‘Life of Pi’, the Booker Prize-winning story of an Indian boy who is stranded on a boat in Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger, has more Indian connections. While the film adaptation of this book written by Yann Martel is successfully running in theatres worldwide, few know about its connection to Thiruvananthapuram zoo.
Martel had spent a lot of time in Thiruvananthapuram zoo during his Indian visit in 1996. After winning the Booker Prize in 2002, Martel wrote about the research he did among zoo animals before writing the gripping tale of a shipwreck which leaves a boy floating in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days with a hyena, zebra, orangutan and a Bengal tiger. “I visited all the zoos I could find in the south of India. I interviewed the director of the Trivandrum Zoo,” he wrote.
The then zoo director Mohammed Sali remembers Martel as a ‘backpacker’ who visited the zoo every day from Ponmudi, where he stayed those days. “It was during 1996 or 1997. I remember him approaching on an evening to do research on zoo animals. A lot of foreigners used to approach us with this demand. Since I had some free time, I accompanied him to the zoo,” said Sali, who is now enjoying his retired life at Vattiyoorkavu.
“Those days, monkeys were kept in Island Park, an island in the pond. We used a wooden raft to reach the island to feed the monkeys. Martel too came with us those days. He was also keen to study about the behaviour of the hyena,” said Sali.
Incidentally, Sali has not read ‘Life of Pi’ and was unaware that hyena, orangutan and tiger are the major animal characters in the story.
“Martel spent most of the time in the carnivorous section. He used to jot down things in a book. Sometimes, he could be seen drawing. He would wander in the zoo until he took the last bus to Ponmudi,” said Sali.
Sali never knew that the animals in the zoo would turn immortal characters later. “Martel said that he was here for a research and I did not enquire much into it,” he said.
Abu, the then curator, does not remember Martel’s visit. He, however, said that there were five tigers in the zoo at that time.