Life of Pi : An Atheist** Perspective.
About ten years ago I read the novel.I remember the reading vividly.It was a book I could not put down.The story of a boy trapped on a lifeboat with a Royal Bengal Tiger tested the limits of my imagination.The book jacked showed a top angle or Gods angle view of the lifeboat and I kept turning to that single artistic image to anchor me on that impossible voyage.I was a believer then, in God that is, but I did not attach much importance to the role that God might have played in saving the life of Pi.Instead I gave full marks to the survival instincts of Pi and humankind in general.
Now that it has been filmed and filmed magnificently by a director of Ang Lees versatility who has made the kung fu fantasy Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,Brokeback Mountain and Hulk in what is a truly remarkable film career, the God question has been placed at the heart of the film.
The story by now is well known.Pi Patel is the son of a zoo owner in Pondicherry,India and when the business fails they decide to move to Canada and sell the animals off.The family sets off on a Japanese ship with all the animals on board, much like Noah’s ark,only this time the biblical floods have been replaced by Indira Gandhi’s emergency.But that does not make it a political film! There is a perfect storm at sea and Pi somehow finds himself adrift in a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and a huge Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.The smaller animals fall victim to the food chain and Pi is left alone with the tiger.We are now faced with a simple question, are there two animals on the boat or one human and one animal? This is one of the pillars of our belief system.If we believe the we humans are in a league of our own and above all other animals we fall roughly into the camp of those who also believe in intelligent design and therefore puts us immediately at loggerheads with environmental issues.To accept Darwinian evolution and mix it with spirituality is one of the key challenges and part of the bigger question of reconciling science and religion in a post industrialized world.
Luis Bunuel once famously said,“I am an atheist, Thank God” *.Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes in a celebrated essay called Bunuel’s position one of the most compelling intellectual tendencies of the twentieth century: “religious temperament without religious faith.” Einstein sometimes referred to the universe and its design as divine but was a staunch atheist.
Pi’s father is a rationalist, and is quite perturbed to see his son embracing religion with gusto.Few people have their faith or lack thereof tested as Pi.If it had been his father on the boat and not Pi would he have acted differently and survived? That is a question to which I can only say that faith has its uses.When belief in God is absent there is belief in self and the strength to face death secure in the belief that there await no frightful hell or fanciful heaven,that we must play the card that we have been dealt by life.
Children are born atheists and amoral.They acquire morality and faith or a combination of both as the result of a variety of factors driven primarily by parents.My 5 year old daughter is drawn to the creamy layer of Hindu Gods( out of the teeming masses of no less than 33 million) when she listens to stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. At school they pray to a secular God everyday.Yet she lives happily in an atheist household.What her beliefs will be I do not know, I merely intent to give her the gift of choice, while gently reinforcing my rationalist standpoint which I regard as my moral duty, just as my parents felt it was theirs to imbibe in me the fear of God.
The key question of why Pi was drawn to religion remains open. He ends up a professor of theology.The 200+ day ordeal can change anybody profoundly.The trapped Chilean miners contemplated resorting to cannibalism to survive.Danny Boyles 27 Hours is another true example of the triumph of the human spirit when the protagonist amputates his own arm to survive. So the fictional story of a boy who survived impossible odds should not make us religious.
The film is shot magnificently, its a superlative act of visualization to bring this story to the screen and Ang Lee certainly has that gift. Intriguingly, the way he handles the Indian angle of the film and the prelude to the fateful voyage reminds me of Mira Nair’s work in The Namesake which was a lesser film but filled with some of the same elements, a boy who grows up with an improbable and embarrassing name, the presence of Irrfan Khan and Tabu and the challenges of an immigrant family in the alien landscape of America as a nuanced adventure, thematically similar to Pi stranded with a tiger in the vast oceans.
There is a scene at the end of the film where Pi parts ways with his feline companion.Richard Parker does not look back at Pi to bid him farewell and walks away unemotionally while Pi sobs with heartbreak.The tiger and its fear kept Pi alive, which is an interesting counterintuitive logic where fear keeps us alive.Perhaps an emotional void is mans biggest enemy. As he recounts the story many years later his eyes well up with tears again.We are supposed to feel that humans have a monopoly over emotions and this sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, which is factually incorrect. Richard Parker deserves to be cut some slack as he has just survived an equal or probably even greater ordeal at sea!
Mention must be made of Suraj Sharma who went to the audition to accompany his brother but landed the role out of 3000 aspirants.He does an outstanding job as a gangly youth who fights his circumstances with remarkable ingenuity and pluck.But the star of this visual feast must surely be the CGI tiger who looks us in the eye and brings to mind William Blakes classic poem The Tyger( a wonderful way to spell,sadly rectified in our school anthology) from his collection Songs of Experience, which was a sister poem of The Lamb.Pi is the Lamb here.When the Royal Bengal Tiger walks into the pages of history he will not look back with emotion at us humans who proved to be his worst enemies.We will be left wiping away our tears at having lost the most beautiful creature ever to our greed, indifference and arrogance. William Blake’s poem brought to life by Ang Lee in the Life of Pi will hopefully survive for our children to fire their imagination.
*Buñuel is often cited as one of the world’s most prominent atheists. In a 1960 interview, he was asked about his attitude toward religion, and his response has become one of his most celebrated quotes: “I’m still an atheist, thank God.”But his entire answer to the question was somewhat more nuanced: “I have no attitude. I was raised in it. I could answer “I’m still an atheist, thank God.” I believe we must seek God within man himself. This is a very simple attitude.”Seventeen years later, in an interview with the New Yorker, Buñuel expressed a somewhat different opinion about religion and atheism: “I’m not a Christian, but I’m not an atheist either, … I’m weary of hearing that accidental old aphorism of mine ‘I’m not an atheist, thank God’ It’s outworn. Dead leaves. In 1951, I made a small film called ‘Mexican Bus Ride,’ about a village too poor to support a church and a priest. The place was serene, because no one suffered from guilt. It’s guilt we must escape, not God.”
**Atheist is an unscientific term, and agnostic is more accurate since a true scientist cannot deny the possible existence of anything.Richard Dawkins author of The God Delusion calls himself an agnostic for that reason.