at all?"

  "Because I love God."

  "Aha." He seemed taken aback by my answer, nearly embarrassed by it. There was a pause. I thought he was going to offer me ice cream again. "Well, Petit Seminaire is Christian only in name. There are many Hindu boys there who aren't Christians. You'll get just as good an education without being baptized. Praying to Allah won't make any difference, either."

  "But I want to pray to Allah. I want to be a Christian."

  "You can't be both. You must be either one or the other."

  "Why can't I be both?"

  "They're separate religions! They have nothing in common."

  "That's not what they say! They both claim Abraham as theirs. Muslims say the God of the Hebrews and Christians is the same as the God of the Muslims. They recognize David, Moses and Jesus as prophets."

  "What does this have to do with us, Piscine? We're Indians! "

  "There have been Christians and Muslims in India for centuries! Some people say Jesus is buried in Kashmir."

  He said nothing, only looked at me, his brow furrowed. Suddenly business called.

  "Talk to Mother about it."

  She was reading.


  "Yes, darling."

  "I would like to be baptized and I would like a prayer rug."

  "Talk to Father about it."

  "I did. He told me to talk to you about it."

  "Did he?" She laid her book down. She looked out in the direction of the zoo. At that moment I'm sure Father felt a blow of chill air against the back of his neck. She turned to the bookshelf. "I have a book here that you'll like." She already had her arm out, reaching for a volume. It was Robert Louis Stevenson. This was her usual tactic.

  "I've already read that, Mother. Three times."

  "Oh." Her arm hovered to the left.

  "The same with Conan Doyle," I said.

  Her arm swung to the right. "R. K. Narayan? You can't possibly have read all of Narayan?"

  "These matters are important to me, Mother."

  "Robinson Crusoe! "


  "But Piscine!" she said. She settled back into her chair, a path-of-least-resistance look on her face, which meant I had to put up a stiff fight in precisely the right spots. She adjusted a cushion. "Father and I find your religious zeal a bit of a mystery."

  "It is a Mystery."

  "Hmmm. I don't mean it that way. Listen, my darling, if you're going to be religious, you must be either a Hindu, a Christian or a Muslim. You heard what they said on the esplanade."

  "I don't see why I can't be all three. Mamaji has two passports. He's Indian and French. Why can't I be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim?"

  "That's different. France and India are nations on earth."

  "How many nations are there in the sky?"

  She thought for a second. "One. That's the point. One nation, one passport."

  "One nation in the sky?"

  "Yes. Or none. There's that option too, you know. These are terribly old-fashioned things you've taken to."

  "If there's only one nation in the sky, shouldn't all passports be valid for it?"

  A cloud of uncertainty came over her face.

  "Bapu Gandhi said--"

  "Yes, I know what Bapu Gandhi said." She brought a hand to her forehead. She had a weary look, Mother did. "Good grief," she said.


  Later that evening I overheard my parents speaking.

  "You said yes?" said Father.

  "I believe he asked you too. You referred him to me," replied Mother.

  "Did I?"

  "You did."

  "I had a very busy day ..."

  "You're not busy now. You're quite comfortably unemployed by the looks of it. If you want to march into his room and pull the prayer rug from under his feet and discuss the question of Christian baptism with him, please go ahead. I won't object."

  "No, no." I could tell from his voice that Father was settling deeper into his chair. There was a pause.

  "He seems to be attracting religions the way a dog attracts fleas," he pursued. "I don't understand it. We're a modern Indian family; we live in a modern way; India is on the cusp of becoming a truly modern and advanced nation--and here we've produced a son who thinks he's the reincarnation of Sri Ramakrishna."

  "If Mrs. Gandhi is what being modern and advanced is about, I'm not sure I like it," Mother said.

  "Mrs. Gandhi will pass! Progress is unstoppable. It is a drumbeat to which we must all march. Technology helps and good ideas spread--these are two laws of nature. If you don't let technology help you, if you resist good ideas, you condemn yourself to dinosaurhood! I am utterly convinced of this. Mrs. Gandhi and her foolishness will pass. The New India will come."

  (Indeed she would pass. And the New India, or one family of it, would decide to move to Canada.)

  Father went on: "Did you hear when he said, 'Bapu Gandhi said, "All religions are true"'?"


  "Bapu Gandhi? The boy is getting to be on affectionate terms with Gandhi? After Daddy Gandhi, what next? Uncle Jesus? And what's this nonsense--has he really become a Muslim?"

  "It seems so."

  "A Muslim! A devout Hindu, all right, I can understand. A Christian in addition, it's getting to be a bit strange, but I can stretch my mind. The Christians have been here for a long time--Saint Thomas, Saint Francis Xavier, the missionaries and so on. We owe them good schools."


  "So all that I can sort of accept. But Muslim? It's totally foreign to our tradition. They're outsiders."

  "They've been here a very long time too. They're a hundred times more numerous than the Christians."

  "That makes no difference. They're outsiders."

  "Perhaps Piscine is marching to a different drumbeat of progress."

  "You're defending the boy? You don't mind it that he's fancying himself a Muslim?"

  "What can we do, Santosh? He's taken it to heart, and it's not doing anyone any harm. Maybe it's just a phase. It too may pass--like Mrs. Gandhi."

  "Why can't he have the normal interests of a boy his age? Look at Ravi. All he can think about is cricket, movies and music."

  "You think that's better?"

  "No, no. Oh, I don't know what to think. It's been a long day." He sighed. "I wonder how far he'll go with these interests."

  Mother chuckled. "Last week he finished a book called The Imitation of Christ."

  "The Imitation of Christ! I say again, I wonder how far he'll go with these interests!" cried

  They laughed.


  I loved my prayer rug. Ordinary in quality though it was, it glowed with beauty in my eyes. I'm sorry I lost it. Wherever I laid it I felt special affection for the patch of ground beneath it and the immediate surroundings, which to me is a clear indication that it was a good prayer rug because it helped me remember that the earth is the creation of God and sacred the same all over. The pattern, in gold lines upon a background of red, was plain: a narrow rectangle with a triangular peak at one extremity to indicate the qibla, the direction of prayer, and little curlicues floating around it, like wisps of smoke or accents from a strange language. The pile was soft. When I prayed, the short, unknotted tassels were inches from the tip of my forehead at one end of the carpet and inches from the tip of my toes at the other, a cozy size to make you feel at home anywhere upon this vast earth.

  I prayed outside because I liked it. Most often I unrolled my prayer rug in a corner of the yard behind the house. It was a secluded spot in the shade of a coral tree, next to a wall that was covered with bougainvillea. Along the length of the wall was a row of potted poinsettias. The bougainvillea had also crept through the tree. The contrast between its purple bracts and the red flowers of the tree was very pretty. And when that tree was in bloom, it was a regular aviary of crows, mynahs, babblers, rosy pastors, sunbirds and parakeets. The wall was to my right, at a wide angle. Ahead of me and to my left, beyond the milky, mottled shade of the tree, lay the sun-drenched open space of the yard. The appearance of things changed, of course, depending on the weather, the time of day, the time of year. But it's all very clear in my memory, as if it never changed. I faced Mecca with the help of a line I scratched into the pale yellow ground and carefully kept up.

  Sometimes, upon finishing my prayers, I would turn and catch sight of Father or Mother or Ravi observing me, until they got used to the sight.

  My baptism was a slightly awkward affair. Mother played along nicely, Father looked on stonily, and Ravi was mercifully absent because of a cricket match, which did not prevent him from commenting at great length on the event. The water trickled down my face and down my neck; though just a beaker's worth, it had the refreshing effect of a monsoon rain.


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