life of pi and runaway horses

“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… These people fail to realise that it is only on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves.”

Let God defend God.

I remember spotting Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” when it first started to appear in book shops. Its cover illustration is one of the loveliest to grace a book in recent memory and probably deserves some credit for the book’s instant popularity.

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It’s a sweet book – not a lightweight story, but not life-changing one either. It tells the tale of a sixteen-year-old boy named Pi (short for Piscene, as in fish-ish) Patel who becomes the solitary human survivor of the sunk cargo ship, Tsintsum, adrift in a lonely lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific. His companions on the boat are a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg), a female orang-utan and a 450 pound (205 kg) Bengal tiger bearing the unlikely name, Richard Parker.

Pi’s father was a zookeper. A third of the way into the book, he decides to sell off the zoo’s assets (the animals) and move his family from their lifelong home of Madras, India to Winnipeg, Canada. Several of the animals are bound for North American zoos, and these embark with the Patel family on the Tsintsum.

In the first few days adrift, the hyena kills the zebra and the orang-utan, and the tiger kills the hyena. Left on the boat for the remaining 240-plus days, then, are Pi and Richard Parker.

To the amusement and occasional chagrin of his atheist father, Pi is a devout Christian, Muslim and Hindu. Yes, all three. He was born a Hindu. On a family holiday, he strikes up a sort of tutelage-cum-friendship with the local priest. Later, he wanders into a mosque in his home city and strikes up a similar relationship with the Imam there.

The merging and juxtaposition of oft-opposing faiths seems to be a theme of my trip to asia so far. It was central to the play, godeatgod we saw a couple of weeks ago, and it manifested itself as well in the recent holiday weekend here – (Hindu) Deepavali on Thursday and (Muslim) Hari Raya on Sunday. In all these manifestations, the faiths manage to coexist in harmony.

In a way, the recent reelection of president Bush is a thread in the same tapestry – representing the antithesis of harmonious coexistence. The world these days seems more polarised than I can ever remember it, and at the root of all the discord and violence is the inability of extremists of different faiths to tolerate the ideologies of those who do not believe in the same things – or even who do believe in the same things, but not to the same degree.

It was the fundamentalist Christians who decided the US election. In huge numbers they voted against their own foreign and domestic policy interests. It was more important to them in the end to elect someone who they knew would fight to outlaw same-sex marriage, abortion, stem cell research, someone who would fight for prayer in schools and equal time for the creationist science curriculum.

It was the fundamentalist muslims who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, and it is the fundamentalist commercial barons who pushed most aggressively to “liberate” Iraq.

Fundamentalists are blind – whether acting in the name of God, Allah, mother earth or the almighty dollar – they’re all blind to shades of grey. They see the world in black and white. Specifically, they see themselves in white and everyone else in black.

Nonetheless, there is a value in black-white thinking. Those who see only grey tend to simply drift – like Pi in his lifeboat. They tolerate everything except intolerance in other people. They value freedom, and they exercise it aggressively. In that sense, grey-only thinking can be like a lifeboat would be with a sail – catching the wind and going wherever it goes.

As the poet Kahlil Gibran said:

Your reason and your passion are the
rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.
If either your sail or your rudder be
broken, you can but toss and drift, or else
be held at a standstill in mid-seas.
For reason, ruling alone, is a force con-
fining; and passion, unattended, is a flame
that burns to its own destruction.

One of my favorite books, Mishima’s Runaway Horses, is a brilliant and beautiful meditation on this theme.

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It tells the story of a young and passionate patriot named Isao, who organises a plot against the industrialists who he believes are threatening the integrity of the Japanese way of life. It also continues the story of Honda, a successful Japanese businessman who is simply trying to make his way happily and comfortably through life, as mainly an observer.

That these two ways of seeing could ever coexist in harmony would seem impossible. They are philosophically icompatible. They have been in conflict with each other since the beginning of mankind’s dance on this planet. The hyena will kill the zebra and orang-utan. The tiger will kill the hyena. And it will always be so.

One Reply to “life of pi and runaway horses”

  1. I liked reading your various musings on Life Of Pi, where you started with the premise of that book and then went wherever your thoughts did. Been meaning to read the book for ever so long, but it’s always in hot demand at the library so I always find others to read in the meantime.

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