Montana State University welcomed its new freshman class Thursday in spectacular fashion, with academic pomp, the award-winning author of “Life of Pi” and even a real tiger.

Roughly 6,000 students, MSU staff and community members gathered in the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse for the 2013 Freshman Convocation.

President Waded Cruzado told students that she and more than a dozen MSU leaders came in their academic robes, usually worn only at graduation, “so you can see the end in sight.” Cruzado urged freshmen in the Class of 2017, who are expected to set a new enrollment record, to make the choice to graduate.

Professional magician Jay Owenhouse, a 1990 MSU graduate, kicked off the event by making a young 300-pound tiger appear on stage.

The tiger was a tribute to Canadian author Yann Martel, winner of the Man Booker prize, whose novel “Life of Pi” has sold 7 million copies and inspired an Academy Award-winning film.

Martel, 50, said at the heart of the novel is a choice. The book tells the story of a shipwrecked boy from India, Pi, who survives more than 200 days at sea by sharing a small lifeboat with a tiger, after his family and all their other zoo animals have perished.

It's a fantastic story that skeptical investigators refuse to believe. So Pi tells them a different version of how he survived, a more believable but more horrifying story of murder and cannibalism.

“Which is the better story?” Pi asks, and the investigators agree it's the story with animals. “And so it is with God,” Pi answers.

Martel said his journey to writing the novel began when he was a college freshman in Canada and discovered philosophy. He loved it, loved sharpening the skills of reason and “the thrill of being rational.” But as he started writing books, he discovered he was so good at being reasonable, “I was drying up on the inside.”

He went to live in “wild and crazy” India because it was cheaper for a writer. It ended up changing his life.

For the first time he encountered animals everywhere – crows, elephants, monkeys – and religions everywhere – temples, mosques, churches, festivals, holy men.

Raised in a secular family and secular country, he had always been dismissive of religions. In India, he began studying the Hindus, Muslims and other people of faith. Why do people keep believing when it's not rational, he wondered. Eventually he fell in love with religious seekers, and invented the character of Pi as one of them.

“Life of Pi” is, Martel said, “a cry to stop being so reasonable, to make a leap of faith.”

That doesn't mean to be crazy and it doesn't require believing in God, but it does mean finding a passion, he told students. “The worst thing you can do is to be faithless.”

Martel's other advice to students was to read books. It was the same advice he tried to give Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who he considered “a tight little man … George Bush-lite.” Martel sent the prime minister a book and a letter every two weeks.

“Every time you read a book, you live an extra life,” Martel told students. Books can open you up, he said, “expand your life, make you a wiser, more fragile human being.”

And with that, the students and audience gave Martel a standing ovation.

Martel will speak at the community room of the Bozeman Public Library Friday at 9 a.m. The event is free and open to the public.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

Correction

An earlier version of this story misidentified Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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