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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 20)

2006-08-22 21:08

  CHAPTER   20

  He was a Sufi, a Muslim mystic. He sought fana, union with God, and his relationship with God was personal and loving. “If you take two steps towards God,” he used to tell me, “God runs to you!”

  He was a very plain-featured man, with nothing in his looks or in his dress that made memory cry hark. I'm not surprised I didn't see him the first time we met. Even when I knew him very well, encounter after encounter, I had difficulty recognizing him. His name was Satish Kumar. These are common names in Tamil Nadu, so the coincidence ls not so remarkable. Still, it pleased me that this pious baker, as plain as a shadow and of solid health, and the Communist biology teacher

  and science devotee, the walking mountain on stilts, sadly afflicted with polio in his childhood, carried the same name. Mr. and Mr. Kumar taught me biology and Islam. Mr. and Mr. Kumar led me to study zoology and religious studies at the University of Toronto. Mr. and Mr. Kumar were the prophets of my Indian youth.

  We prayed together and we practised dhikr, the recitation of the ninety-nine revealed names of God. He was a hafiz, one who knows the Qur'an by heart, and he sang it in a slow, simple chant. My Arabic was never very good, but I loved its sound. The guttural eruptions and long flowing vowels rolled just beneath my comprehension like a beautiful brook. I gazed into this brook for long spells of time. It was not wide, just one man's voice, but it was as deep as the universe.

  I described Mr. Kumar's place as a hovel. Yet no mosque, church or temple ever felt so sacred to me. I sometimes came out of that bakery feeling heavy with glory. I would climb onto my bicycle and pedal that glory through the air.

  One such time I left town and on my way back, at a point where the land was high and I could see the sea to my left and down the road a long ways, I suddenly felt I was in heaven. The spot was in fact no different from when I had passed it not long before, but my way of seeing it had changed. The feeling, a paradoxical mix of pulsing energy and profound peace, was intense and blissful. Whereas before the road, the sea, the trees, the air, the sun all spoke differently to me, now they spoke one language of unity. Tree took account of road, which was aware of air, which was mindful of sea, which shared things with sun. Every element lived in harmonious relation with its neighbour, and all was kith and kin. I knelt a mortal; I rose an immortal. I felt like the centre of a all circle coinciding with the centre of a much larger one. Atman met Allah.

  One other time I felt God come so close to me. It was in Canada, much later. I was visiting friends in the country. It was winter. I was out alone on a walk on their large property and returning to the house. It was a clear, sunny day after a night of snowfall. All nature was blanketed in white. As I was coming up to the house, I turned mv head. There was a wood and in that wood, a small clearing. A breeze, or perhaps it was an animal, had shaken a branch. Fine snow was falling through the air, glittering in the sunlight. In that falling golden dust in that sun-splashed clearing, I saw the Virgin Mary. Why her, I don't know. My devotion to Mary was secondary. But it was her. Her skin was pale. She was wearing a white dress and a blue cloak; I remember being struck by their pleats and folds. When I say I saw her, I don't quite mean it literally, though she did have body and colour. I felt I saw her, a vision beyond vision. I stopped and squinted. She looked beautiful and supremely regal. She was smiling at me with loving kindness. After some seconds she left me. My heart beat with fear and joy.

  The presence of God is the finest of rewards.

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