How “Life of Pi” got life
a mes parents et a mon frere
Copyright© 2001 by Yann Martel
Originally published in Canada by Random House of Canada
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Life of Pi: a novel/Yann Martel.- 1st ed.
This book was born as I was hungry. Let me explain. In the spring of 1996, my second book, a novel, came out in Canada. It didn’t fare well Reviewers were puzzled, or damned it with faint praise. Then readers ignored it. Despite my best efforts at playing the clown or the trapeze artist, the media circus made no difference. The book did not move. Books lined the shelves of bookstores like kids standing in a row to play baseball or soccer, and mine was the gangly, unathletic kid that no one wanted on their team. It vanished quickly and quietly.
The fiasco did not affect me too much. I had already moved on to another story, a novel set in Portugal in 1939. Only I was feeling restless. And I had a little money.
So I flew to Bombay. This is not so illogical if you realize three things: that a stint in India will beat the restlessness out of any living creature; that a little money can go a long way there; and that a novel set in Portugal in 1939 may have very little to do with Portugal in 1939.
I had been to India before, in the north, for five months. On that first trip I had come to the subcontinent completely unprepared. Actually, I had a preparation of one word. When I told a friend who knew the country well of my travel plans, he said casually, “They speak a funny English
in India. They like words like bamboozle.” I remembered his words as my plane started its descent towards Delhi, so the word bamboozle was my one preparation for the rich, noisy, functioning madness of India. I used the word on occasion, and truth be told, it served me well to a clerk at a train station I said, ‘1. didn’t think the fare would be so expensive. You are not trying to bamboozle me, are you?” He smiled and chanted, ”No sir! There is no bamboozlement here. I have quoted you the correct fare.”
This second time to India I knew better what to expect and I knew what I wanted.: I would settle in a hill station and write my novel. I had visions of myself sitting at a table on a large veranda, my notes spread out in front of me next to a steaming cup of tea. Green hills heavy with mists would lie at my feet and the shrill cries of monkeys would fill my ears. The weather would be just right, requiring a light sweater mornings and evenings, and something short-sleeved midday. Thus set up, pen in hand, for the sake of greater truth, I would turn Portugal into a fiction. That’s what fiction is about, isn’t it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence? What need did I have to go to Portugal?
The lady who ran the place would tell me stories about the struggle to boot the British out. We would agree on what I was to have far lunch and supper the next day. After my writing day was over, I would go far walks in the rolling hills of the tea estates.
Unfortunately, the novel sputtered, coughed and died It happened in Matheran, not for from Bombay, a small hill station with some monkeys but no tea estates. It’s a misery peculiar to would-be writers. Your theme is good, as are your sentences. Your characters are so ruddy with life they practically need birth certificates. The plot you’ve mapped out for them is grand, simple and gripping. You’ve done your research, gathering the facts-historical social climatic, culinary-that will give your story its feel of authenticity. The dialogue zips along, crackling with tension. The descriptions burst with colour, contrast and telling detail Really, your story can only be great. But it all adds up to nothing. In spite of the obvious, shining promise of it, there comes a moment when you realize that the whisper that has been pestering you all along from the back of your mind is speaking the flat, awful truth: it won’t work. An element is missing, that spark that brings to life a real story, regardless of whether the history or the food is right. Your story is emotionally dead, that’s the crux of it. The discovery is something soul-destroying, I tell you. It leaves you with an aching hunger.
From Matheran I mailed the notes of my foiled novel I mailed them to a fictitious address in Siberia, with a return address, equally fictitious, in Bolivia. After the clerk had stamped the envelope and thrown it into a sorting bin, I sat down, glum and disheartened. “What now, Tolstoy? What other bright ideas do you have far your lift?” I asked myself
Well I still had a little money and I was still feeling restless. I got up and walked out of the post office to explore the south of India.
I would have liked to say, “I’m a doctor,” to those who asked me what I did, doctors being the current purveyors of magic and miracle. But I’m sure we would have had a bus accident around the next bend, and with all eyes fixed on me I would have to explain, amidst the crying and moaning of victims, that I meant in law; then, to their appeal to help them sue the government over the mishap, I would have to confess that as a matter of fact it was a Bachelor’s in philosophy; next, to the shouts of what meaning such a bloody tragedy could have, I would have to admit that I had hardly touched Kierkegaard; and so on. I stuck to the humble, bruised truth.
Along the way, here and there, I got the response, “A writer? Is that so? I have a story for you.” Most times the stories were little more than anecdotes, short of breath and short of life.
I arrived in the town of Pondicherry, a tiny self-governing Union Territory south of Madras, on the coast of Tamil Nadu. In population and size it is an inconsequent part of India-by comparison, Prince Edward Island is a giant within Canada-but history has set it apart. For Pondicherry was once the capital of that most modest of colonial empires, French India. The French would have liked to rival the British, very much so, but the only Raj they managed to get was a handful of small ports. They clung to these far nearly three hundred years. They left Pondicherry in 1954, leaving behind nice white buildings, broad streets at right angles to each other, street names such as rue de la Marine and rue Saint-Louis, and kepis, caps, for the policemen.
I was at the Indian Coffee House, on Nehru Street. It’s one big room with green walls and a high ceiling. Fans whirl above you to keep the warm, humid air moving. The place is furnished to capacity with identical square tables, each with its complement of four chairs. You sit where you can, with whoever is at a table. The coffee is good and they serve French toast. Conversation is easy to come by. And so, a spry, bright-eyed elderly man with great shocks of pure white hair was talking to me. I confirmed to him that Canada was cold and that French was indeed spoken in parts of it and that I liked India and so on and so forth- the usual light talk between friendly, curious Indians and foreign backpackers. He took in my line of work with a widening of the eyes and a nodding of the head. It was time to go. I had my hand up, trying to catch my waiter’s eye to get the bill Then the elderly man said, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” I stopped waving my hand. But I was suspicious. Was this a Jehovah’s Witness knocking at my door? “Does your story take place two thousand years ago in a remote corner of the Roman Empire?” I asked.
Was he some sort of Muslim evangelist? “Does it take place in seventh-century Arabia?”
“No, no. It starts right here in Pondicherry just a few years back, and it ends, I am delighted to tell you, in the very country you come from.”
“And it will make me believe in God?”
“That’s a tall order.”
“Not so tall that you can’t reach.”
My waiter appeared. I hesitated for a moment. I ordered two coffees. We introduced ourselves. His name was Francis Adirubasamy. “Please tell me your story,” I said.
“You must pay proper attention,” he replied.
“I will” I brought out pen and notepad.
“Tell me, have you been to the botanical garden?” he asked.
“I went yesterday.”
“Did you notice the toy train tracks?”
“Yes, I did.”
“A train still runs on Sundays far the amusement of the children. But it used to run twice an hour every day. Did you take note of the names of the stations?”
“One is called Roseville. It’s right next to the rose garden.”
“That’s right. And the other?”
“I don’t remember.”
“The sign was taken down. The other station was once called Zootown. The toy train had two stops: Roseville and Zootown. Once upon a time there was a zoo in the Pondicherry Botanical Garden.”
He went on. I took notes, the elements of the story. “You must talk to him,” he said, of the main character. “I knew him very, very well. He’s a grown man now. You must ask him all the questions you want.”
Later, in Toronto, among nine columns of Patels in the phone book, I found him, the main character. My heart pounded as I dialed his phone number. The voice that answered had an Indian lilt to its Canadian accent, light but unmistakable, like a trace of incense in the air. “That was a very long time ago,” he said. Yet he agreed to meet. We met many times. He showed me the diary he kept during the events. He showed me the yellowed newspaper clippings that made him briefly, obscurely famous. He told me his story. All the while I took notes. Nearly a year later, after considerable difficulties, I received a tape and a report from the Japanese Ministry of Transport. It was as I listened to that tape that I agreed with Mr. Adirubasamy that this was, indeed, a story to make you believe in God.
It seemed natural that Mr. Patel’s story should be told mostly in the first person-in his voice and through his eyes. But any inaccuracies or mistakes are mine.
I have a few people to thank. I am most obviously indebted to Mr. Patel My gratitude to him is as boundless as the Pacific Ocean and I hope that my telling of his tale does not disappoint him. For getting me started on the story, I have Mr. Adirubasamy to thank. For helping me complete it, I am grateful to three officials of exemplary professionalism: Mr. Kazuhiko Oda, lately of the Japanese Embassy in Ottawa; Mr. Hiroshi Watanabe, of Oika Shipping Company; and, especially, Mr. Tomohiro Okamoto, of the Japanese Ministry of Transport, now retired. Also, I am indebted to Mr. Moacyr Scliar, for the spark of life. Lastly, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to that great institution, the Canada Council for the Arts, without whose grant I could not have brought together this story that has nothing to do with Portugal in 1939. If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams.