The War on Terrorism
In late 2002, America, only one year removed from the September 11 attacks, had just defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan but was deeply divided over the impending war in Iraq. At a time of continued anxiety over possible attacks from al Qaeda and other Muslim terrorists, Americans were increasingly curious about Islam. Many struggled to understand why many Muslims hated America and why the al Qaeda airplane hijackers were driven to kill otherwise innocent Americans. Many Americans saw the need to deal with, and perhaps make peace with, Muslims after the carnage that al Qaeda had wrought on the United States. However, books such as Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations (1996, Simon & Schuster) asserted Christian and Islamic cultures were absolutely opposed and could not peacefully coexist. As an earnest practitioner of Christianity Islam and Hinduism who saw no conflict between these three beliefs, Pi became a symbol of how the major religions of the world could coexist and that they in fact shared many common features. Pi’s reconciliation of three different faiths stood in sharp contrast to the violence between Christian and Muslim peoples that was evident both in America and in the Middle East.
In the decades before the issue of a possible clash between Muslim and Christian cultures arose, growing numbers of Americans had also become less attached to specific churches while still affirming a belief in God and seeking to pursue a religious path. In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph (London) shortly after receiving the Man Booker Prize, Martel said his novel “will make you believe in God or ask yourself why you don’t.” Pi, a believer who does not choose between the various visions of God offered by the world's different religions, offered American readers a way to explore faith and spirituality without having to follow any specific creed or tradition.
Indian History and Culture
India has a long history of hostility between Muslims and Hindus. Soon after the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1947, it embarked on a civil war, which resulted in the partitioning of Pakistan from India as a homeland for the nation’s Muslims. However, clashes over Kashmir, a land in northern India claimed by both India and Pakistan, continued to haunt the region throughout the rest of the 1900s. The conflict led both countries to test nuclear weapons in 1998, and skirmishes on the border nearly brought the countries to war in 1999. Murderous riots and persecution by Muslims and Hindus have also plagued India for decades, including, in February and March 2002, riots in the Hindu nationalist state of Gujarat. In those riots, Hindus were angered over a fire that killed roughly sixty Hindu pilgrims on a train, and they responded by accusing Muslims of setting the fire. Hundreds of Muslims were killed by angry Hindu rioters. Pi is a native of Pondicherry, India, but he displays none of the hatred that had inspired thousands of Indian Muslims and Hindus to kill each other in the fifty-five years between India’s independence and the U.S. publication of Martel’s book.
“In Life of Pi we have chosen an audacious book in which inventiveness explores belief,” said Lisa Jardine, chair of the committee which selected Yann Martel’s novel for the 2002 Man Booker Prize, Britain’s most publicized and arguably most prestigious literary award. The choice was surprising given the competition; the shortlist comprised Sarah Waters, Tim Winton, the venerable William Trevor, and three Canadians: Carol Shields, dying of breast cancer; Rohinton Mistry, all three of whose novels have been shortlisted for the Booker, and Martel. Although the dark horse, Life of Pi was much admired by reviewers, including fellow Canadian and former Booker winner Margaret Atwood: “a terrific book . . . fresh, original, smart, devious, and crammed with absorbing lore . . . a far-fetched story you can’t quite swallow whole, but...
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