Yann Martel, the celebrated author of ‘Life of Pi’ and winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize, was in Gurugram on Tuesday to speak to students at Shri Ram School, Aravali. We caught up with the author on the sidelines of the event. Here are the excerpts:
‘Life of Pi’ continues to garner acclaim and has an international readership. In the past, you have said that you were surprised by its success. How has your life changed due to the book?
Well, I did not anicipate the success of the book. The book was dripping in irony and had a philosophical angle. The book talks about religion, whereas the west is largely very secular. It talks about zoos, something looked down upon in the western world. Yet, it was received very well. The book has been translated into 55 languages, including seven Indian languages. Creatively, however, life hasn’t changed much. ‘Life of Pi’ created a lot of noise in my life. However, all I had to do was close the door of my studio and write another book, one after the other. My children were born after the book was published. They do not care if daddy wrote ‘Life of Pi.’ They are not particularly impressed.
You have said that neither religion nor animals are popular in Canada, your country. So, how and when did you get around to weaving a book like ‘Life of Pi’ that incorporates both the themes?
I traveled the northern part of India for a few months in 1996. In India, I saw things that I had never seen before. Religion was everywhere. I never liked religion then but I tried to look at faith — the ability to believe without evidence. In Canada, one doesn’t see animals on the streets. In India, I spotted an elephant at this hippy street called Paharganj. I was amazed. Later, I returned in 2000 and started doing my research for ‘Life of Pi’. If I had traveled to different countries, I would have written different books, but India it was.
How did you first visit to India materialise?
When I first came to India, I was only following a girl. I had met a girl and she told me that she was traveling to India. I said sure, I’d follow you. I had read books, Indian novels, by Salman Rushdie, but I wasn’t coming to the country because of that. That was purely incidental. It didn’t work out with the girl but it worked out with India. I did not fall in love with the girl, but I fell in love with the country.
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‘Life of Pi’ makes an attempt to discover life through the prism of faith. Are you religious?
Not in the conventional sense. I mean, I don’t practice any particular religion but broadly speaking, faith always makes sense. All religions are expressions of that faith.
Animals are important characters in your books. Why use animals?
They are good vehicles of symbolism. They are rich and meaningful characters. Sometimes people don’t like people. So they have animals, which sort of interests them.
How did you like the movie?
I think the movie was visually lovely. The book is 330 pages; the movie is based on 120 pages of script— just dialogue. So, a lot is lost. It is best if you read the book first and then watch the film. This way, you can then fill in the gaps. If you just watch the movie, I am not sure if it’s much more than an anecdote. However, I have no complaints. It was a lovely movie to watch and conveyed the story, in some form, to those who couldn’t read the book.
One Indian author that you’d recommend to people?
Salman Rushdie is a brilliant writer. On my second visit to the country, I read a whole bunch of RK Narayan’s works. I quite enjoyed reading Malgudi Days.
Tell us a bit about the book that you are currently working on?
My next novel is going to be about the Trojan War. I have read and re-read the Iliad. It will be a novel in two voices. At the top, there will be fragments from antiquity, from the lost tradition of the Trojan War; the bottom half of the page will have commentary from a fictitious scholar.
You sent Stephen Harper a book every two weeks when he was Canada’s Prime Minister. Why did you do that? Did you ever hear from him?
No. I did it because Stephen Harper didn’t read anything. I sent books to Harper every two weeks, a good short book, so that he couldn’t say that he didn’t have the time. In fact, one of the books that I sent him was the Bhagavad Gita. So to say, read this and you’ll be a wiser and better human being
Have you, at any stage of your life, toyed with the idea of a career in politics?
I am an active citizen, but have I thought about being a politician? No. Writing is the thing I do best. It is very hard being in politics. You get criticised for things you don’t do. You don’t get credit for the things you do that are good. So, it’s very, very hard. However, it is important to be engaged because right now, the world is not a dignified place politically. Trump is insane. In Britain, there is Brexit. There is a rise of fascism in Europe — in Hungary and Poland, to a certain extent. In India, there is a rise of religious nationalism, which is terrible. A lot of work needs to be done politically, and it can only be done by citizens who are active.