Last night, I finished reading Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi.” It made me feel melancholic, reflective, and redeemed all at the same time. The story starts with this premise: that anyone who will hear it will come to believe in God. Whether this story reinforced my belief in the existence of a superior being, I cannot really tell. However, I believe this story is more than an allegory of religion or philosophy, but more than anything else, it is a story of life.
Piscine Molitor Patel or “Pi” grows up in Pondicherry. His father is a zookeeper, and they live an abundant life tending the zoo. His mother is a soft-spoken homemaker who loves books. His brother Ravi is a popular athlete at school. Growing up, Pi comes to know God in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. He is told that he can never be all three but he insists that he “only wanted to love God.” Because of changes in the political situation of the country, his father decides to move the family to Canada. They board a Japanese cargo ship called the Tsimtsum, which sinks halfway through its journey.
Pi survives in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, an orangutan, a zebra with a badly broken leg, and a hyena. The hyena eats the zebra and kills the orangutan by beheading it. Pi builds a raft to escape from the tiger and to catch fish. He survives on emergency supplies and dried and raw fish and sea turtles. Eventually, he trains the tiger to submit to him, so that he himself can stay in the boat. He drifts in the Pacific for 277 days, encountering flying fish, sharks, and dorados, learning to eat raw meat and cigarettes and to use the solar stills for water, meeting a fellow drifter, a French guy, who almost kills and eats him but is eventually killed by Richard Parker himself, and floating into a carnivorous algae island that houses meerkats. He finally drifts into an island in Mexico where people are kind enough to give him food and to bring him to a hospital.
Two Japanese officials from the company that owned Tsimtsum come to visit him to ask about details of the Tsimtsum‘s final hours. They do not believe Pi’s story because of its fantastical elements. So at their request, Pi offers them a second story, where he, his mother, the French cook, and a Taiwanese sailor with a badly broken leg survive on the lifeboat. The French cook is a glutton who eats all the emergency supplies. He then tricks Pi and his mother into helping him saw off the Taiwanese sailor’s rotting leg. Pi’s mother thought they were saving the sailor’s life by not letting the gangrene spread, but instead the blood loss and shock kill him. The French cook then uses the leg as bait and eats the sailor’s dead body. The French cook and Pi’s mother eventually get into a horrible fight which results in the sailor beheading Pi’s mother. After sometime, Pi and the French cook also get into a fight, in which Pi kills the cook and eats him, too.
After telling both stories, Pi then asks the Japanese officials which story they would rather believe, since none of them can be proven anyway. The officials see parallels in his story and decide that the story with the animals is better. Pi tells them, “And so it goes with God” and bids them farewell. They then write their report stating that it’s indeed remarkable for a 16-year-old boy to survive alone in the Pacific in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.
The first story, by itself, made me think that this would be another miracle story, where animals leave behind their natural instincts and that the human being, with his remarkably evolved brain, survives. But the story took me deeper into the meaning of being human, and indeed, as Pi claims later when he becomes a zoologist in the story, the human being is the most dangerous animal of all. But our danger lies in our intelligence — our ability to come up with stories and to believe them. I believe that it is this incredible ability to make memories, crystallize them in our minds as “truths”, and retell them as marvelous tales — this capacity for belief — that makes us utterly, intelligently, and dangerously human.
And yet all this sheer genius of evolution also makes us most vulnerable. I cried after reading the novel, because I believed in the second story. I believed that he made up Richard Parker to mask the truth — that he became Richard Parker, at his very core, a beast, who would kill and resort to cannibalism for survival. I believe that he didn’t make up the story for the Japanese officials but for himself.
I didn’t cry because of this second story though. I cried because I ‘believed’ this second ‘truth.’ What’s the truth? And who’s to say who’s telling the truth? We don’t know. But the truth you believe makes you who you are. And like the Taiwanese sailor with his freshly amputated leg, I was shocked to realize who I am — I am like these Japanese officials who wanted logic to govern the rules of the universe, that carnivorous algae islands don’t exist, and that Bengal tigers couldn’t be tamed by untrained 16-year-olds. This made me think: have I lost my sense of wonder and optimism and vigour for life? have I lost my sense of belief? have I lost God? have I lost myself?
Like I told you at the beginning of this story, I cannot really tell.