"India Is A Wonderful, Horrible Place"
"India is a country which dazzles me because it's all of life. Given its diversity, it is amazing how it still holds itself together." More Coverage
Interviews Yann Martel
Life of Pi is such an Indian story, and not just because a Pi Patel sets sail from Pondicherry. Like all great stories, it's a tale well told, and one that has so much more to tell than the tale. The man, Booker award-winning author Yann Martel, talks to Sanjay Suri. Excerpts

Your story begins in India and unfolds in the middle of nowhere. Why India for a start?
Because I was there, for the first six months of 1997. I was in India meaning to work on another novel but it didn't come alive in my mind. Then I remembered this premise in a Brazilian novel, while I was in Matheran, not far from Bombay, and then all these ideas came together. India lends itself very well to such a story because it has a lot of animals and a lot of religions. Hinduism—not the bjp sort—is a very open religion. It can lend itself to so much.

Could this book belong to an Indian tradition of seemingly fantastic stories that also tell an essential truth?
I guess so. It does hark back to an Indian tradition of storytelling. Religions are about storytelling. And religion is woven into the fabric of India in a way that is more visible, and goes deeper than in Christian countries.

Pi Patel is Hindu, Christian, Muslim. Is this suggesting some sort of universality?
Yes and no. If you read the mystics, it's amazing how all of them speak the same language. It's the language of a personal relation with God. This is not to say something like Indian cuisine is the same as Chinese, because each organised religion is different from others. Buddhism isn't the same as Hinduism or Christianity. But that is normal. Religion is man's attempt to understand the greater plan, and it's a big planet, and there are different kinds of people and societies. But I think they do tap into something deeper that is similar. Faith is universal, the social expression of it is very different.

Has the Booker from this Indian tale made your memories of India grow any fonder?
No, the Booker hasn't changed that. I have always loved India. It's a wonderful, horrible place. India is all lives in one place, India is all emotions in one place, it's an extraordinary, dazzling place, it's all the wonder and horror of life. There are stories that can be told only in India. Take the main character's name. You couldn't imagine a German family naming their child after a swimming pool. Not that I'm saying Indians would. But there are things that are possible in India that aren't possible anywhere else. It's horrible in the sense that the rule of law is so arbitrary. But the upside is that given the diversity, it's amazing how it still holds itself together. It's a country that dazzles me because it's all of life.

Are Indian writers in English picking up on some of these things?
A lot of Indian writing in English is brilliant. Maybe the great golden age is slightly over, but I think for a good 20 or 30 years some of the best writing in English was coming from India. Precisely because the writers are tapping into that extraordinary world that is India. It's extraordinarily stimulating to the imagination. And not just to foreigners, who tend to idealise India, the ashram yogi thing, which is absolutely fine. But Indians themselves are overwhelmed by their country. I truly think that in some ways India is the richest place on earth.

Would you like to see Life of Pi translated into Indian languages?
I'd love to. I believe literature is a bridge builder. And in some ways it might be useful, because it would be scandalous to have someone who practices three religions.

Will there be an Indian touch to your next novel?
My next novel is a fable set in an imaginary country.It's an allegory of the holocaust. But I've just been invited to India, and I'm trying to fit that into my schedule because I'd love to be back. The first time I was in India three or four years before my visit in 1997, I was in the north, in HP, in UP, in Rajasthan, and also Sikkim. The second time I was mostly in the south. The third time I was invited by the Indian Association of Canadian Studies to a meeting in Shimla, and right after that I took a train south to Tamil Nadu and travelled to Pondicherry. I still haven't visited the Northeast, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal. I'll definitely be back in India but my next novel and the one after will not be set in India.
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