Richard Burton, British. Occupation: Adventurer, Linguist, Author. Intensely driven by a compulsion to explore the unknown and then write it up in books.
He started out traveling all over Europe as a boy and young man. Then he was off to India as a soldier with the East India Company. He didn’t see much military action, but carried out numerous “secret missions” for Gen. Napier. (Unfortunately, they were apparently so secret that nothing really remains to document what he did; a shame.) Wherever he went, Burton liked to mingle with the natives, seemingly trying to become one of them by participating in their rituals, learning their language, and … sleeping with their women. Burton completely rejected traditonal Victorian morality. This and other character traits (I never got the impression of Burton as a “nice guy”) undoubtedly ruffled some feathers with those back home.
Burton also seemed to be seeking for some sort of missing spirituality in his life. He had great interest in immersing himself in the “mystical” aspects of the cultures and religions he studied. At one point he joined a Hindu snake cult and later a group of Sufi Muslims. Disguised as a native, he became a hajji by making the pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the first Europeans to (illicitly) do so and then live to write about it.
Still not done with adventuring, he journeyed through eastern Africa, searching for the source of the Nile with the (comparitively) bumbling and boorish Speke.
Burton was quite popular due to his books and his skills were ackowledged by the British government, although many seemed to be wary of him as somewhat of a loose cannon or a foreigner himself, despite his British birth. Some of these misgivings forced him out of a choice diplomatic post in Damascus, and saw him shuttered away in a much “safer” post in Trieste. The days of adventure were mostly done; he passed the time continuing to write and translate, particularly erotic works (see above re: Victorian morality…)
In somewhat less exotic circumstances, Burton also visited Salt Lake City to investigate the Mormons. He wrote a book about it, and was apparently not unimpressed with Brigham and the Saints. He also described Mormonism as at least as mature and fleshed out as any of the other religions he knew.
Interesting fellow who traveled far. I hope he found what he was looking for.
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.
Kim is an orphan boy of the streets, born and raised in India in the late 1800’s. Although he is of Irish parentage (Kimball O’Hara, if you please), you wouldn’t know it due to his ability to blend in as a Hindu or a Muslim or whatever else as the situation may require. He lives by his wits; he is very happy in the chaotic, surging mix of colors and cultures that is India. Seemingly on a whim, he assists a Tibetan monk on a quest seeking a holy river. Kim’s own destiny of a “red bull on a green background”, as his father told him to seek before he died (seems to be a mystical prophecy but really the sign of his father’s military regiment), leads him to an education at a British school and recruitment as a spy of sorts due to his cleverness at blending in and knowing what to do in tight spots.
“Kim” is an interesting story with likeable characters. Kipling’s word imagery is superb, as to be expected of a Poet Laureate. The India he describes is incredibly interesting and vibrant; not so much “East meets West” as “Middle East meets Far East meets Central Asia meets West”.
Things of interest:
- The land is referred to as “Hind” – “all of Hind” consisted of the generally Hindu peoples in domains of kings and rajahs on the subcontinent. Probably that’s where “India” came from. India as it is now didn’t exist as a singular entity until half a century after the events of “Kim.” British India was a mix of provinces and native kingdoms over which Britain held sway. The underlying plot of the story, which really stays in the background and is never fully explained, involves non-British great powers trying to undermine British control by persuading rebellion in a handful of northern kingdoms.
- Knowing Kipling as a supporter of imperialism and author of “The White Man’s Burden“, I wonder if there isn’t some metaphor in the mutual help the Tibetan monk and Kim give each other. Kim = Britain, but with a deep understanding and respect for native India and the monk is “Hind”. Each has a quest, Kim to find his red bull and the monk to find his river. Neither one would have accomplished his quest without the help of his companion. Perhaps Kipling is saying how Britain and India both needed to learn from each other and work together in order to grow and prosper.
- Kind of a sidenote – my Indian geography wasn’t quite up to snuff and I couldn’t quite place a lot of the locations Kim and co. travel to in the book. I found Google Earth to be a good companion here. In particular, the Panoramio and 360Cities layers are awesome. Almost as good as being there! (Well, not really, but they help.) The pictures you can find near the Ganges River at the city of Varanasi (Benares in “Kim”) are particularly cool.
UPDATE: Over the weekend, trolling channels, what did I happen to find but the movie Kim from 1950. I only caught the last half, but I can unequivocally give it two thumbs down. All the magic, mystery, and mysticism from Kipling are removed and just the (weak) international spy story remains. The lama is a crazy buffoon, Kim is motivated by the promise of a gold watch, and Mahbub Ali’s role has been expanded to absurdity to accommodate Errol Flynn’s star power.