Great Indian Novels #6: The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

In this series of articles I profile 10 great Indian novels…

The Life of Pi is one of those rare books that defy attempts at classification. It can be read as a literary novel par excellence (it won the Booker Prize in 2002); an adventure survival story; or a metaphysical treatise on religion.

The story is told through the voice of the eponymous Piscine “Pi” Patel, an Indian Tamil boy growing up in the city of Pondicherry. 

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Pi, now an adult living in Canada, reminisces about his childhood in India, where his father owns a zoo. Pi quickly discovers an innate curiosity for matters of a spiritual and religious nature. His innocent questioning leads to answers that are not at all satisfying. Pi is raised as a Hindu but as a teenager decides to investigate both Islam and Christianity, eventually deciding to adopt all three religions, telling his shocked parents that he “just wants to love God”. 

In the book’s second part, set in 1976, the family emigrates to Canada, in reaction to Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s imposition of ‘The Emergency’, a period when the Indian constitution was suspended, now recognised as a particularly shameful chapter in the subcontinent’s tumultuous political history.

The ship the family is on sinks in a storm. Pi finds himself stranded on a lifeboat, his only companions, and fellow survivors, a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a Royal Bengal tiger, named Richard Parker. A series of increasingly dazzling adventures ensue on the ocean, until the boat washes onto a beach in Mexico. All the while Pi must find a way of avoiding being devoured by the starving Richard Parker.

In the final part of the book, Pi is engaged in a conversation with officials conducting an inquiry into the shipwreck. What emerges is a parallel truth to that which actually took place on the lifeboat, a sort of twist in the tail that is both clever and frighteningly believable. 

In a 2002 interview with PBS, the author Yann Martel said: “I was sort of looking for a story, not only with a small ‘s’ but sort of with a capital ‘S’ – something that would direct my life.” Martel spoke of searching for direction in his life; this book, with its reflection on human spirituality, served to give him thatdirection.

For me, this is a novel to savour. Martel’s use of language is flamboyant; he is unafraid of being playful with imagery and brings to life his marvellous range of characters, both human and animal, with wit and verve. The book has been called a magical realist fable, and Pi an “unreliable narrator”. It can also be read as a meditation on the balance between faith and science and how they might co-exist within the individual.

This is a novel that is deeply allegorical. For some readers the flights of fancy, particularly towards the latter part of the novel, might prove a literary bridge too far. I, however, delighted in Martel’s exuberance, his willingness to defy the rules, and, most importantly, in a thoroughly absorbing and beautifully written tale, a rip-roaring yarn and an intellectually immersive experience. 

And, of course, there is that tiger…

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My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

And you can read all 10 Great Indian Novel articles (in due course) on my blog archive here

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