Piscine Molitor Patel, or Pi Patel is a a 16-year-old boy who becomes the victim of a shipwreck and survives for 227 days in a lifeboat in the Pacific, accompanied by a spotted hyena, a zebra with a broken leg, a female orang-utan and a 450 – pound Royal Bengal Tiger. That, in itself, makes an interesting story, but what adds to the book’s intrigue is the spiritual subtext that seems to be left open to the reader to interpret. The story itself begins with the words of an old man in Pondicherry, who tells the author “I have a story that will make you believe in God”.
Part 1 sets up the book quite well. Piscine, named after a swimming pool in Paris, manages to get rid of his first nickname and gets himself to be called Pi. The rest of this part is about his growing up in the premises of his family’s zoo in Pondicherry. He learns a great deal about the ways of animals and we get to see the characters that shape his perspectives – his father who swears by reason, his atheist biology teacher, a Catholic priest, a Muslim baker, and to a lesser extent, his mother and his elder brother. He simultaneously becomes a devout practitioner of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, something everyone finds difficult to understand. I wonder if the author felt that such a (relatively) sane setting would constrain a spiritual debate and thus the change in scenery.
Thanks to the uncertain 1970′s, the family decides to relocate to Canada. Tsimtsum, the Japanese steam ship transporting the family and the animals, sinks off the Philippines coast however, with only Pi, a female Orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengali tiger escaping on a twenty-six foot lifeboat. Thus begins the second part ‘Pacific Ocean’, whose initial stages are a savage struggle for survival that ends with two winners – Pi and Richard Parker, the tiger. Pi finally manages to make a raft and set up an alpha-omega relationship with the tiger. The rest of this part is his survival on the sea, as well as his experience with a carnivorous island.
The last part consists of Pi landing up on the shores of Mexico, where Richard Parker leaves without even a goodbye, and then, his interview with the shipping company representatives. When they refuse to believe his story, he offers an alternate story which also sheds some light on the probable subtexts and leaves the reader wondering whether the animals’ story was Pi’s way of dealing with the things he was forced to do.
Our ability to do things we would consider repugnant, when it comes to survival, our need for rituals to bring a sense of order to what happens around us are a couple of themes that I could sense. Richard Parker’s character is probably the side of Pi which he is forced to bring out for survival. The way in which he demarcates their separate areas physically is probably a metaphor for how much Pi would allow it to dictate him.
Pi’s disdain for agnostics is brought out directly early in the book and the flow of the book would indicate that everything we experience is for a reason and is not a random coincidence. Pi would probably like us to believe that there is a higher power that has filled the world with amazing wonders, each of which has its own significance in the order of things.
The carnivorous island/algae is the one I found most intriguing. The algae with the sweet exterior that lures in an unsuspecting victim and then kills it later. I read one account that it was a metaphor for Pi’s pessimism. But I’m not convinced. I wonder if it’s a metaphor for what we cling on to in life. The algae, sweet outside and bitter inside, give us a zest for life, and lures us in. Even the dead fish, which serve as a warning, go unnoticed by us. And in the end, it will just suck us in deeper and eat away our soul. But if like the meerkats, we take up a high ground, or like Richard Parker, come back to a haven, we might keep ourselves safe for a while. (Is that a spiritual high ground?) However, in the end, you would have to leave the island completely if you want to survive.
Like I mentioned, it is the intrigue of demystifying the subtext that will keep you going, even if you find the actual proceedings tedious. A really strange tale indeed, but as Pi asks “What is your problem with the hard to believe?”