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Magical Story, Real Implications

October 2004
Magical Story, Real Implications

Piscine Molitor Patel. A Gujarati boy as created by a Spanish author. Pi believes and practices Islam, Hinduism and Christianity. And Martel weaves a magical story on how he uses all this and more to ride a tiger.

"Life of Pi" By Yann Martel


"Jesus, Mary, Muhammad and Vishnu. I saw a sight that will stay with me for the rest of my days. Richard Parker had risen and emerged." When you stumble across such sentences you know you're in the hands of a masterful storyteller. The story was apparently inspired by the true-life incident of a young boy who was adrift on a boat off the Tamil Nadu coast for two weeks before fishermen discovered him and brought him back to land.

Yann Martel gives us the story of Piscine Molitor Patel, a Gujarati boy named after a Parisian swimming pool and self-christened as Pi. The book is written as the adult Pi's recollection of his life this far as told to the writer researching his story. The first part tells us about Pi's early life, his childhood as he spent it in Pondicherry, where his father owned a zoo. This proximity to animals gives Pi the knowledge that animals are creatures of habit who become content once their needs are met.

As he enters his teen years, Pi becomes a devout member of Islam, Christianity and his own native Hinduism, exhilarated by the practice of the rituals of all three religions. He is content in his newfound sense of spirituality. One of the most amusing parts of the novel is the heated argument that ensues amongst his three religious priest-mentors who belittle each other's faith upon discovering that Pi is multi-religious.

When Pi turns 16 his parents decide to immigrate to Canada. Tragedy strikes as the Japanese cargo ship Tsimtsum sinks on the high seas along with Pi's family. He is stranded in the middle of the Pacific with a 450-pound royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, a hyena, an orangutan, and a zebra with a broken leg. Within a week's time the mortally afraid Pi discovers that the power play between the animals has taken its inevitable course, resulting in the tiger becoming his only companion at sea. The 227-day struggle that ensues comprises the second half of the book. Pi is more than egalitarian in his principles when he catches food as he always gives the bigger portion to Richard Parker. To avoid becoming hunted, the vegetarian Pi transforms himself into an omnivorous hunter who is ready to kill anything to feed Richard Parker and himself. He is forced to abandon all humanly traits and attacks anything with the savagery of a starved animal. His resourcefulness in keeping the tiger at bay by feeding and gaining control over him enables Pi to acquire survival skills, which he may not have otherwise acquired if the tiger had drowned along with everyone else on the ship.

While Pi develops a kind of fondness for Richard Parker, he is careful enough to keep his distance. The fascinating episode where he gains control of the tiger through the use of Pavlovian techniques is an example of Pi's determination, tenacity, and powers of endurance. Using food for bait, a turtle shell as his shield, and a whistle for control, he is ultimately successful in keeping the tiger at bay. In Pi's relationship with Richard Parker, the author seems to be saying that lessons drawn from negotiation and control of an enemy are perhaps more valuable than its outright destruction.

During the saga, violent storms, sharks, and a perpetual lack of food frequently threaten Pi's life. He becomes weak and despondent and uses his spiritual beliefs to anchor himself. Adherents of religious dogma may be affronted by his transformation of rituals such as solitary Masses without priests, acts of devotion to Allah oblivious of Mecca's direction, and offering of turtle meat as prasad for puja.���Yet, in performing these simple physical acts, Pi finds a measure of succor from the despair of his ever-threatening environment. The author quotes liberally from the Christian, Islamic and Hindu scriptures, and claims that the story can make you believe in God. However, he differentiates between religion and spirituality when he criticizes religious zealots who ignore the plight of the downtrodden, but become frighteningly indignant at the perception of a slight to their God.���������

Pi ends up on an unbelievably beautiful island making the reader believe in the extraordinary. As he savors the bounty of this island, he also begins to discover its deadly treachery, and is forced to resume his quest for land. In this multi-layered story, Yann Martel weaves together elements of fable, fantasy, and gut-wrenching realism into a magical tale that forces you to re-examine your settled notions about life. One is reminded of the Chinese word ?fan-shen', which means to turn oneself over. In his voyage across the Pacific, Pi Patel turns himself over many times and on many planes, discovering the depths of his being.

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