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Home » Life of Pi brings a mystical message to Broadway

Life of Pi brings a mystical message to Broadway

by Julian Lines
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‘Life of Pi’ is told as a ‘story within a story’ that starts in a coffee shop in Pondicherry, India, which “will make you believe in God”. Its movie version was a commercial success and won 4 Oscars.

Yann Martel’s ‘Life of Pi’, turned into a much-loved movie in 2012 and now coming as a Broadway show in New York, is written with a wonderful sense of humor and depth of insight. Told as a “story within a story” the narrator presents us with a tale told in a coffee shop in Pondicherry, South India which “will make you believe in God”.

Pi both refers to the irrational number and the main character, Pi Patel. The irrational number is produced when calculating the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, usually abbreviated as 3.14 but continues infinitely and has been calculated to a trillion places. It is a transcendental number.

In the story, Pi is the nickname for Piscine Molitor Patel. Piscine means “swimming pool” in French. And the only swimming pool in Pondicherry was built by the Mother of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. So along with young Pi, we are soon “thrown into the deep end” of physical and metaphysical journeys and allegories.

The film did not include a lovely episode from the book, mirroring the wisdom of the great Bengali saint Ramakrishna Paramahansa, where Pi simultaneously pursues other spiritual paths other than Hinduism to the dismay of his parents and ultimately both imam and priest. Pi protests that he “just wants to love God”. Apparently, this segment is restored in the Broadway production and hearkens to the profound wisdom of “so many people, so many paths” and that all paths up the mountain lead to the same summit.

What Ang Lee did accomplish in his film was to lead us from very real everyday details of life in Pondicherry to a remarkable voyage/fantasy primarily involving Pi’s journey on a lifeboat at sea with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and most importantly with the Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker.

Whether the Broadway production can invoke the majesty and vastness of the Pacific ocean the film did, or allows the “schmaltz” factor of playing for the tourist trade coming to see a Broadway show, what really matters is how we confront the profound enigmas in the stories we tell. And this happens to be a very difficult story.

I’m sure religious scholars can find all kinds of common significance in the Holy Communion of Christians who metaphorically invoke “the body and the blood” of Christ in the bread and wine ritual they perform in their most sacred service. But Martel’s character is narrating a story of actual cannibalism in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. He confronts the reader, moviegoer, and now theatergoer with the utter horror of life’s choices at its most catastrophic moments. And when faced with this horror, we choose to tell another story; we make metaphors to hide the awful truth.

While the current reviews praise the puppetry and the night stars and all the magic a Broadway production can bring, what is the outcome of this fantastical journey of 227 days at sea? If the taming of the animal nature of Richard Parker the Tiger is the taming of Pi Patel, then the outcome is simply survival. Where countless others may be adrift in a vast expanse out of food and beyond hope perish, here we discover Mr. Patel years later seemingly alive and well living in Canada, married and with a family. 

We can survive the worst and remain “seemingly” intact and tell ourselves a story, which allows us to carry on. It is not a story I would want to tell an 8-year-old, but there are many fairy tales full of monsters and violence and frankly, the news is full of natural and manmade horrors, so there is nowhere to hide. And better that all these stories lead us closer to God than to despair.

Life of Pi is adapted for the stage by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Max Webster. Pi is played by Sri Lankan actor Hiran Abeysekera.

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