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Rajiv Surendra on heartbreak, big dreams and trying to swim

After failing to be cast in his dream role of Pi in Life of Pi, Surendra picked up his pen and wrote about his journey.

Surendra describes his book, The Elephants in My Backyard, as “the Eat, Pray, Love for the millennial generation.”

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Surendra describes his book, The Elephants in My Backyard, as “the Eat, Pray, Love for the millennial generation.”

When Rajiv Surendra was only 12 years old — well before he was cast as the rapping mathlete Kevin Gnapoor in Tina Fey’s cult comedy Mean Girls starring Lindsay Lohan — he took up calligraphy while working as a costumed interpreter at Toronto’s Black Creek Pioneer Village.

It’s an unusual hobby for a young boy, but Surendra has always been something of an old soul.

“I think there’s something so important about looking at the past to understand the future,” Surendra says. “I feel such a connection with a slower, quieter time.”

The key to creating his smooth pen or chalk strokes, Surendra explains, is that it takes not just a steady hand, but use of his full arm, right from his shoulder.

It took years to perfect the craft, which he has now turned into a career; his patience and persistence holding up Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that you need 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill.

Surendra’s obsessive nature and unwillingness to settle also led him on the biggest journey of his life, trying to snag the lead role in the film adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi. His failed quest is at the heart of his memoir, The Elephants in My Backyard, which he refers to as “the Eat, Pray, Love for the millennial generation.”

It was a camera operator on the Mean Girls set who suggested Surendra read Life of Pi, saying, “It’s a book about you.”

Surendra tore through the novel and discovered eerie similarities with Martel’s protagonist. Although he had obviously never survived on an ocean raft with a menagerie of wild beasts like Pi, both were young, thin Tamil men who grew up with animals, and studied at the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College. And so when news broke that a film in the works, Surendra wanted the lead more than anything in his life. He was Pi.

Surendra travelled to India for several months to immerse in the culture. He dove off a cliff and stared a tiger in the eye, but that was not half as frightening as getting in the water. “On the horrible, horrible days when I was so scared in the water and I was hyperventilating and my muscles were seizing, I would tell myself that even if you don’t get this part, all the work and struggling will be worth it because you will know how to swim,” he says.

Meanwhile, the film was also struggling, with revolving directors attached to the project. When director Ang Lee eventually cast unknown Indian actor Suraj Sharma in the part, Surendra was devastated, and took off for Munich for a year to mourn. “After six years of research and dreaming, Pi was a real person to me — it was like he died,” he says.

Eventually Surendra came back to Toronto, and picked up his calligraphy pen again.

“The reason why I was motivated to write this story down is because I learned so much,” he says.

“Hey, if I could embark on something like this, and fail and pick myself up and keep going, then the next big dream or journey won’t be difficult.”