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A silhouette of elands grazing in the plains with raising sun in the background inside Mas
  • Writer's pictureBryce Chismire

Life of Pi - Novel

As a movie buff, I remember expressing a general disinterest in reading books throughout my school years until I stumbled into The Catcher in the Rye during high school. Its themes of adolescence and the flaws/inevitably of adulthood resonated deeply within me and became my all-time favorite book since.

 

The more I looked back at my school years, however, there was one more novel that I cherish and would describe as my close-second favorite book. Not only might I have run into this book before The Catcher in the Rye wowed me, but at an age where my disinterest in reading still took hold, this was one of those books I voluntarily read and not as a reading assignment. After reading such assigned books as Tuck Everlasting for 5th Grade and The Outsiders in middle school, my inner urge to selectively read what appealed to me slowly emerged.

 

All it took to cement it for me were two books that caught my interest. The first one is Sarah Weeks' So B. It, which chronicles the story of a young girl who goes on a cross-country trip from Nevada to track down her ancestors in New York City.

 

The second one, which was what I was building up to and that stuck with me for years afterward, was this book: Life of Pi.

 

The story, set in the mid-to-late 70s, is about a young Indian boy named Piscine Molitor Patel, who lived with his family in Pondicherry, India, and helped run a zoo with them. He was named after a famous swimming pool in Paris, France, but he was mocked by his peers in school for having such an innuendo-like name. Because his name was Piscine, he was often misnamed 'Pissing' Patel. He decided to do something about it by having them remember him by a different name. I'll give you a hint here.

 

 

As we can tell from the title, Piscine decided to have his peers remember him by the numeric value. It got to a point where, every time he was introduced in class, he stepped up and drew a demonstration of the number and its circumferential ratio on the chalkboard.

 

Fortunately for him, the nickname stuck.

 

On the side, Pi veered towards living a religious life, extending beyond being a devout Hindu. His experiences with Father Martin in a Christian church in the mountains of Munnar and a baker named Satish Kumar, who lived in a Muslim village across the street from the zoo, opened Pi's eyes bit by bit to the values to be gained from believing in Christianity and Islam. Each teaching drew Pi in, and his devotion to practicing all three religions aroused controversy and debate, even among his parents, about the possibility of him believing in all three religions when he should stick to just one.

 

Then, the story got started when Pi, his family, and even their fellow zoo animals set sail across the Pacific Ocean in a Japanese cargo ship called the Tsimtsum to move to Canada. However, in the middle of her trek, the Tsimtsum went through a major catastrophe and went down into the sea, leaving Pi stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat. For the rest of his journey, Pi had to fend for himself and find some food from the sea. But he wasn't alone, for he had companions on his journey. Among them were a wounded zebra, an erratic and hungry hyena, and a sensible orangutan that Pi recognized from his family's zoo nicknamed Orange Juice, who, I might add, arrived to him on a floating island of bananas. I still think it might have come from the Tsimtsum's cargo bay; how else would the bananas and Orange Juice have arrived together in the middle of the ocean like this?

 

But the one that stuck with Pi through thick and thin during his time in the ocean: a 450-pound adult male Bengal tiger named Richard White. As all but Pi and Richard Parker died off either out of pain, starvation, or being eaten alive, they both had to devise every clever conceivable way to fend off hunger and snag themselves some food to go by. They also noticed a locker full of survival supplies and food that came with the lifeboat and would have lasted them up to at least a few months.

 

Would they have found a way to cross the ocean and onto land soon enough? And might Pi and Richard Parker have developed a close friendship as they went? Or would the tiger have succumbed to starvation himself and claimed Pi as his next meal? More importantly, how would Pi's teachings back home in India have helped him and his feline boatmate in the most treacherous times?


© Tomislav Torjanac

Like I said, I remember reading this during high school English, when things started to mellow down for me and my classmates regarding our teachings. Either that, or I was in between classes and resting before heading to my next one. But I remember noticing a copy of Life of Pi stashed among the other books in the classroom, and I decided to sneak a peek at a few pages of the story just out of curiosity. Of course, this is one of those moments where I learned never to judge a book by its cover. As I concentrated on the story and what was being said along the way, the way the story was written just had me transfixed despite not understanding everything outside of Pi's religious devotions. I even remember when I took the book along with me because I was that hooked on the book, and I mean during one of my family trips when I wasn't at school. As I dug further along, I became more interested in Pi's journey, whether in India or across the Pacific Ocean. Once I reached where Pi had to escape the Tsimtsum and fend for himself, only then did I acknowledge how he got to that point and how dire the situation was. It's a good thing the lifeboat came with the locker full of goodies to help Pi and Richard Parker through their ordeal in the Pacific Ocean. Pi even made a complimentary raft from the oars and materials the locker supplied him with.

 

One of the critical factors of the story that drew me in back then, as it does now, is the atmosphere.

 

In the beginning and ending portions of the novel, the conditions felt very realistic, with Pi finding himself in civilized society as he reflected on his experiences in minute detail. But there's just something about the atmosphere, like when Pi was stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the sole lifeboat, that felt all-encompassing. The section of the novel that consisted of Pi and Richard Parker fending for food and water out in the Pacific Ocean took up much of the story. Yet, it was conveyed with so much detail and so speedily in its experiential values. It was all portrayed most expansively, tranquilly, and with a borderline dreaminess that made me eat it up.

 

When I read this book for the first time, I liked the idea of a boy and a tiger sharing a lifeboat together. Because I had no idea what the story was before I leaped in, I expected it to feel equivalent to watching a boy and his dog bond over time, and I thought the same could be said about Pi and Richard Parker. Because then I would have liked to see what kind of companionship they could have developed during their ordeals together.

 

But as I reread the book, the question was not about what kind of friends Pi and Richard Parker could've been, but whether that could've been possible. For all the time Richard Parker shared with Pi on the lifeboat, I wondered whether he would also have succumbed to starvation and eaten Pi off, so it made the outcome feel more unpredictable than I anticipated. It wasn't just Pi who tried to survive, but Richard Parker, too. Even if Pi did the lion's share, so to speak, of hunting for himself and Richard Parker, I can still tell they both tried to look for some food in any way possible. So, it left me curious whether they could ever have worked together so they could’ve pulled through and found any tactics necessary to swim across the Pacific Ocean and track down some nearby land. And whenever Pi and Richard Parker shared the same light bulb and tried to work into each other's comfort zone, it kept me hooked as I witnessed Pi conjuring some clever methods to get himself and Richard Parker alive, healthy, and well-fed without any harm to befall either of them.


© Tomislav Torjanac

Throughout the story, however, I found myself transfixed by the book for several more reasons than these.

 

One is the writing. As I said, there's a particular vividness and rhythm that seemed so flowing, natural, and luscious that it continually drew me into what was going on in the book, whether I understood all that was being said or what went on through Pi's recollections or not. Yann Martel's sense of prose was just exquisite, and even if I understood it all more now than I did as a high schooler, the effects it left on me as I experienced the story as he told it was undeniable.

 

Two were Piscine Patel's background and current predicaments. Everything that Pi experienced, learned, or endured during his time in India or the Pacific Ocean was enough for me to want to learn more about him and how he practiced what he liked to do or learned about certain things that struck his fancy.

 

Outside of the traditionalism apparent throughout the country, I find the Indian culture most appealing. I also liked how humble and low-key the Patel family seemed, especially when managing something as extensive as a zoo full of wild animals. Pi developed an astounding sense of zoological know-how thanks to his commitment to his family's line of business back in India. Plus, Pi's father's political allegiances were intriguing, too, because as traditional as India is, it had also been subject to questionable and unhealthy aggression and an untidiness of balance apparent throughout that made India look like it was tainted by perpetual poverty if not inconsistent hygiene.

 

Watching Pi want to believe in God by following more than one religion at a time is deep, even if it stemmed from pure naivete on his end. As a young kid, I found it admirable because of how Pi expressed his intrigue and fascination with the three religions based on their practices. But as I reread Pi's decisions to follow all three religions simultaneously, I took it as…

 

How did My So-Called Life put it at one point?



Bingo. In Pi's case, I can tell he was devoted to being Christian and Muslim outside of being just Hindu because there's an element in each religion that he could not help but agree with despite still being primarily Hindu first and foremost. Even though I am a devout Catholic, I have come to acknowledge that every religion, outside of being established with its own set of rules, came to be under the foundations that called back to methods of practice seen as cleansing to the mind and soul of whoever practiced it. It's all a matter of perspective. Buddhism teaches about maintaining calmness and inner peace. Islam was built upon the teachings of Muhammad, which, despite sharing many things in common with them, are separate from those of Jesus Christ. These are among a couple of examples I can think of as to how religions function separately from others and how none of them are unfounded.

 

This knowledge also makes me look at religious wars as if they have all functioned with unforeseen futility. All they’ve been doing is waging war on each other under the fundamental beliefs that they held on to for so long. And for what? To convince other people that the religion under which they abide is the only religion to believe in, as they see their belief in it as equaling truth? That’s what makes me look at such ongoing wars with confusion.

 

That's another reason why I look at Pi Patel's fondness for Hinduism, as well as both Christianity and Islam, with a shred of respect. I like how he can see what common threads can be found between the three religions and follows them devoutly without discriminating against one religion or the other because, in his experience, he can see such threads and an element of foundational values to be appreciated from each religion.

 

Sometimes, I keep thinking back to some of Pi's random acquaintances, like Father Martin and Satish Kumar, as serendipitous signs that Pi was so keen to not take for granted because of how each experience introduced him to new avenues of life that he had not considered before learning more about each religion with them. But I believe it was his adventures on the Pacific Ocean with Richard Parker where the character and author's devotion to God started to shine through. Pi's ways of relaying his experiences as he did made me believe that he might have seen God when he least expected it, but not in ways that are obvious in plain sight or may be caught on to right away.

 

As for the characters, there may only be a few to list off since they didn't have much involvement in the story outside of Pi.


© Tomislav Torjanac

Father Martin and Satish Kumar seemed like decent and respectable people who expressed their religious upbringing while teaching Pi how their religions work. However, Satish Kumar felt like a unique case because, rather than being a spiritual leader, he was a baker who made what was traditionally Islamic bread. However, they each expressed how they were not without some level of insecurity and even bias. For example, when they met up with Pi at the same time, they and Pi's family's Hindu leader argued over what could have gone through Pi's head to be so equally devoted to Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam all at once. Outside of being bewildered and perplexed by what they thought was incoherent and unfocused religious devotions from Pi, they bickered against each other regarding what they considered proper religious practices in India. So, they were devoutly religious men, but their practices and awareness of Pi's religious devotion tended to be the source of conflict, even if Pi didn't mean it.

 

As for Pi's family, Pi's brother Ravi was a bit of a boisterous brother who constantly nagged at Pi with his usual annoying tactics as any sibling would have done to their other siblings. But I think he had a bit of an understanding side that I admire. For example, when Pi was made fun of for his full name before he introduced his classmates to the nickname that he preferred to be called by, his brother voluntarily told him that his secret was safe with him.

 

As for Pi's mother, Gita, I don't remember very much being told about her. But she felt very tender and understanding of Pi's dilemmas, especially when he contemplated his religious devotions.

 

However, it's Pi's father, Santosh, who I found the most fascinating because of not only how indifferent he was towards religion but also how his responsibilities as a zookeeper made him acutely aware of some of the animals' upbringings, their animalistic instincts, and what effects they could have against each other. I can see that he was rough around the edges but still had his family's best interests at heart and was willing to uphold his end of the family reputation no matter what it took, even if it meant selling off the Pondicherry Zoo as they departed from India into Canada.

 

But the rest of the story clearly belongs to Piscine Patel.

 

Everything about the story was a simple exposition of his life back home, what and who he held dear after learning more about his religious practices, and the zoological instincts he picked up on from his father and his time with the animals in the Pondicherry Zoo. Among his experiences was a too-close-for-comfort encounter with a tiger that forced his father to demonstrate why tigers are dangerous by feeding one of their livestock, a pet goat, for the tiger to have as his next lunch.

 

Even as Pi talked about the marine wildlife in the Pacific Ocean, his reminiscences made me look at them with utmost fondness and appreciation just for the mere simplicity of them being what they are. They included the herd of flying fish, the Dorados that Pi eventually caught for himself and Richard Parker, and especially the underwater community he noticed during the broad nighttime. What Pi remembered when he peeked down at the Pacific Ocean to see its underwater activity consisting of the phosphorescent planktons and fish scattering about in its green glow, I still can’t think of it without being awestruck by the more beauteous and unnoticeable activities any wildlife could’ve done beneath anyone’s noses, especially his and Richard Parker’s, at that moment in time.

 

But as Pi became the sole survivor of the Tsimtsum cargo ship, watching him grapple with the circumstances he was now a part of and assess how to best survive alongside the zebra, Orange Juice, the hyena, and especially Richard Parker demonstrates how he had to put all that he picked up on back home to good use, especially if he was to gather food not only for himself but for Richard Parker. You can see his battle of wits coming through with each passing day and night. And I can feel that with each new triumph that he endured, whether it's with making the raft or finding food for himself and Richard Parker. I could tell that it was a huge step up for him in terms of his growth as a human being.


© Tomislav Torjanac

One thing that stuck out to me was when he and Richard Parker were in the middle of a school of flying fish, some of which landed in the lifeboat and one of which flew right into Pi's face and his lap. Knowing that this was a good food source, he tried to be quick on his wits and kill the fish, but having grown up in a zoo, he was hesitant to try. So, Pi quickly bent him and put the fish out of his misery. Regardless, it left Pi mortified at the idea of having killed a live animal, a source of life, with his bare hands, even if he had to do that to keep himself and Richard Parker adequately fed. It is also essential to think about because back home in India, he and his family were vegetarians, which I think was a given, considering how they were running a zoo. So, I can understand how those all challenged Pi as he had to endure what little life he had to endure in the Pacific Ocean as he traveled to find food and water for himself and Richard Parker.

 

Now, if I had to look at Richard Parker on his own, I would say that he acted like any regular tiger would: fierce, unwavering, protective of his territory, and always suspicious of what or who could have trekked onto it. And, yes, there were times when he felt that way with Pi, even when he was looking out for him.

 

And I know what you're thinking: how did a tiger like Richard Parker get what seems like a human name? Here's what happened. A tigress, his mother, attacked a nearby village back home, and a hunter named Richard Parker was sent to track her down. After she was tranquilized, her cub was captured and taken to a zoo, but due to a clerical error, the admission papers got the names mixed up. Whereas Richard Parker was the hunter's name, and it was his idea to nickname the tiger Thirsty, the papers described Thirsty as the hunter and Richard Parker as the tiger.

 

And again, just like that, the nickname stuck.

 

But what added to this novel's reputation as a classic to me, outside of the atmosphere, survival story, and theological aspects, was its legitimacy.

 

SPOILER ALERT

 

At the end of the novel, when Pi was finished telling a couple of Japanese interviewers about his story out in the Pacific Ocean, Pi asked them as they were departing which story they believed more, the one with the animals or the one with the humans. Before then, the entire tale left the Japanese interviewers bewildered and unconvinced that that's what truly happened to Pi on his journey after the Tsimtsum sank. In which case, Pi told them what he believed he could have experienced during his journey in the Pacific Ocean. What he thought were his animal companions on the lifeboat – the zebra, the orangutan, the hyena, and the Bengal tiger – could have been specific individuals he knew in his life who shared likenesses with those who shared his lifeboat with him. He went on about his mother expressing a very loving and nurturing demeanor, and he mentioned feeling the same instincts out of Orange Juice, the orangutan. He also talked about the cook, whom he considered cannibalistic, scrawny, and a little bit unhinged, among other things, and he recalled saying the same thing about the hyena. Plus, he remembered seeing a wounded Taiwanese sailor who was curling up in pain in the lifeboat, similar to the conditions the zebra suffered from. Which leaves Richard Parker, who could’ve been just Pi’s inner strength and courage personified. In this instance, it would've been just the four of them who shared the lifeboat on their arduous journey together until it was only Pi who harbored the lifeboat on his own, for, as he put it, the will of God kept him going strong and alive throughout his solitude. So, considering that this entire story was told from Pi's point of view, there's no telling exactly how much of what he endured in the Pacific Ocean was real or how much of it was just in his imagination.

 

As I see it, the way he told both stories and addressed the connections made me believe that either recount could be credible since they each followed a specific series of circumstances and coincidences that could amount to each event, as Pi told them, being likely to have happened before.

 

However, as Pi relayed his story to the interviewers, he mentioned a couple of events that started to feel too fanciful, and they all occurred during the last leg of Pi's adventures out at sea. At one point, after using up a good chunk of his locker food and supplies, not to mention losing it to a storm, Pi became physically weak and temporarily went blind. Then, he started hearing a voice. At first, Pi thought the voice came from someone else who found him, only to find out that he was in a similar predicament as Pi. It made me imagine a variety of things that could've happened. I wondered if he talked to Richard Parker before finally being convinced that he was talking to himself and then concluding that he was talking to another castaway at sea. This 'friend' seemed like he would've been a good one for Pi, but he suddenly expressed bloodthirsty urges before Richard Parker killed him off.


© Tomislav Torjanac

But it only got weirder. The most fantastical element in the novel occurred when Pi and Richard Parker stumbled into an island, but it was not the kind we usually think of. The island that Pi and Richard encountered was made entirely of algae and trees, with no soil to be found anywhere. As they got more settled, Pi discovered that the algae were rich in nutrients and fresh water and that the island was populated by no other wildlife except meerkats. And as Pi crawled further into the forest, they housed a series of freshwater ponds. Arriving in some of the ponds would have been dead fish, ranging from regular fish to Dorados and even sharks at one point. But as Pi got more comfortable on the island, he suddenly realized how ominous the island turned out to be on the inside when it looked so pleasant and yet strange on the outside.

 

For one thing, the algae he relished by daytime turned acidic at nighttime. And when he looked up at one tree, he noticed what looked like fruit, but when he inspected it, it was nothing more than leaves all strung together. And as he peeled off each leaf, he discovered that inside each fruit was a tooth, a molar.

 

How that came to be, my guess is as good as Pi's.

 

But it convinced him that the island was far from hospitable, so he and Richard Parker fled as soon as possible.

 

Even the Japanese interviewers were utterly taken aback by this story, shutting down the idea that this could have happened. Now, if everything Pi said in the story was true, how would he have come up with something as fanciful as the Algae Island sequence?

 

To me, part of that might have stemmed from what Pi endured during his trek on the ocean. What do I mean by that?


© Tomislav Torjanac

Allow me to explain. What I think might have occurred is that even though Pi had a lot of good food and water to keep him and Richard Parker happy for a while, specifically in the form of the survival locker that he found in the lifeboat, there was only so long he and Richard Parker could have relished on them before having to rely on other methods of finding food and water. After many grueling days of sunshine, rain, heavy storms, and the like, it was when Pi started to feel already close to death when he had what I consider his more fantastical episodes during his trek in the ocean.

 

Do you remember the Pink Elephants on Parade sequence in Dumbo and how it came about because we, as the audience, saw what Dumbo and Timothy did under their drunkenness? I think that's how the more fantastical elements of what Pi saw in his journey came to be. I believe he got to that point after his supply of water and food started to wear thin, and he finally showed signs of malnutrition. It started to kick into full gear when he imagined what he believed could have been there when many logistics may argue otherwise. I believe that everything Pi thought he heard or saw, what with the blind person creeping up into their lifeboat or the Algae Island coming to full view, may have occurred because Pi was telling what he saw to those who were listening, as I have throughout the book. That's why I would not have believed what Pi recounted near the end of his adventures in the Pacific Ocean with Richard Parker except for everything else that came before it, what with him trying to manage the lifeboat to himself while still hunting down any food source that could’ve kept himself and the tiger well-nourished during their trek.

 

For all that could be understood of Pi and Richard Parker's time on the Algae island, it could've been that the island they landed on was real after all, only it wasn't the type of island Pi thought it was. I believe it boils down to the reader's impressions of the story.

 

After rereading Life of Pi, there's a reason it caught on so well to me. I love how cultural, exotic, and spiritual this novel is while remaining grounded about its survival tactics and Pi's life story back home, except when things got too wild to be taken seriously. Everything about the book I admired the first time around still felt magnificent, and everything I didn't think I'd have understood or appreciated about it on the first go became much more apparent to me and only amplified my appreciation for the novel as an adult.

 

I love the ambiguity apparent here, the tranquility and spirituality of the story, and Pi's resilience without him even knowing it. The whole odyssey was just one epic parable of culturally and fancifully unanticipated proportions.

 

Whether on land or at sea, hop on into Pi's life story and relish in all the beauty that comes with it. Yann Martel might've been right to say that this will make you believe in God.

 

My Rating

A



Works Cited


Martel, Y. (2001). Life of Pi: A Novel. Harcourt Books.


Martel, Y. (2007). Life of Pi: The Illustrated Edition (T. Torjanac, Illustrator). Harcourt Books.


“Yakko’s World/Cookies for Einstein/Win Big.” Animaniacs, created by Tom Ruegger, Season 1, Episode 2, Warner Bros. Television Animation and Amblin Entertainment, 1993.

 

“Guns and Gossip.” My So-Called Life, created by Winnie Holzman, Season 1, Episode 3, ABC Productions and The Bedford Falls Company, 1994.

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