Life of Pi by Yann Martel

An imposing Bengal Tiger sitting on the hull of a boat, with a frail, young boy standing on the stern, looking fearlessly into the eyes of dreadful tiger!

As I stared fixedly on the unusual cover page of Life of Pi by Yann Martel, I felt an irresistible attraction towards it. Perhaps, fear has its own convoluted charm. I was curious to find out more about the relation between this man and the tiger. Was it a pet or a trained circus animal? What were the two of them doing on a boat? Was it part of some training? But, how could a sane person even think of going into deep sea with a wild tiger for company?

As I searched for a worthy read from the library shelves, Life of Pi mesmerized me with its attractive cover page. I know, one should never judge a book by its cover. But, the visual stimulus often over rides mind’s reason, and before I could think anymore, I simply grabbed the book and ran towards my home to read this promising story of a homeless wanderer.

life-of-pi-yann-martelLife of Pi is written or rather documented by Yann Martel on behalf of a Pondicherry boy, who has a strange name and a stranger story to tell. Pi was born in Pondicherry in the home of a zoo owner, and was labeled at his birth itself for great adventures (read, misadventures) as his uncle Adirubasamy gave him an unusual name Piscine, after the great Olympiad swimming pool. However, little did anyone know that the famed name would become a curse for the poor boy. For the greater part of his childhood, other boys made fun of his name, calling him Pissing Patel and barred him from enjoying a normal childhood.

However, Piscine was born for much greater sufferings, and so he overcomes this minor naming problem by giving himself a cool mathematical name – Pi.. But, he hardly had any idea that the name was just a precursor to the vicious struggles that were to follow. To cut a long story short, a sudden turn of events forced Pi’s father to close the Zoo and move to Canada with his family and animals. However, their ship Tsimtsum gets caught in rough weather, and the entire Patel clan is wiped out, leaving the sole survivor Pi in a bizarre predicament. While grieving for his lost family, he finds himself marooned on a life boat in the company of a vicious Hyena, an injured Zebra, a female Orangutan and an unpredictable Bengal Tiger!

Watching wild animals in cages, from a safe distance may be amusing, but being face to face with them in an open boat can be anything but joyous. And, as Pi finds himself in a tricky situation, where he has to not only feed himself, but also take care of the tiger like a good keeper, lots of questions crossed my mind. Will Pi ever be able to land on terra firma or is this the end of his life? Will he become a muted prey to the fascinating predators of his Zoo or will the survival instincts take over the religious spirit? As I read on, I found myself going deeper and deeper and was engrossed in the 379 pages of this fabulous maritime adventure of a castaway!

They say, Well begun is half done, and it is quite true for Life of Pi. Yann Martel begins the story right in his author’s note, placed at the very beginning of the novel, where he sets the stage of the story by telling the readers about how he hit upon the idea of writing the story of Pi, a story that made him believe in God. I do not know whether the story is real or imaginary, but it does smack of realism hidden beneath the garb of fantasy.

More than anything, I loved the way Yann Martel played on words and names. His protagonist Piscine ( the word literally means ‘pertaining to fish’) survives among the schools of fishes and sharks in the midst of Pacific Ocean for a whooping 227 days, living as a fish would do, adapting himself to shallow and deep recesses of life.

As he rechristens himself as Pi, an infinite number, he exchanges his fate for an unending struggle as well. Pi is so desperate to find something concrete and definite in his life, as opposed to the continuous whirlwind his life has transformed into, that he requests the author to complete his life story in exact 100 chapters.

Similarly, the Bengal Tiger, humorously named as Richard Parker, a name fit only to be bestowed upon humans, does prove to be a worthy companion for Pi, the only living soul he could count upon. I also liked the fantastic island, Yann created as a utopia, but which was in reality nothing more than a dangerous carnivorous mirage. Yann’s strategy to give a fantastical angle to a routine castaway story really worked for me. Then, even in climax, there was a play on the exchange of names of town, where Pi lands. This confusion is in fact symbolic of Pi’s ambiguous life. So, in a way Yann regularly gives hint of what to expect, but is still able to maintain the suspense and drama till the very end.

However, as nothing is perfect, the book does have some shortcomings, especially the cruel detailed descriptions of killing and hunting of fishes, turtles and birds, that I found a bit too depressing. I do understand that a man can adjust to anything, depending upon circumstances. A pure vegetarian may be converted into a gluttonous carnivore, but there was hardly a need to give gory specifications about heads being severed, guts being butchered and scales being peeled. What I found most ironical was that Pi, who himself indulged in ruthless killing was revolted by the carnivorous adaptation of an algae. Perhaps, man can only accept changes within himself.

But, despite my revulsion towards goriness, I could hardly put down the book, because Yann has created a wonderful mix of awe and humor. In fact, Life of Pi is a kind of book, where you want to re-read it, the minute you have finished it. Because there are so many covert hints and cryptic clues that you simply missed while reading it for the first time. The italicized paraphrases, which were actually Yann’s personal observations of Pi’s life definitely fall in this category. Book is quite engrossing and engaging and I found myself devouring it at break neck speed.

Life of Pi is riddled with wisdom one liners, I would enlist a few in Pearls of Wisdom. It is largely philosophical, but it does have its moments of humor, be it Pi’s insightful thoughts on animals’ social hierarchy or the funny description of his teacher’s physical attributes.

And, to give due credit to the author, he has sketched the character of Pi in a multidimensional way. Some incidents leave a long lasting impression on our minds, so much so that those experiences begin to govern our choices. Something similar happens with Pi as well, he who suffered at the hands of animal and nature, becomes a student of Zoology and Religious Studies. The association of God or rather Gods of Hindus, Muslims and Christians had begun right in the childhood of Pi as he tries to assimilate the good of all religions in his little soul. But, as he completes his voyage, his meaning towards life also undergoes a transformation.

As Pi Patel artfully juggles with Zoology and Religious Studies at the University of Toronto, so does the premise of the novel, walking on a razor thin line between informative display of animal behavior in Zoo and divulging the intricacies of Hindu religion, oscillating between the seas of Saguna and Nirguna.

Yann Martel is smitten with religion. In fact, I liked his play of words in the instance when Pi’s French aunty misinterprets ‘Harekrishna’ as ‘Hairless Christian’, and the young boy jokingly calls Muslims as Bearded Hindus and Christians as Hat wearing Muslims. Indeed, religion is man made, the differences are all superficial, with all humans being similar in their outlook and appearance. However, too much of anything is bad, and even Yann’s continuous references to religion, did slow down the pace of the novel.

Pi’s secret affectation for Hinduism, Islam and Christianity at the same time, also created some humorous episodes in the novel. However, it was quite serious in its import, as it exposed Pi’s lack of trust in one thing or idea. As I read in Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, he was also assailed by similar doubts and at one time, seriously thought of changing his religion. Yann Martel does seem inspired by Gandhi, be it in his preaching on religion or non violence.

So, in a nut shell, Life of Pi is a take on life, religion and nature, as seen through the eyes of a young boy. At times, it resembled Alchemist, and at other times, reminded me of Robin Sharma’s ‘Monk who sold his Ferrari’. But, as I read on, the sheer originality took over. This Man Booker Prize winner is surely a worthy read, written by a foreign author, yet very Indian in spirit!

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