Thursday, August 23, 2012

Life of Pi

Title: Life of Pi
Author: Yann Martel

I guess it's time that we redefined what is widely known as 'indian Writing in English'. Wikipedia states that Indian Writing in English
"refers to the body of work by writers in India who write in the English language and whose native or co-native language could be one of the numerous languages of India. It is also associated with the works of members of the Indian diaspora, such as V.S. Naipaul, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri and Salman Rushdie, who are of Indian descent."
And we know that Indian writing in English, with its hybridism of style and language, is naturally pregnant with rich Indianness (what else?). And this book, Life of Pi, gives you a feeling that you are reading someone like Aravind Adiga, Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy. In fact, if the book is stripped of its title and author's name and given to any Indian reader, he/she would never have the tiniest inkling that it's written by a non- Indian writer. But that's the truth anyway. Yann Martel is not an Indian. He was not born an Indian. Neither is he a person of Indian descent. But he has, by and large, succeeded in thinking and talking like an Indian through a novel that has such colourful and vivid expressions of Indianness. To borrow Salman Rushdie's expression, he has 'gotten under the skin' of an Indian and viewed Indian life, culture and society through those Indian eyes. Nevertheless, a keen Indian can easily find out instances that show that that getting-under-the-skin has not been entirely perfect, but then, they are minute, and after all, how Indian can a non-Indian get, for that matter?

Talking about Yann Martel and Life of Pi, one cannot help reflecting momentarily on the two categories of writers as far as the material for writing is concerned. The first one is where the author is so full of experiences and knowledge accummulated over the years of one or more particular spheres of life, the world, human behaviour and interaction and so on that he only needs the literary acumen and perhaps a little digging here and there to brush up his knowledge of things or to collect some minor amount of details to convert his ideas and concepts into quality words that eventually put on paper gives shape to a piece in the beautiful form of art called the novel.

Then there is this second category of writers who, all of a sudden, get a revelation about a certain story idea revolving around a certain concept, but don't have enough knowledge or experience that help them go about it. But nevertheless, they are on fire with the tiny spark that has descended upon them which is capable of taking them to any length to convert the idea into a story worth reading. Extensive research and deep digging is done by them, not to mention long distance travels to collect information. Martel is of this second kind of writer, at least as far as Life of Pi is concerned.

He was struck with the idea of an earlier story written by a different author about a castaway who survives in the sea on a boat with a wild beast. And soon he found himself spending years travelling, researching and collecting information for his story. Quoting Wikipedia again,

"Martel spent 13 months in India visiting masjids, churches, temples and zoos, and spent two years reading religious texts and castaway stories." (Citation: How I Wrote Life of Pi ).

As is obvious from the above statement, it's the knowledge of animals - animal psychology to be precise - and religions that he needed for the book. Hence the two major themes of the book are religion and behavioural psychology of animals. And I would like to assert that while the latter is the core of the book the former has nothing whatsoever, so to say, to do with the book.

As one of the characters in the story, Francis Adirubaswamy, says, this story was supposed to make you believe in God. That's the only reason for religion - religions, rather - to find a place in this book. But if it is so, then I guess the author has been an utter failure in the respect. I don't think anyone who is not a believer in God already would believe in God just because he/she has read this book. At least I didn't find the thing so convincing as to make me believe in God. But at the same time, it could well be the statement of that character alone and not of the author. However there is no way to clarify it. Perhaps Adirubaswamy preferred attributing the survival of the teenager protagonist Pi, the son of a zoo owner in Pondicherry, in the middle of the ocean to his staunch belief in God and the religions Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, all three of which he practised devoutly. Pi believed that all the three religions led to the same God. However, stripping the book entirely of the religion part would do no harm at all to the story irrespective of whether Pi was a believer or not. It wouldn't make any difference at all to the story, because it is the other prominent theme, namely, animal psychology which is the core idea that drives the story. And if the book is stripped of the animal behaviour part, the book ceases to exist. However, I must admit the religion part made for a really enjoyable read, especially for me to whom it has always been an interesting subject.

Coming to the theory of animal behaviour, no doubt, it has been a superb idea to base a story on the subject. Pi, with his father Santhosh Patel who ran a zoo gets a good opportunity to observe and learn a great deal about the behaviour of a wide variety of animals and birds. This knowledge greatly helped him deal with the wild beasts he was trapped with in the middle of the ocean when the ship carrying the zoo animals sank and the people in it, including his family members, drowned. The animals were supposed to be shipped to the U.S. as they had sold the zoo and wanted to dispose of them, and Pi and his family were moving to Canada leaving India for good. The ship sank in the Indian Ocean on its way, and Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat in the water with a few of the animals, namely a Bengal tiger, a hyena, an orangutan and a zebra. And sooner or later, the small ecosystem was bound to follow its natural life cycle. One was supposed to eat the other. The stronger was supposed to consume the weaker. (Telling anything more about the plot would be a huge spoiler. I respect the feelings of someone who is yet to read the book.)

The structure of the entire book is wonderful in its little, silent way. It can be thought to be divided into two parts. The first part creates a good backdrop for the story. And the second part is the story itself. The first part again deals with roughly three aspects - Pi's family, his acquaintance with animal behavioural patterns and his experiences with various religions. These aspects are narrated marvellously and they form a solid ground-work for the smooth flow of the rest of the story. The book is an enjoyable read, I would say. And of course, one that has to be read twice if anyone has to savour the real essence.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Title: Middlesex
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides

It's not a boring book. I must say it's interseting. But nevertheless not fully satisfying. That is because somewhere down the line I started comparing him with Salman Rushdie. It's very clear that he follows a style of writing similar to that of Rushdie. Further research confirmed that he was indeed very interested in Rushdie and his style. I happened to read a transcript of a conversation between him and Rushdie. Also about his visit to India and how he became fascinated with Rushdie's Midnight's Children etc. This book has almost all the elements of a Rushdian novel. And his fancy for the orient, the Islamic culture, India etc. like Rushdie is clearly reflected in this work. I'm sure he is a person with an Indian soul trapped in an English body. With all these features, how could someone not compare him with Rushdie? And the result is that, in spite of all these ingredients, he doesn't do it as good as Rushdie.


"The first time I went to an Indian restaurant in Canada I used my fingers. The waiter looked at me
critically and said, "Fresh off the boat, are you?" I blanched. My fingers, which a second before had
been taste buds savouring the food a little ahead of my mouth, became dirty under his gaze. They
froze like criminals caught in the act. I didn't dare lick them. I wiped them guiltily on my napkin.
He had no idea how deeply those words wounded me. They were like nails being driven into my
flesh. I picked up the knife and fork. I had hardly ever used such instruments. My hands trembled.
My sambar lost its taste."

- (Life of Pi)

Monday, August 6, 2012

War and Peace

Title: War and Peace
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Publ: Wordsworth Editions ltd. (1993)
ISBN: 1 85326 062 2

War and Peace. Not my kind of book. It is an epic size historical novel. It is about Napolean's invasion of Russia. Perhaps I have a basic dislike towards historic novels. As it is a novel, there are numerous fictional characters and the story of their relationships and family affairs. And since it is an account of an episode from history as well, there are real historic characters such as Napolean and Tsar and historic events and dates and stuff. Alas, I missed the novel for the history, and the history for the novel. Perhaps that's why I dislike historical fiction. Apart from the history and fiction, there is scattered here and there real non-fictional philosophy of Tolstoy on war, history, humanity and the world. I guess this is the part I liked more than the history and fiction. But this too needs a bit of trimming as it is extensively repetitive and lengthy in places and even dull at times.

As it is a novel, the narrative of war and related events from history looked kind of out of place. And since it is a report on history, the fictional part didn't look like a fully blown novel.

However, the author's sharp insight into human nature and characteristics and their clear depiction are commendable. The same was the feeling I had when I read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. That story seemed not that great to me, but her power of observation deep into human hearts and minds was greatly reflected in the book. That said, I now know that I love Charles Dickens's style far more than the plain straightforward style of realistic narration of Tolstoy and Austen.