*** Spoiler Alert – This article is an analysis of the book and essentially goes far beyond revealing the story/plot. If you haven’t read the book (or) seen the movie and intend to do either.. PLEASE skip this ****
Published in 2001, Life of Pi is a novel by Yann Martel. After a shipwreck in the pacific ocean, Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel survives 227 days on a life boat stranded with a Bengal tiger.
The tale of Pi is a fresh perspective on faith; a roller coaster ride through some of the elemental and potent instincts of life. A journey that traverses fun, frolic, innocence, shock, loss, denial, disbelief, grief, barbarism, fear, terror, despair, exhaustion, persistence, friendship, adventure, hope, mysteries, miracles, realization, bliss and not the least – faith.
The adventure unravels in three parts/acts; each covering significant ground. Put in a very crass manner; first part scratches the surface of the concept. The second covers the breadth and the third sinks in deep.
Act 1: THE CALM – (Author calls it ‘Toronto and Pondicherry’)
The plot in the first part of the book is generous and is set in the coastal Indian city of Pondicherry. The story emphasizes on two important aspects of Pi’s childhood; the two powerful belief systems that will guide him through the ordeal to come.
Animals and Zookeeping: Yann Martel is renowned for employing animals and their instincts as metaphors to dissect human behavioral patterns. In this part of the book, author talks about the nature of animals and zoo being a stable ecosystem (contrary to popular belief). However dangerous and unpredictable, mutual fear can establish a self sustaining relationship between man and the beast.
Spiritual unity and religious pluralism: The protagonist is a follower of 3 popular religions – Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. This part of the story introduces the basic belief system in all the three religions. The author finds common ground in the three religions and pitches for the viability of religious pluralism. The larger objective here is to prepare the readers to see the miracles in life from a religion-neutral perspective.
Act 2: The ordeal (The author calls it ‘The Pacific Ocean’)
Pi is the lone survivor of a shipwreck. He is stranded on a lifeboat with 4 animals. An injured zebra, a female Orangutan, a wicked hyena and a terrifying Bengal Tiger. First the hyena devours the Zebra organ-by-organ while it is still alive and then kills the defenseless Orangutan too. Pi senses a threat t his own life but just in the nick of time, the Bengal Tiger (named Richard Parker) springs to life and kills the hyena.
The second part of the book is the longest and follows Pi’s ordeal across the mightiest of oceans with the most unlikeliest of companions. The plot here elaborates on the groundwork laid in the first. While the first act of the book introduces the reader to miracles and spirituality; the second tests it.
The two go through an unbelievable ordeal across the pacific ocean. This part of the tale is really about Pi realizing the elemental instincts of life and coming to terms with it. In this framework of endless space and time, the author draws upon the readers the paired extremities extremities of human nature. The most prominent being the co-existence of Fear-Hope. Fear drives hope and asserts a sense of purpose to life and assigns meaning to the things one does.
Pairs of related extremities that Pi learns in his journey
- Bright and Dark (day/night)
- Heat / rains
- Feast / Starvation
- Calm Sea / High tides
- Overwhelming vastness of the sea / Suffocated in the tiny life boat
- Boredom / terror
- Courage / helplessness
- Celebration / depression
“When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling.” – Life of Pi (Pg 5)
“Oncoming death is terrible enough, but worse still is oncoming death with time to spare. You see with utter lucidity all that you are losing.” – Life of Pi (pg 147)
The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity; it’s envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can.” – Life of Pi (Pg 6)
In short, the second part talks about confronting fear and living with adversities while the two sail through miracles of life.
Act 3: the realization (Author calls it ‘The Infirmary’)
This is the most interesting part of the book. This is precisely where the book becomes more than just a story.
Pi and Richard Parker make it to land after a miraculous journey (spanning 227 days) that the world would not believe possible. As soon as the boat hits the land, Richard Parker vanishes into the woods, never to be seen again. Pi finds himself explaining to a fact-finding committee the possible reasons for shipwreck and his journey from there. In spite of Pi’s best efforts, the committee does not believe in this story for two reasons.
- The tale is not verifiable through facts
- The tale does not conform to logical reasoning
The committee, in reality represents the vast majority of people living a life of preconceived realities and impossibilities. The reason is only a function of known knowledge. Our understanding of the world and its governing forces is constrained and only limited to known knowledge. Is it then correct to categorize everything that is incomprehensible as impossible?
Many aspects and incidents in life are beyond reason and logic. Not everything in life can be verified and reasoned out. What do you do when you witness the incomprehensible-unknown in life?
in order to satisfy the fact-verifying committee, Pi narrates an alternate version of the story. A version that is the exact opposite of the first. In this version, the animals are replaced with humans and miracles by acts of horror and barbarism. Both the versions are equally unverifiable yet the reader/fact-verifying committee has to choose one among them.
The book raises the following question. How would you like to understand the incomprehensible-unknown? Without verifiable facts and logic, what do you choose to believe are the driving the forces of life?
Since it makes no factual difference and either versions cannot be verified, which version of the story do you believe in?
In other words, what do you CHOOSE to BELIEVE? FAITH or FEAR ?
The gentlemen hearing the story decide to go with the story involving animals and miracles. Pi Patel says, “Thanks you. And so it goes with the god.”