Life of Pi is the story of a 16-year old Indian boy adrift at sea for 227 days with only a dangerous Bengal tiger for a companion.
Piscine Molitor Patel’s journey, and survival through the use of his wits and sheer determination, is one that grabs you and never lets go. It’s a story that seems both too real and surreal at the same time. Pi (short for Piscine) lives in Pondicherry, India in the late 1970s.
He got his weird handle from a swimming pool in Paris, leading to all sorts of embarrassing school nicknames like “Pissing.” Pi can cope with this only because his spirituality is so intense.
He identifies with Hindu, Muslim and Christian traditions so strongly that he attends all three churches, even as a young boy. “He seems to be attracting religions the way a dog attracts fleas,” his skeptical father says.
This many faiths lead to a hilarious confrontation between three holy men and Pi’s parents at the family zoo. Pi’s father is the proprietor, and he instills in his children a healthy respect, even a fear, of the predatory animals’ potential for violence.
Pi loves to wax philosophical about the inmates: “In many ways, running a zoo is a hotelkeeper’s worst nightmare. Consider that the guests never leave their rooms and they expect not only lodging but full board, receive a constant flow of visitors, some of whom are noisy and unruly.”
In spite of the entire careful back story, we don’t truly begin to know Pi until the disaster at sea which forces him to spend months with a ravenous predator.
The Patel family decides to emigrate to Canada, packing up its motley menagerie on a cargo ship which founders and sinks. Pi is the only human survivor, a reluctant Noah sharing his small lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger incongruously named Richard Parker.
Before too long nature takes its bloody course, the predators eat the prey, and Pi and the tiger are the only ones left on the boat. “We were, literally and figuratively, in the same boat”.
The previously vegetarian Pi soon learns to devour anything even remotely edible, from fish guts to turtle flippers: “A chopped-up mixture of heart, lungs, liver, flesh and cleaned-out intestines sprinkled with fish parts, the whole soaked in a yolk-and-serum gravy, made an unsurpassable, finger-licking thali.” At one point he is so hungry he tries to eat the tiger’s excrement. Almost worse than the constant fear and hunger.
Pi is a strange, dreamy, bookish boy and, though the novel is written in first-person from an adult viewpoint, his world view is unusually sophisticated.
Already he realizes that “the main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart.”
Why these philosophical pronouncements don’t clang like cowbells is a bit of a mystery, but surely it attests to the author’s grace, skill and charm in getting his ideas across and making his main character likable.