One recent morning, Rajiv Surendra was waiting to meet the man who changed his life. He’d travelled from New York, where he lives, to Toronto, where he was born and raised, and was currently, and patiently, sitting in a quiet boardroom in a downtown office building. “I didn’t sleep last night,” he said, although it wasn’t on account of nerves, necessarily, but an “overwhelming feeling of happiness and excitement.” He’d been looking forward to this day for more than a decade and Surendra, dressed in tan khakis and a brown striped cardigan, spoke quickly, as if this would make the moment arrive that much sooner.
Voices were heard outside in the hall, followed by a knock at the door, and then the man whom Surendra described as his “guru,” the Canadian novelist Yann Martel, walked into the room.
“Nice to meet you,” said Surendra, and the men exchanged an awkward hug, like a couple set up on a blind date; Surendra had even brought Martel a present – a bar of goat’s milk soap he’d crafted himself.
To understand how the two men arrived at this moment, travel back 13 long years, to 2003. Surendra, then a struggling young actor, had just been cast as rapping mathlete Kevin Gnapoor in Mean Girls, the now-cult teen comedy. During a break from filming, a cameraman told Surendra, somewhat eerily, “You’re in the book I just finished.”
Later that day, Surendra bought a copy of Martel’s Life of Pi, a purchase that altered the course of his life and eventually led to Surendra’s own book, his memoir The Elephants in My Backyard, which arrives in bookstores next week.
It’s not uncommon to say a book changed your life. It’s also not uncommon, while reading a novel, to connect with one of the characters, to feel they are you. But what Surendra experienced, flipping through Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, about a 16-year-old boy set adrift on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific, with only a Bengal tiger for company, was something more profound, almost transcendent. Surendra was Pi. The parallels were numerous: Both Surendra and the narrator, Pi Patel, were Tamil; Pi eventually enrolls at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, which Surendra attended at the time; both teens were fixated on religion as children; Pi grows up in a zoo, while Surendra’s childhood home backed onto the Toronto Zoo. (“It was kind of creepy,” Surendra said.) When he learned, a short time later, that the novel was being turned into a movie – M. Night Shyamalan was originally slated to direct – Surendra made it his mission to land the lead role: “I was sure that there was no one else more perfect than me for this part.” The quixotic quest that followed, which lasted the better part of a decade and took him to India and back, is chronicled in his memoir.
Which brings us back to the meeting. Martel, who’d recently finished the book, was in Toronto for eye surgery and the International Festival of Authors, and Surendra, 30, who lives in Manhattan, had arranged to fly up and meet him. (They are both published by imprints of Penguin Random House Canada.) Now, there they were, sitting side by side. For Surendra, it was a chapter of his life that he could now close.
“This is kind of like life tying a little bow on the box,” he said.
Although this was the first time they met, it was not the first time they’d spoken; indeed, they had been in contact for years, mostly via e-mail. When Surendra first learned about the film adaptation, he sought out Martel.
“I can’t remember – did you call me?” Martel asked.
“Yeah, I called you. I went on Yahoo and found that you were doing a residency [in Saskatoon, where Martel now lives with his wife and four children]. I thought, I’m just going to call and see what happens.”
Martel, as it happened, was in his office that day. He answered the phone, and, far from hanging up, listened as this complete stranger explained all the similarities he shared with Martel’s fictional creation, and told him his plans to seek the role of Pi. Graciously, Martel offered to e-mail Surendra a lengthy letter he’d sent Shyamalan, outlining his thoughts on the potential movie, in hopes it would help the young actor, marking the beginning of a correspondence which has lasted to the present day.
The majority of The Elephants in My Backyard details the lengths to which Surendra went to land the role of Pi. They ranged from the practical – he learned to swim; he interviewed people who’d survived long periods alone at sea – to the outlandish – Surendra dropped out of school, and moved to Pondicherry, the southeastern Indian city where Pi spends his childhood, even going so far as to enroll in Petit Seminaire, the school that Pi attends in the novel. But as the years went on, and the film was passed from director to director, like a book – Shyamalan to Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Jeunet to Ang Lee – Surendra was eventually forced to accept the fact that, no matter how badly he worked for it, he might never have the chance to play Pi.
“It went from six months to six years. And at the end of four, five years, that’s when I started thinking, ‘What am I going to do if they do cast somebody else? Will I even be able to handle this? Will I fall apart?’ I didn’t know. But I’d come so far that I figured I might as well keep going.”
It’s not giving away the ending to reveal that Surendra did not get the role – it went to an unknown Indian actor, Suraj Sharma – but this, in a way, makes the book that much more interesting.
“His story is the story of everyone trying to find out who they are, and how to get there,” Martel said. “It’s a story that exemplifies, in some ways, Pi’s story. He didn’t get the role, but, in a sense, he lived the story.”
These days, Surendra mainly works as an artist – he’s a potter and a painter, a professional calligrapher and has built a thriving business as a chalk artist (his work can be found all over Toronto). He still goes out for the occasional audition, from time to time, and has already made one thing clear to his agent.
“If they sell the film rights, the one condition is no one else is playing me.”Report Typo/Error