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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 17)

2006-08-22 21:08

  CHAPTER   17

  First wonder goes deepest; wonder after that fits in the impression made by the first. I owe to Hinduism the original landscape of my religious imagination, those towns and rivers, battlefields and forests, holy mountains and deep seas where gods, saints, villains and ordinary people rub shoulders, and, in doing so, define who and why we are. I first heard of the tremendous, cosmic might of loving kindness in this Hindu land. It was Lord Krishna speaking. I heard him, and I followed him. And in his wisdom and perfect love, Lord Krishna led me to meet one man.

  I was fourteen years old-and a well-content Hindu on a holiday-when I met Jesus Christ.

  It was not often that Father took time off from the zoo, but one of the times he did we went to Munnar, just over in Kerala. Munnar is a small hill station surrounded by some of the highest tea estates in the world. It was early May and the monsoon hadn't come yet. The plains of Tamil Nadu were beastly hot. We made it to Munnar after a winding, five-hour car ride from Madurai. The coolness was as pleasing as having mint in your mouth. We did the tourist thing. We visited a Tata tea factory. We enjoyed a boat ride on a lake. We toured a cattle-breeding centre. We fed salt to some Nilgiri tahrs-a species of wild goat-in a national park. (“We have some in our zoo. You should come to Pondicherry,” said Father to some  Swiss tourists.) Ravi and I went for walks in the tea estates near town. It was all an excuse to keep our lethargy a little busy. By late afternoon Father and Mother were as settled in the tea room of our comfortable hotel as two cats sunning themselves at a window. Mother read while Father chatted with fellow guests.

  There are three hills within Munnar. They don't bear comparison with the tall hills-mountains, you might call them-that surround the town, but I noticed the first morning, as we were having breakfast, that they did stand out in one way: on each stood a Godhouse. The hill on the right, across the river from the hotel, had a Hindu temple high on its side; the hill in the middle, further away, held up a mosque; while the hill on the left was crowned with a Christian church.

  On our fourth day in Munnar, as the afternoon was coming to an end, I stood on the hill on the left. Despite attending a nominally Christian school, I had not yet been inside a church-and I wasn't about to dare the deed now. I knew very little about the religion. It had a reputation for few gods and great violence. But good schools. I walked around the church. It was a building unremittingly unrevealing of what it held inside, with thick, featureless walls pale blue in colour and high, narrow windows impossible to look in through. A fortress.

  I came upon the rectory. The door was open. I hid around a corner to look upon the scene. To the left of the door was a small board with the words Parish Priest and Assistant Priest on it. Next to each was a small sliding block. Both the priest and his assistant were IN, the board informed me in gold letters, which I could plainly see. One priest was working in his office, his back turned to the bay windows, while the other was seated on a bench at a round table in the large vestibule that evidently functioned as a room for receiving visitors. He sat facing the door and the windows, a book in his hands, a Bible I presumed. He read a little, looked up, read a little more, looked up again. It was done in a way that was leisurely, yet alert and composed. After some minutes, he closed the book and put it aside. He folded his hands together on the table and sat there, his expression serene, showing neither expectation nor resignation.

  The vestibule had clean, white walls; the table and benches were of dark wood; and the priest was dressed in a white cassock-it was all neat, plain, simple. I was filled with a sense of peace. But more than the setting, what arrested me was my intuitive understanding that he was there-open, patient-in case someone, anyone, should want to talk to him; a problem of the soul, a heaviness of the heart, a darkness of the conscience, he would listen with love. He was a man whose profession it was to love, and he would offer comfort and guidance to the best of his ability.

  I was moved. What I had before my eyes stole into my heart and thrilled me.

  He got up. I thought he might slide his block over, but he didn't. He retreated further into the rectory, that's all, leaving the door between the vestibule and the next room as open as the outside door. I noted this, how both doors were wide open. Clearly, he and his colleague were still available.

  I walked away and I dared. I entered the church. My stomach was in knots. I was terrified I would meet a Christian who would shout at me, “What are you doing here? How dare you enter this sacred place, you defiler? Get out, right now!”

  There was no one. And little to be understood. I advanced and observed the inner sanctum. There was a painting. Was this the murti? Something about a human sacrifice. An angry god who had to be appeased with blood. Dazed women staring up in the air and fat babies with tiny wings flying about. A charismatic bird. Which one was the god? To the side of the sanctum was a painted wooden sculpture. The victim again, bruised and bleeding in bold colours. I stared at his knees. They were badly scraped. The pink skin was peeled back and looked like the petals of a flower, revealing kneecaps that were fire-engine red. It was hard to connect this torture scene with the priest in the rectory.

  The next day, at around the same time, I let myself IN.

  Catholics have a reputation for severity, for judgment that comes down heavily. My experience with Father Martin was not at all like that. He was very kind. He served me tea and biscuits in a tea set that tinkled and rattled at every touch; he treated me like a grown-up; and he told me a story. Or rather, since Christians are so fond of capital letters, a Story.

  And what a story. The first thing that drew me in was disbelief. What? Humanity sins but it's God's Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine Father saying to me, “Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas. Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate the camel. The week before it was painted storks and grey herons. And who's to say for sure who snacked on our golden agouti? The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided that the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed you to them.”

  “Yes, Father, that would be the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up.”

  “Hallelujah, my son.”

  “Hallelujah, Father.”

  What a downright weird story. What peculiar psychology.

  I asked for another story, one that I might find more satisfying. Surely this religion had more than one story in its bag-religions abound with stories. But Father Martin made me understand that the stories that came before it-and there were many-were simply prologue to the Christians. Their religion had one Story, and to it they came back again and again, over and over. It was story enough for them.

  I was quiet that evening at the hotel.

  That a god should put up with adversity, I could understand. The gods of Hinduism face their fair share of thieves, bullies, kidnappers and usurpers. What is the Ramayana but the account of one long, bad day for Rama? Adversity, yes. Reversals of fortune, yes. Treachery, yes. But humiliation? Death? I couldn't imagine Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged through the streets and, to top it off, crucified-and at the hands of mere humans, to boot. I'd never heard of a Hindu god dying. Brahman Revealed did not go for death. Devils and monsters did, as did mortals, by the thousands and millions-that's what they were there for. Matter, too, fell away. But divinity should not be blighted by death. It's wrong. The world soul cannot die, even in one contained part of it. It was wrong of this Christian God to let His avatar die. That is tantamount to letting a part of Himself die. For if the Son is to die, it cannot be fake. If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ. The death of the Son must be real. Father Martin assured me that it was. But once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son must have the taste of death forever in His mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horror must be real. Why would God wish that upon Himself? Why not leave death to the mortals? Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect?

  Love. That was Father Martin's answer.

  And what about this Son's deportment? There is the story of baby Krishna, wrongly accused by his friends of eating a bit of dirt. His foster mother, Yashoda, comes up to him with a wagging finger. “You shouldn't eat dirt, you naughty boy,” she scolds him. “But I haven't,” says the unchallenged lord of all and everything, in sport disguised as a frightened human child. “Tut! Tut! Open your mouth,” orders Yashoda. Krishna does as he is told. He opens his mouth. Yashoda gasps. She sees in Krishna's mouth the whole complete entire timeless universe, all the stars and planets of space and the distance between them, all the lands and seas of the earth and the life in them; she sees all the days of yesterday and all the days of tomorrow; she sees all ideas and all emotions, all pity and all hope, and the three strands of matter; not a pebble, candle, creature, village or galaxy is missing, including herself and every bit of dirt in its truthful place. “My Lord, you can close your mouth,” she says reverently.

  There is the story of Vishnu incarnated as Vamana the dwarf. He asks of demon king Bali only as much land as he can cover in three strides. Bali laughs at this runt of a suitor and his puny request. He consents. Immediately Vishnu takes on his full cosmic size. With one stride he covers the earth, with the second the heavens, and with the third he boots Bali into the netherworld.

  Even Rama, that most human of avatars, who had to be reminded of his divinity when he grew long-faced over the struggle to get Sita, his wife, back from Ravana, evil king of Lanka, was no slouch. No spindly cross would have kept him down. When push came to shove, he transcended his limited human frame with strength no man could have and weapons no man could handle.

  That is God as God should be. With shine and power and might. Such as can rescue and save and put down evil.

  This Son, on the other hand, who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers who don't get it and opponents who don't respect Him-what kind of a god is that? It's a god on too human a scale, that's what. There are miracles, yes, mostly of a medical nature, a few to satisfy hungry stomachs; at best a storm is tempered, water is briefly walked upon. If that is magic, it is minor magic, on the order of card tricks. Any Hindu god can do a hundred times better. This Son is a god who spent most of His time telling stories, talking. This Son is a god who walked, a pedestrian god-and in a hot place, at that-with a stride like any human stride, the sandal reaching just above the rocks along the way; and when He splurged on transportation, it was a regular donkey. This Son is a god who died in three hours, with moans, gasps and laments. What kind of a god is that? What is there to inspire in this Son?

  Love, said Father Martin.

  And this Son appears only once, long ago, far away? Among an obscure tribe in a backwater of West Asia on the confines of a long-vanished empire? Is done away with before He has a single grey hair on His head? Leaves not a single descendant, only scattered, partial testimony, His complete works doodles in the dirt? Wait a minute. This is more than Brahman with a serious case of stage fright. This is Brahman selfish. This is Brahman ungenerous and unfair. This is Brahman practically unmanifest. If Brahman is to have only one son, He must be as abundant as Krishna with the milkmaids, no? What could justify such divine stinginess?

  Love, repeated Father Martin.

  I'll stick to my Krishna, thank you very much. I find his divinity utterly compelling. You can keep your sweaty, chatty Son to yourself.

  That was how I met that troublesome rabbi of long ago: with disbelief and annoyance.

  I had tea with Father Martin three days in a row. Each time, as teacup rattled against saucer, as spoon tinkled against edge of cup, I asked questions.

  The answer was always the same.

  He bothered me, this Son. Every day I burned with greater indignation against Him, found more flaws to Him.

  He's petulant! It's morning in Bethany and God is hungry, God wants His breakfast. He comes to a fig tree. It's not the season for figs, so the tree has no figs. God is peeved. The Son mutters, “May you never bear fruit again,” and instantly the fig tree withers. So says Matthew, backed up by Mark.

  I ask you, is it the fig tree's fault that it's not the season for figs? What kind of a thing is that to do to an innocent fig tree, wither it instantly?

  I couldn't get Him out of my head. Still can't. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.

  On our last day, a few hours before we were to leave Munnar, I hurried up the hill on the left. It strikes me now as a typically Christian scene. Christianity is a religion in a rush. Look at the world created in seven days. Even on a symbolic level, that's creation in a frenzy. To one born in a religion where the battle for a single soul can be a relay race run over many centuries, with innumerable generations passing along the baton, the quick resolution of Christianity has a dizzying effect. If Hinduism flows placidly like the Ganges, then Christianity bustles like Toronto at rush hour. It is a religion as swift as a swallow, as urgent as an ambulance. It turns on a dime, expresses itself in the instant. In a moment you are lost or saved. Christianity stretches back through the ages, but in essence it exists only at one time: right now.

  I booted up that hill. Though Father Martin was not IN-alas, his block was slid over-thank God he was in.

  Short of breath I said, “Father, I would like to be a Christian, please.”

  He smiled. “You already are, Piscine-in your heart. Whoever meets Christ in good faith is a Christian. Here in Munnar you met Christ.”

  He patted me on the head. It was more of a thump, actually. His hand went BOOM BOOM BOOM on my head.

  I thought I would explode with joy.

  “When you come back, we'll have tea again, my son.”

  “Yes, Father.”

  It was a good smile he gave me. The smile of Christ.

  I entered the church, without fear this time, for it was now my house too. I offered prayers to Christ, who is alive. Then I raced down the hill on the left and raced up the hill on the right-to offer thanks to Lord Krishna for having put Jesus of Nazareth, whose humanity I found so compelling, in my way.

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