It would be accurate to suggest that the titular character in Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi is religious. In fact, Martel’s novel is deeply religious, although not in any partisan way. He favors no particular denomination, not even the Hindu religion native to India. An early clue to the role of religion in Life of Pi occurs in Martel’s fictional “Author’s Note.” The novel’s narrator, presumably Martel but necessarily, is sitting in a coffee house in Bombay (now called Mumbai) contemplating his writing, seemingly experiencing a sort of ‘writer’s block,’ when he is approached by an elderly gentleman, Francis Adirubasamy, who offers to tell the frustrated author a story that, he claims, “will make you believe in God.” The narrator cynically responds, “. . .it will make me believe in God? . . .That’s a tall order,” to which the stranger replies, “Not so tall that you can’t reach.” As this narrator continues to contemplate his situation and the story he would be told, he ends his “note” with the observation, “I agreed with Mr. Adirubasamy that this was, indeed, a story to make you believe in God.”
Martel’s protagonist is Pi, the nickname, not entirely appreciated, of Piscine Molitor Patel, a boy from the Indian town of Pondicherry who together with his parents and brother, sets off for North America with hopes of a better life. The ship will sink, and Pi will be stranded at sea for 227 days with a Bengal Tiger. He will eventually find land and be restored to health, although the truth of his story will remain subject to speculation and disbelief, leaving the grown Pi to remain content to let each individual divine the exact nature of his experience. The one constant, though (two, actually, as one is Pi’s intense interest in zoology), is Pi’s religious views, which, as noted do not conform to any one denomination or faith but rather adapts from each one those tenets that make sense to him. Raised, like most Indians, as a Hindu, he continues to identify with that faith, while feeling free to question the wisdom or validity of elements of Hinduism without discarding that which is most devoted to God. As Pi notes in Part I, after describing his religion, “[t]his, in a holy nutshell, is Hinduism, and I have been a Hindu all my life. With its notions in mind I see my place in the universe. But we should not cling! A plague upon fundamentalists and literalists!”
Life of Pi is an impassioned defense of the concept and practice of zoos, and Pi consistently refutes any attack on the existence of such artificial habitats. In fact, zoos serve almost as a metaphor for religion, with both having more than a few sanctimonious detractors. Such is Pi’s attitude towards such skeptics that he states, “I have heard nearly as much nonsense about zoos as I have about God and religion.” Encountering Mr. Kumar, the young boy’s biology teacher, at the zoo, the two engage in a spirited debate about religion:
“Religion will save us,” I said. Since when I could remember, religion had been very close to my heart.
“Religion?” Mr. Kumar grinned broadly. “I don’t believe in religion. Religion is darkness.” Darkness? I was puzzled.
I thought, Darkness is the last thing that religion is. Religion is light. Was he testing me? Was he saying, “Religion is darkness,” the way he sometimes said in class things like “Mammals lay eggs,” to see if someone would correct him? (“Only platypuses, sir.”)”
Towards the end of the novel, as Pi is interviewed by the visiting Japanese officials attempting to get the story of the shipwreck from its lone survivor, his tale of survival is met with disbelief, prompting the boy to relate a vastly different account of those 227 days at sea. Finishing this alternative story, which entails much human ugliness, Pi states “I turned to God. I survived.” Pi’s relationship to God is deeply felt. Religion is one of the main themes of Life of Pi, and it is treated reverently.