The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Mistry misses, India scores

London, Oct. 23: Poor Rohinton Mistry. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. His novel, Family Matters, did not win the Booker Prize in London last night.

However, it may give him some consolation that the winning novel, Life of Pi, by Canadian author Yann Martel, 39, was conceived in India and has strong Indian connections.

It tells of the adventures of a 16-year-old Indian boy who is cast adrift at sea with a Royal Bengal tiger when a ship carrying his family to Canada is lost in a storm.

When Martel’s name was announced last night at an event carried live on television, he behaved like an Oscar winner. He hugged and kissed everyone in sight, strode to the platform to collect his £50,000 prize and thanked a long list of people.

He realises he has struck gold. Like recent winners, such as Arundhati Roy, he appreciates that massive sales of the winning novel will make him very rich, very quickly. Hollywood is also interested in turning the novel into a film, something Roy has said she will never allow with The God of Small Things.

Another Booker winner, Salman Rushdie, will see Midnight’s Children staged as a Royal Shakespeare Company play in London in January.

According to the author, “Life of Pi is an adventure story about a young boy — Piscine Patel (the Pi of the title) — whose father runs and owns the city zoo in Pondicherry, India. At the age of 16, Pi’s parents decide to emigrate to Canada and take their rather large extended family with them (to sell to zoos in America). But tragedy strikes when the cargo ship sinks and the only remaining living creatures found bobbing about in a lifeboat in the Pacific are Pi, a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg, a depressed orangutan and the fiercest of them all, a 450-pound royal Bengal tiger.

“Pi struggles to keep his wits about him as the animals slowly begin to assert their place in the food chain and ultimately it is the tiger with whom Pi must forge an unavoidable understanding with. When they finally reach the coast of Mexico, Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger, flees to the jungle, and is never seen again.

“The authorities who interrogate Pi refuse to believe his story and insist he tell them ‘the truth’. Pi tells a second story, less fantastical and more conventional — but is it true'”

Martel, a philosophy graduate who was born to Canadian parents in Spain and brought up in Alaska, Canada, said he was influenced by a review of Max and the Cats, a novel by a Brazilian author, Moacyr Scliar.

Years later, Martel was travelling in Mumbai where he had spent a miserable night. Then inspiration struck.

“I had written two paltry books that had sold a thousand copies each. I had neither family nor career to show for my 33 years on earth,” he recalled.

He travelled from Mumbai to Matheran where, sitting on a boulder, he remembered the story of Max and the Cats.

“Suddenly, my mind was exploding with ideas. I could hardly keep up with them. In jubilant moments, whole portions of the novel emerged fully formed: the lifeboat, the animals, the intermingling of the religious and the zoological, the parallel stories.”

He returned home to Canada to do further research before writing the novel.

Last week, through a bureaucratic bungle, Martel’s name was prematurely released as the winner on an Internet site. At that stage, the judges had not made up their minds, but betting was so heavy that the bookies stopped taking any more bets.

Martel said: “There’s no more prestigious prize than the Booker and it feels like winning the lottery.”

Lisa Jardine, the chairman of the judging panel, commented: “We have chosen an audacious book in which inventiveness explores belief. It is, as the author says, ‘a novel which will make you believe in God’ — or ask yourself why you don’t.”

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