Pi Patel is a kid in Pondicherry, in old French India. His real name is Piscine Molitor; he’s named after a swimming pool in Paris. (“Piscine” is kind of ironic, given the amount of fish he ends up surviving on later.) The first half of the book shows Pi growing up and being interested in religion – not one in particular, but all of them. He becomes a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim. When the local leaders of each faith find out about his infidelities (at least as they see it), they confront him – but he says he just wants to love God. Not much you can say to that. An interesting thought on religious conflict – when people ignore the poor around them, but indignantly defend their religion whenever they perceive a slight, “they should direct their anger at themselves…. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart.”
Pi’s father is a zoo director. Some people are against zoos on principle, because it deprives the animals of their natural freedom. But, as Pi points out, animals don’t care about freedom. They want safety, food, comfort – everything we want, basically. The “freedom” animals have in the wild is an illusion – they are forced to wander over large areas searching for food, constantly in danger of accident, disease, or predators. Zoos are like a modern house – all the necessities of life are close by. If given the choice, animals may well choose a zoo over the wild due to abundance of food and lack of parasites. What would you choose – the Ritz with unlimited free room, board, and medical care or being homeless but “free”?
These thoughts about zoos and religion come together, in a way. Both zoos and religion have fallen out of favor with recent generations — “certain illusions about freedom plague them both.” Religion is like the modern house – everything needed is all in one place. Without it, man must find everything necessary for a balanced mental and spiritual life elsewhere, perhaps via professional counseling, psychiatric medications, and ethics training in schools and workplaces. We all need things that religion provides, but we stubbornly resist the price of faith and devotion, little realizing that an equal if not greater cost may result when we later encounter mental suffering without a lifeline in place.
Pi’s story takes a drastic turn when his father decides to move the family to Canada. They will travel with several of the animals that will be sold to other zoos. Tragically, their cargo ship sinks in the middle of the Pacific. Pi is left alone on a lifeboat with a tiger, a hyena, an injured zebra, and an orangutan. Soon the laws of nature kick in and it’s just Pi and the tiger, a full grown male named Richard Parker. Pi must learn to survive — both from the dangers of the open ocean and also from the tiger. Drawing on his knowledge of animals gained from growing up near the zoo, he “tames” Richard Parker, establishing his place as the alpha male and provider of fish and water. They survive 227 days until they reach the shore of Mexico.
Towards the end of their journey, a few really weird things happen. First, Pi is temporarily blinded and the lifeboat collides with another lifeboat, containing another castaway similarly suffering from temporary blindness. They marvel at the coincidence, but soon the second man misteps and is killed by the tiger. The second weird thing is coming upon a small carnivorous algae island, populated by aquatic meerkats. It seems paradisaical at first, but soon after Pi discovers the whole carnivorous thing he is eager to move on.
After reaching Mexico, Richard Parker runs off into the jungle without even a nod in thanks or goodbye and is never seen again. Pi ends up in a hospital, where he is interviewed by a pair of Japanese men from the company which owned the cargo ship, who are investigating what happened. They doubt the authenticity of Pi’s tale, so he then tells a similar story but without animals. It is short and more or less follows the early sequence of events in the lifeboat. In this version, there are four survivors, and each one seems to fit an animal counterpart from Pi’s first version. There is a sailor with a broken leg (zebra; hyena eats leg first and then body), the ship’s Frenchman cook – brutal, sadistic, and cannibalistic murderer (hyena), Pi’s mother (orangutan – beheaded and eaten by the hyena…), and Pi (the tiger – the second castaway was the Frenchman cook who Pi finally killed.) This second version is considerably darker and more gruesome than the first. It wouldn’t be a stretch to conclude that this second version was the true sequence of events, and Pi’s mind went a little crazy trying to cope with it all and came up with the animal version.
I was kind of curious about the ending with the two versions of events, so searched and found and explanation from the author (well, second-hand from the author). Given the evidence of Pi washing up in the boat, there is no way for us to tell what really happened – Pi’s somewhat outlandish animalized version, or the more reasonable (but also horrifying) murder-and-cannibalism version. Now think about the evidence of where we are – the Earth exists and so do we and lots of other stuff. Either it came about because God miraculously made it all, or the big bang, evolution, etc all randomly happened and here we are. Which story do you like better?
Finally, this funny paragraph about whales made me chuckle:
We saw a number of whales but none so close up as that first one. I would be alerted to their presence by their spouting. They would emerge a short distance away, sometimes three or four of them, a short-lived archipelago of volcanic islands. These gentle behemoths always lifted my spirits. I was convinced that they understood my condition, that at the sight of me one of them exclaimed, “Oh! It’s that castaway with the pussy cat Bamphoo was telling me about. Poor boy. Hope he has enough plankton. I must tell Mumphoo and Tomphoo and Stimphoo about him. I wonder if there isn’t a ship around I could alert. His mother would be very happy to see him again. Goodbye, my boy. I’ll try to help. My name’s Pimphoo.” And so, through the grapevine, every whale of the Pacific knew of me, and I would have been saved long ago if Pimphoo hadn’t sought help from a Japanese ship whose dastardly crew harpooned her, the same fate as befell Lamphoo at the hands of a Norwegian ship. The hunting of whales is a heinous crime.