Author: Yann Martel
Publisher: Vintage / Canada
Karen Armstrong declares that liberal humanism does not come
naturally to human beings and at best has to be cultivated. While, in favourable
circumstances people may generally exhibit the highest of moral behaviour, it is
only under adversity that one can know the true measure of man. Thus, while
normally a person may follow the rituals religiously, it is only when faced with
temptation that the strength of faith is truly tested. However, man is weak and
often succumbs to the whisperings in his heart. No wonder, in J.R.R. Tolkein’s
world the wise elders Elrond, Galadriel and Gandalf, employing caution, refuse
to bear the burden of the ring.
This very idea underlies the teachings of Islam in that evil is nipped in the
bud before it shows its ugly face. Thus, various scholars prescribe the Qur’ānic
utterances to cleanse the mind and suggest flight as the first line of defense
against temptation, much in line with the decision of Tolkein’s elders.
Focus and Purpose
Ugly events do arise in this world when otherwise
well-meaning individuals feel compelled to commit the most heinous of crimes.
Such events doubtless render the human values worthless. This situation thus
arouses one question whether liberal humanism can preclude a heinous act by
arming the perpetrator with sufficient moral weight and dire consequences, as
does faith, in the most trying of times. It is to this last fight against human
evil that this review is directed.
Another reason for the review is to illustrate that the
search for the Divine extends beyond the regular rituals to encompass every
intellectual and mundane pursuit. Concisely put, regular rituals are aimed at
inculcating an attitude captured by the following:
‘This one’s a Grant’s zebra’, I said.
Mr. Kumar said: ‘Equus burchelli boehmi.” (Sic)
Mr. Kumar said: “Allahu akbar.”
Thus, in spirit of the scientist who discerns the wonders of
God through his investigations, our exercise is to comb Yann Martel’s book for
material relevant for our purposes.
Yann Martel’s story is about the survival of a castaway
Indian boy ‘Pi’, who professes a pluralistic faith. The readers may lose
interest because of the descriptive nature of the book and the lack of dialogue.
However, the brilliant story of survival, which includes the taming of a Royal
Bengal tiger, disintegration of Pi’s cherished vegetarian and human values, and
finally the fantastic story comprising of a zebra, hyena, and an orangutan apart
from the tiger make up for the trivial inconvenience.
Men of God
The story starts off in India with an equal blend of
zoology and religion. Particularly interesting is the religious debate between a
priest, a pundit and an imam each of whom claims that Pi is exclusively a
Christian, a Hindu and a Muslim respectively. However, Pi’s plural faith, a
blend of the three, is indicative of Martel’s emphasis on inner faith and his
criticism of the custodians of faith.
There are always those who take it upon themselves to
defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence,
were something weak and helpless. These people walk by a widow deformed by
leprosy begging for a few paise, walk by children dressed in rags living in the
street, and they think, ‘Business as usual.’ But if they perceive a slight
against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave
mightily, they sputter angry words.
These words would not be out of context for many of our
‘Ulemā, who are quite stringent about apostasy and blasphemy laws but who have
not addressed the basic issues of poverty, illiteracy and terrorism despite
having huge resources at their disposal.
The fact that the ‘Ulemā have failed to diagnose and
address the basic ills that plague the Muslim world directly translates into
creating an ill repute for the grand faith. Thus, even through humor stems
Martel’s critical comment.
Islam had a reputation worse than Christianity’s – fewer
gods, greater violence, and I never heard anyone say good things about Muslim
This criticism arises despite the fact that Martel has at
many places subconsciously or perhaps consciously captured Islam quite
reasonably. For instance, while on a lifeboat, stranded in the middle of the
ocean, Martel’s Pi divides time into five distinct periods and also prays five
An average day for me, if such a notion can be applied
to a castaway, went like this: Sunrise to mid-morning… Mid-morning to late
afternoon… Late afternoon to early evening… Sunset… Night…’
More striking is how Martel captures the notion of faith
through a castaway boy, which is so reminiscent of Islam’s definition as
complete surrender to God.
Faith in God is an opening up, a letting go, a deep
trust, a free act of love – but sometimes it was so hard to love.’
The Last Fight
Martel brilliantly illustrates how desperation breaks down
an individual so much so that all norms of propriety are eventually abandoned. A
perfectly vegetarian boy discards his values to taste flesh. Man’s fall is
succinctly addressed in the following.
It is simple and brutal: a person can get used to
anything, even to killing.
It is in situations such as these, when much is at stake,
that there arises a need for an uncompromising faith, which in Muhammad Asad’s
words tolerates no ifs and buts. A faith in which proper adherence to the strict
code would preclude any heinous act and hence the fall of Man. Only the
institution of high morality and harsh punishments, as established by such a
religion, could strike a deep cord with the potential perpetrator and save him
from becoming a monster. As such, liberal humanism will not be able to withstand
the rampant senselessness of wanton murderers and the like, simply because it
does not address the conscience of the people – the amazing mechanism in humans
liable to regulate both their internal feelings and external actions.
This makes sense because while one may forget many decent
things in trying times, one eventually clings to none other than God.
The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to
soar. It was natural that, bereft and desperate as I was, in the throes of
unremitting suffering, I should turn to God.
Thus, all the more need for a faith based on strict
principles and strong institutions of reward and punishment. Such a faith
remains and provides strength despite the most horrible of events that seemingly
destroy one’s life. Quite ironically liberal humanism, which arises against God,
falls flat when one recalls Job’s story or notes the attitude of Martel’s Pi
whose father and brother die in shipwreck and mother is brutally hacked by a
Or I thought of my family, of how they were spared this
terrible agony. The blackness would stir and eventually go away, and God would
remain, a shining point of light in my heart. I would go on loving.
The main point that arises from this review is the
affirmation of our belief in God even under extreme circumstances. As a
corollary, we have underscored for the natural need of a strict set of codes
which provide man with moral courage in the most trying of times. The main
purpose of this review is to illustrate that God is not exclusively found in
religious texts written by scholars. This approach is reflective of our
illustrious scholars of Muslim Spain and Baghdad, who yearned for a better
appreciation of God’s grand designs through the Hellenic Sciences, mathematics,
astronomy, medicine et al. Finally, we leave the readers with a fusion of
Martel’s words that reiterate the main point once again.
To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to
choosing immobility as a means of transportation.’
What of God’s silence? I think it over. I add: ‘An
intellect confounded yet a trusting sense of presence and of ultimate purpose.’