I visited the Southern Indian city of Chennai in late 2013 for the World University Debating Championship. On one of the day-offs, my friend and I went on an excursion to Pondicherry, the city in which Piscine Molitor Patel grew up, as portrayed in Life of Pi. Little did I know, by then, I was already in the depths of my first episode of depression. I had been in a downward spiral in the preceding months and shortly after I returned home I went to see a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with clinical depression. The trip to India was planned long before helplessness overclouded me and I guess the chance to head to India and leave behind the suffocating Hong Kong was something that I looked forward to and a minor reason I did not succumb to recurring suicidal thoughts. That would be a story for another day.
My point is, I was not well when I visited Pondicherry. It enchanted me all the same.
(The tranquility in Pondicherry)
Southern India and the India that I thought I knew
A key foundation for enchantment is the element of surprise. I embarked on my Indian journey with an Indian friend. She grew up in Hong Kong but she has deep family roots from India and she and her family visits India quite frequently and I understand that she speaks Hindi. I thought I would be in safe hands.
Again, little did I know, she was as much as a foreigner as myself, in Southern India. My friend’s family is from Northern India. As you would expect from a vast country, there is a visible difference in complexion between Southern and Northern Indians, with the former being more dark-skinned. Moreover, unlike China, there is also a language gap between the North and the South, with Tamil, not Hindi, being the predominant language in the latter. Therefore, when we took the legendary auto rickshaw along the narrow streets of Chennai, neither of us had an effective channel of communication with the fearless driver.
This surprise was at times nerve-wrecking in Chennai whereas in Pondicherry, it was absolutely captivating, notwithstanding me being emotionally under the weather.
(Gandhi Statue in Pondicherry, the largest of its kind in Asia)
French legacy and Gandhi in Pondicherry
By virtue of its vital position between the East and the West’s trading trail, the lands of India have always been hotly contested between European colonial powers, at the expense of indigenous Indian princes. With the Dutch sidelined to Indonesia, the British got hold of the whole of India in the late 1850s. Nevertheless, as a result of diplomatic negotiations, they allowed France to retain her settlements in India, including Pondicherry, until the incorporation of French India into the by-then independent Indian Union.
Till this day, you can still breathe French in the air in Pondicherry, hence the reference in Life of Pi where the author noted the irony that he was in French Canada (Montreal) interviewing Pi because he met a gentleman in French India (Pondicherry) who told him that Pi’s story would make him believe in God which probably intrigued the author to make the journey to Montreal. I was similarly intrigued by the city of Pondicherry whose quiet quarters calmly emitting that sense of pan-European Frenchness or even Parisian touch, as opposed to other parts of India where the colonial legacy, if any, quintessentially English which in our times may sadly be European no more. Here’s to France staying European in the coming ballot boxes.
Of course, it would be a mistake to suppose that Pondicherry is all about French legacy or footages of her beauty captured by Ang Lee. Indeed, there is also a vibrant Tamil community buzzing in and around the town. The most stunning imagery, to me, however, remains the towering Gandhi Statue by the promenade, solemnly looking into the Bay of Bengal. The giant figure depicts the great man, cane in his hand, gently and firmly walking towards the ocean, a reference to the historic Salt March in 1930 in protest of British salt monopoly. At that particular moment, standing next to the statue, I felt subsumed by the historical gravity it represents.
(Piscine Molitor Patel, the man who can make you believe in God)
Depression and how we cope with the past
Allow me to move to another grave subject, albeit an intrinsically personal one. I shall also try to link it to the narrative of Life of Pi which given the way I framed the title, one may reasonably assume to be a central part of this monologue but so far has only received marginal attention. Sincerest apologies if I have misled you, my dear readers.
Okay. Onto depression.
As foretold in the opening, I had my first encounter with depression in late 2013. In the more than 1200 days since, it never really left me. I have had 3 relapses, the last one being December 2016. I am currently still on medication. Will it strike me again? I do not know. If and when it does, would I be able to cope with it and continue my life? I cannot unreservedly see yes, although I have been much more confident that I can.
If I am to moan about these years I spent with depression, it derailed my studies, shattered my pursuit of a career in public law, repeatedly broke the hearts of my parents and many more who love me, doomed two separate romantic relationships and the list goes on…… To put it bluntly, from this angle, the damage has been done and there is nothing I can do about that. To maintain that gloomy outlook, however, would not bring me anywhere. In all likelihood, it would only further trap me in that bottomless hole.
Alternatively, I can interpret the past events as putting a much needed pause to my hectic life. A chance for retrospection, for self-reconciliation, to know myself better and treat myself with more compassion. It opened new doors for me and presented me with a second calling in life- to be a mental health advocate. I do not know whether it would be a viable path but on this I shall embark. Most importantly, it brought me ever closer to my incredible parents.
This, I think, can also be a lens through which we view Life of Pi. As Pi himself hinted at by the end of the movie, his account of affairs might just have been a coping mechanism in response to a chain of incredibly traumatic events- the loss of his entire family, the murder of his mother in front of his own eyes and murderous violence at his own hands. But the life-affirming interpretation given by Pi, the one in which he came to terms with Richard Parker the Bengal tiger which symbolized the monster in him, gave profound new meaning to a most unfortunate situation. In adopting that interpretation, we are not denying what happened in the past but rather, turning them into stepping stones for us to revitalize ourselves and move on with life.
Concluding with some thoughtful words from Juan F Thompson: “So we do the best we can, knowing we are fooling ourselves, a good part of our lives. We go forward in spite of it. I go forward in spite of it. These are stories I tell myself.”
Alex Leung is a student from the University of Hong Kong desperately looking for a way out of law school. Through community services and English debating and coaching, he has travelled extensively across the Greater China Region, Southeast Asia and various parts of Europe. He is also very passionate about mental health and personal wellbeing issues while taking a pessimistically declining interest in world affairs, 2016 definitely did not help.