Interfaith dialogue can take many forms, and people will have varying experiences of it. Perhaps some is limited to accounts that begin with “A priest, a rabbi, and an imam walk into a bar…” Yeah, I know. Wouldn’t happen. The subject comes up in a book I’ve been reading this week, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, a novel for which he won the Man Booker Prize in 2002. In Pondicherry, India, sixteen-year-old zookeeper’s son Pi (short for “Piscine”) Patel has stepped beyond the traditions of his Hindu faith and become a Christian. He was so happy for having met Jesus that he immediately went to thank Lord Krishna for having put Jesus of Nazareth in his path. He continued in both of those faiths after he became a Muslim as well. Eventually it comes to the attention of each of his spiritual mentors that his faith is not solitary. They approach the young man’s parents.
“What is your son doing going to temple?” asked the priest.
“Your son was seen in church crossing himself,” said the imam.
“Your son has gone Muslim,” said the pandit.
To this point, his parents hadn’t known. All teenage boys have secrets from their parents, Pi reasons. He continues his story,
But fate decided that my parents and I and the three wise men, as I shall call them, should meet one day on the Goubert Salai seaside esplanade and that my secret should be outed. It was a lovely, breezy, hot Sunday afternoon and the By of Bengal glittered under a blue sky. Townspeople were out for a stroll. Children screamed and laughed. Coloured balloons floated in the air. Ice cream sales were brisk. Why think of business on such a day, I ask? Why couldn’t they have just walked by with a nod and a smile? It was not to be. We were to meet not just one wise man but all three, and not one after another but at the same time, and each would decide upon seeing us that right then was the golden occasion to meet that Pondicherry notable, the zoo director, he of the model devout son. When I saw the first, I smiled; by the time I had laid eyes on the third, my smile had frozen into a mask of horror. When it was clear that all three were converging on us, my heart jumped before sinking very low.
The wise men seemed annoyed when they realized that all three of them were approaching the same people. Each must have assumed that the others were there for some business other than pastoral and had rudely chosen that moment to deal with it. Glances of displeasure were exchanged.
My parents looked puzzled to have their way gently blocked by three broadly smiling religious strangers. I should explain that my family was anything but orthodox. Father saw himself as part of the New India—rich, modern and as secular as ice cream. He didn’t have a religious bone in his body. He was a businessman, pronounced busynessman in his case, a hardworking, earthbound professional, more concerned with inbreeding among the lions than any overarching moral or existential scheme. It’s true that he had all new animals blessed by a priest and there were two small shrines at the zoo, one to Lord Ganesha and one to Hanuman, gods likely to please a zoo director, what with the first having the head of an elephant and the second being a monkey, but Father’s calculation was that this was good for business, not good for his soul, a matter of public relations rather than personal salvation. Spiritual worry was alien to him; it was financial worry that rocked his being. “One epidemic in the collection,” he used to say, “and we’ll all end up in a road crew breaking up stones.” Mother was mum, bored and neutral on the subject. A Hindu upbringing and a Baptist education had precisely canceled each other out as far as religion was concerned and had left her serenely impious. I suspect she suspected that I had a different take on the matter, but she never said anything when as a child I devoured the comic books of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and an illustrated children’s Bible and other stories of the gods. She herself was a big reader. She was pleased to see me with my nose buried in a book, any book, so long as it wasn’t naughty. As for [Pi’s brother] Ravi, if Lord Krishna had held a cricket bat rather than a flute, if Christ had appeared more plainly to him as an umpire, if the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, had shown some notions of bowling, he might have lifted a religious eyelid, bu they didn’t, and so he slumbered.
After the “Hellos” and the “Good days”, there was an awkward silence. The priest broke it when he said, with pride in his voice, “Piscine is a good Christian boy. I hope to see him join our choir soon.”
My parents, the pandit and the imam looked surprised.
“You must be mistaken. He’s a good Muslim boy. He comes without fail to Friday prayer, and his knowledge of the Holy Qur’an is coming along nicely.” So said the imam.
My parents, the priest and the pandit looked incredulous.
The pandit spoke. “You’re both wrong. He’s a good Hindu boy. I see him all the time at the temple comig for darshan and performing puja.”
My parents, the imam and the priest looked astounded.
“There is no mistake,” said the priest. “I know this boy. He is Piscine Molitor Patel and he’s a Christian.”
“I know him too, and I tell you he’s a Muslim,” asserted the imam.
“Nonsense!” cried the pandit. “Piscine was born a Hindu, lives a Hindu and will die a Hindu!”
The three wise men stared at each other, breathless and disbelieving.
Lord, avert their eyes from me, I whispered in my soul.
All eyes fell upon me.
“Piscine, can this be true?” asked the imam earnestly. “Hindus and Christians are idolaters. They have many gods.”
“And Muslims have many wives,” responded the pandit.
The priest looked askance at both of them. “Piscine,” he nearly whispered, “there is salvation only in Jesus.”
“Balderdash! Christians know nothing about religion,” said the pandit.
“They strayed long ago from God’s path,” said the imam.
“Where’s God in your religion?” snapped the priest. “You don’t have a single miracle to show for it. What kind of religion is that, without miracles?”
“It isn’t a circus with dead people jumping out of tombs all the time, that’s what! We Muslims stick to the essential miracle of existence. Birds flying, rain falling, crops growing—these are miracles enough for us.”
“Feathers and rain are all very nice, but we like to know that God is truly with us.”
“Is that so? Well, a whole lot of good it did God to be with you—you tried to kill him! You banged him to a cross with great big nails. Is that a civilized way to treat a prophet? The prophet Muhammad—peace be upon him—brought us the word of God without any undignified nonsense and died at a ripe old age.”
“The word of God? To that illiterate merchant of yours in the middle of the desert? Those were drooling epileptic fits brought on by the swaying of his camel, not divine revelation. That, or the sun frying his brains!”
“If the Prophet—p.b.u.h.—were alive, he would have choice words for you,” replied the imam, with narrowed eyes.
“Well, he’s not! Christ is alive, while you’re old ‘p.b.u.h.’ is dead, dead, dead!”
The pandit interrupted them quietly. In Tamil he said, “The real question is, why is Piscine dallying with these foreign religions?”
The eyes of the priest and the imam properly popped out of their heads. They were both native Tamils.
“God is universal,” spluttered the priest.
The imam noted strong approval. “There is only one God.”
“And with their one god Muslims are always causing troubles and provoking riots. The proof of how bad Islam is, is how uncivilized Muslims are,” pronounced the pandit.
“Says the slave-driver of the caste system,” huffed the imam. “Hindus enslave people and worship dressed-up dolls.”
“They are golden calf lovers. They kneel down before cows,” the priest chimed in.
“While Christians kneel before a white man! They are the flunkies of a foreign god. They are the nightmare of all non-white people.”
“And they eat pigs and are cannibals,” added the imam for good measure.
“What it comes down to,” the priest put out with cool rage, “is whether Piscine wants real religion—or myths from a cartoon strip.”
“God—or idols,” intoned the imam gravely.
“Our gods—or colonial gods,” hissed the pandit.
It was hard to tell whose face was more inflamed. It looked as if they might come to blows.
Father raised his hands. “Gentlemen, gentlemen, please!” he interjected. “I would like to remind you there is freedom of practice in this country.”
Three apoplectic faces turned to him.
“Yes! Practice—singular!” the wise men screamed in unison. Three index fingers, like punctuation marks, jumped to attention in the air to emphasize their point.
They were not pleased at the unintended choral effect or the spontaneous unity of their gestures. Their fingers came down quickly, and they sighed and groaned each on his own. Father and Mother stared on, at a loss for words.
The pandit spoke first. “Mr. Patel, Piscine’s piety is admirable. In these troubled times it’s good to see a boy so keen on God. We all agree on that.” The imam and the priest nodded. “But he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose.”
“I don’t think it’s a crime, but I suppose you’re right,” Father replied.
The three murmured agreement and looked heavenward, as did Father, whence they felt the decision must come. Mother looked at me.
A silence fell heavily on my shoulders.
“Hmmm, Piscine?” Mother nudged me. “How do you feel about the question?”
“Bapu Gandi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God,” I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face.
My embarrassment was contagious. No one said anything. It happened that we were not far from the statue of Gandhi on the esplanade. Stick in hand, an impish smile on his lips, a twinkle in his eyes, the Mahatma walked. i fancy that he heard our conversation, but that he paid even greater attention to my heart. Father cleared his throat and said in a half-voice, “I suppose that’s what we’re all trying to do—love God.”
I thought it very funny that he should say that, he who hadn’t stepped into a temple with a serious intent since I had had the faculty of memory. But it seemed to do the trick. You can’t reprimand a boy for wanting to love God. The three wise men pulled away with stiff, grudging smiles on their faces.
Father looked at me for a second, as if to speak, then thought better, said, “Ice cream, anyone?” and headed for the closest ice cream wallah before we could answer. Mother gazed at me a little longer, with an expression that was both tender and perplexed.
That was my introduction to interfaith dialogue. Father bought three ice cream sandwiches. We ate them in unusual silence as we continued on our Sunday walk.