Friday, December 14, 2012

Reading from Life of Pi: The Presence of God is the Finest of Rewards


Life of Pi is one of the finest book of our time, written by Yann Martel. The movie version of Life of Pi is already out, directed by Ang Lee. Many of you might have already watched the movie in theater, I am still waiting since in Bangladesh it is yet to arrive in theaters. Since the movie came out, I revisited the novel and would recommend anyone who have not read it, to read it. It has great food for thoughts, touches the subject of comparative religion beautifully.

About the narrator and protagonist of the novel a reviewer writes: "He acquires layer after layer of diverse spirituality and brilliantly synthesizes it into a personal belief system and devotional life that is breathtaking in its depth and scope. His youthful exploration into comparative religion culminates in a magnificent epiphany of sorts." - Phoebe Kate Foster of PopMatters

I am sharing a portion of the book where the main character Pi shares his encounter with Islam and the man who practiced Sufi Islam. Following it the writer beautifully describe one unique experience of experiencing unity, oneness of all that is.

It is said that the Divine never revels Itself twice in the same fashion. That is why every seeker's encounter with the Divine is utterly unique which again makes it uniquely beautiful as well. Below is a favorite part from the novel Life of Pi.


Life of PI

Chapter 18


Islam followed right behind, hardly a year later. I was fifteen years old and I was exploring my hometown. The Muslim quarter wasn't far from the zoo. A small quiet neighbourhood with Arabic writing and crescent moons inscribed on the facades of the houses. I came to Mullah Street. I had a peek at the Jamia Masjid, the Great Mosque, being careful to stay on the outside, of course. Islam had a reputation worse than Christianity's - fewer gods, greater violence, and I had never heard anyone say good things about Muslim schools - so I wasn't about to step in, empty though the place was. The building, clean and white except for various edges painted green, was an open construction unfolding around an empty central room.

Long straw mats covered the floor everywhere. Above, two slim, fluted minarets rose in the air before a background of soaring coconut trees. There was nothing evidently religious or, for that matter, interesting about the place, but it was pleasant and quiet.

.. Not four feet away, sitting crossed-legged before his breads, was a man... He was explaining to me how the bread baked on these heated pebbles when the nasal call of the muezzin wafted through the air from the  mosque. I knew it was the call to prayer, but I didn't know what it entailed. I imagined it beckoned the Muslim faithful to the mosque, much like bells summoned us Christians to church. Not so. The baker interrupted himself mid-sentence and said, "Excuse me." He ducked into the next room for a minute and returned with a rolled-up carpet, which he unfurled on the floor of his bakery, throwing up a small storm of flour. And right there before me, in the midst of his workplace, he prayed. It was incongruous, but it was I who felt out of place. Luckily, he prayed with his eyes closed.

He stood straight. He muttered in Arabic. He brought his hands next to this ears, thumbs touching the lobes, looking as if he were straining to hear Allah replying. He bent forward. He stood straight again. He fell to his knees and brought his hands and forehead to the floor. He sat up. He fell forward again. He stood. He started the whole thing again.

Why, Islam is nothing but an easy sort of exercise, I thought. Hot-weather yoga for the Bedouins. Asanas without sweat, heaven without strain.

He went through the cycle four times, muttering throughout. When he had finished - with a right-left turning of the head and a short bout of meditation - he opened his eyes, smiled, stepped off his carpet and rolled it up with a flick of hand that spoke of old habit. He returned it to its spot in the next room. He came back to me, "What was I saying?" he asked.

So it went the first time I saw a Muslim pray - quick, necessary, physical, muttered, striking. Next time I was praying in church - on my knees, immobile, silent before Christ on the Cross - the image of this callisthenic communion with God in the middle of bags of flour kept coming to my mind.

Chapter 19


I went to see him again.
"What's your religion about?" I asked.

His eyes lit up. "It is about the Beloved," he replied.

I challenge anyone to understand Islam, its spirit, and not to love it. It is a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion.

The mosque was truly an open construction, to God and to breeze. We sat cross-legged listening to the imam until the time came to pray. Then the random pattern of sitters disappeared as we stood and arranged ourselves shoulder to shoulder in rows, every space ahead being filled by someone from behind until every line was solid and we were row after row of worshippers. It felt good to bring my forehead to the ground. Immediately it felt like a deeply religious contact.

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.

.. We prayed together and we practiced 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 low, 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 could 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 as immortal. I felt like the center of a small circle coinciding with the centre of a much larger one. Atman met Allah.

One another 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 lodge property and returning to the house. It was a clear, sunny day after a night of snowfall. All nature was  blanked in white. As I was coming up to the house. I turned my 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 dont know. My devotion to Mary was secondary. But it was her. Her skin was pale. She was wearing a dress white dress and a blue cloak; I remember being struck by their pleats and folds. When I say I saw her, I don't quiet 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.


# References:
* By Yann Martel:Life of Pi [Hardcover]
* Life of Pi - Kindle Edition
The Making of Life of Pi: A Film, a Journey
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