Monday, October 5, 2009

Life of Pi

It’s always tricky to read an award winning book. When you go through the motion, somewhere unconsciously you feel obliged to like the book because so many others did and eventually it clouds your minds as to whether you really liked it or you were pushed into liking it. What further complicated matters in my case is that this book had been in my ‘to read’ list for seven years now, from when it won the Booker’s prize in 2002. So you can imagine the pressure one had to go through, to make sure one likes it. But boy did I like it? Yes, I sure did.

This story is about a 16 year old boy, Pi, who gets stranded on a lifeboat for 227 days, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with a pack of animals including a Bengal tiger. Now that’s a good premise for a story, but it’s hard to spin a convincing narrative on how the boy got there and what happens later. Yann Martel, the Canadian author, manages both these sides of the story brilliantly. I’ll not give out the whole story in here. Instead I am going to give you interesting snippets from the book and if you like these I am sure you have got a winner here.

For the first few chapters Pi details his growing up years in Pondicherry and how he got his name: Piscine Molitor Patel, from a swimming pool in Paris, and how he struggled through school because of his unusual name, not because of the swimming pool, but because you could pronounce it in a very funny way i.e. Pissing. Read this, chapter5, para7, “The cruelty of children comes as news to no one. The words would waft across the yard to my ears, unprovoked, uncalled for: where’s Pissing? I’ve got to go. Or: You’re facing the wall. Are you Pissing?.......The sound would disappear, but the hurt would linger, like the smell of piss long after it has evaporated.” His father owns a zoo and he vividly details the zoo, its occupants, growing up close to a zoo, the games of the animals and the eccentricities of visitors etc.

The author’s style of writing is lucid and creates a wonderful collage of images in the reader’s mind. Let’s look at the second para from chapter11, “If you took the city of Tokyo and turned it upside down and shook it, you would be amazed at the animals that would fall out. It would pour more than cats and dogs, I tell you. Boa constrictors, Komodo dragons, crocodiles, piranhas, ostriches, wolves, lynx, wallabies, manatess, porcupines, orangutans, wild boar – that’s the sort of rainfall you could expect on your umbrella.” Pi also dabbles in religion; not one but three: Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. Read what his brother Ravi has to say about it, chapter24, para2, “At the rate you’re going, if you go to temple on Thursday, mosque on Friday, synagogue on Saturday and church on Sunday, you only need to convert to three more religion to be on holiday for the rest of your life.” Pi’s father decides to sell of the zoo and start a new life in Canada. The family boards a ship, along with a few animals to be shipped to America, but the ship sinks in the Pacific Ocean.

The author doesn't dwell much into how the ship sinks; Pi survives and also rescues a tiger named Richard Parker, which he later realizes was a mistake, and the story moves on to the next level. Subsequently it is revealed that there are other animals on the boat: a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan called orange juice, and a rat. Yann has gone to great details to bring to us the nuances of the animal kingdom, as we have been seeing it on National Geographic. Now can someone describe a hyena better than this, Chapter43, para10, – “It is ugly beyond redemption. Its thick neck and high shoulders that slope to the hindquarters look as if they’ve come from a discarded prototype for the giraffe, and its shaggy, coarse coat seems to have been patched together from the leftovers of creation. The colour is a bungled mix of tan, black, yellow, grey, with the spots having none of the classy ostentation of a leopard’s rosettes; they look rather like the symptoms of a skin disease, a virulent form of mange…The mouth is forever open and panting. The nostrils are too big…..All the parts put together look doglike, but like no dog anyone would want as a pet.”

We have had heard of many stories of survival in the open sea but what makes this one interesting is the fact that it’s not just the elements of nature which are against you but a whole bunch of carnivores, for whom killing is like a walk in the park. Chapter45, para4 “The zebra’s broken leg was missing. The hyena had bitten it off…..Blood was still dripping. The victim bore its suffering patiently, without showy remonstration. A slow constant grinding of its teeth was the only visible sign of distress.….I felt intense hatred for the hyena.” The author also details Pi’s own struggle with staying alive, chapter51, para17 “I touched my belly. It was a hard and hollow cavity. Food would be nice. A masala dosai with a coconut chutney…..The mere thought of the word provoked a shot of pain behind my jaws and a deluge of saliva in my mouth…..nearly touched the delicious flattened balls of parboiled rice in my imagination…brought it to my mouth…I chewed….Oh, it was exquisitely painful!” Towards the middle, the story drags a bit. How interesting can it get with the open sky above, the vast sea below and just a boy and Tiger in between? You always expect that there might be a physical face-off just round the corner, but between a 450 pound tiger and boy, you know what the outcome would be. So Pi engages the tiger in a battle of wits and mind games. Chapter 80, para3, “Any zookeeper will tell you that a tiger, indeed any cat, will not attack in the face of a direct stare but will wait until the deer or antelope or wild ox has turned its eyes…..For two, perhaps three seconds, a terrific battle of minds for status and authority was waged between a boy and a tiger. He needed to make only the shortest of lunges to be on top of me. But I held my stare.” Towards the end, the narrative becomes interesting, unbelievably mysterious, may be even magical, if I may say so. I could go on detailing the book and end up having it all here. But that’s not what I have in mind. I have given you guys enough to let you decide if you want to rush to your nearest bookstore and find out what happens to Pi.

It’s difficult to decide what genre the book belongs to. It can be a motivational book; maybe a self-help one at that, can be seen as a rescue guide for the shipwrecked, it also deals with behavior analysis; both animals and humans, it’s a novel and a story cum practice book. The book has a heavy religious insinuation as well. Yann has another surprise for the reader. In the end there is a section named ‘Questions’, which has questions from each chapter of the story, like: Why did some people think Pi was a Sikh? Or, what makes an animal want to escape from a zoo? Or how does hunger drive Pi to stand up to the tiger? My thought to these questions was - does the author think that his readers are school going kids or what? But then it dawned on me that this book would be a very good present to one’s kids, maybe relatives or friends, if you want to give them something to work on, besides the reading. This reminded me of the first novel I read – The Guide, by R.K. Narayan, which was a text book for my school curriculum. ‘Life of Pi’ is a good book: about survival against all odds, facing up to challenges, the human animal and above all: conquering the mind before controlling the body.

There is also news that a movie is currently under production based on this book and might be released in 2011; still better, Manoj N Shyamalan might be directing it. Even then ‘never judge a book by its movie’. Read it.


The quirk said...

I read this 2 years ago ..... But I felt I had not read it well reading your review. I liked the questions part don't know why.

But I think something was missing in your write up.

deeps said...

oops ... this one hit the market 2 years back??
hmmm i didnt even know there was a title like this despite spending lotsa time in libraries in those days .... niways
you have it here in nut shell ...

Who said...

deeps: this book was published in 2001....i usually keep an eye out for award winning ones...moreover this had an indian context to liked it more...

jasmine said...

as our dear kids say.. tooooo long.. :( takes much time to read it with understanding..

Who said...

Jasmine: you don't seem to be of the reading kind..else who would say a book review to be long...remember there is a whole book at the other end of the review.