Life of pi, p.16
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       Life of Pi, p.16

           Yann Martel

  I grabbed the rat and threw it his way. I can still see it in my mind as it sailed through the air--its outstretched claws and erect tail, its tiny elongated scrotum and pinpoint anus. Richard Parker opened his maw and the squealing rat disappeared into it like a baseball into a catcher's mitt. Its hairless tail vanished like a spaghetti noodle sucked into a mouth.

  He seemed satisfied with the offering. He backed down and returned beneath the tarpaulin. My legs instantly became functional again. I leapt up and raised the locker lid again to block the open space between bow bench and tarpaulin.

  I heard loud sniffing and the noise of a body being dragged. His shifting weight made the boat rock a little. I began hearing the sound of a mouth eating. I peeked beneath the tarpaulin. He was in the middle of the boat. He was eating the hyena by great chunks, voraciously. This chance would not come again. I reached and retrieved the remaining life jackets--six in all--and the last oar. They would go to improving the raft. I noticed in passing a smell. It was not the sharp smell of cat piss. It was vomit. There was a patch of it on the floor of the boat. It must have come from Richard Parker. So he was indeed seasick.

  I hitched the long rope to the raft. Lifeboat and raft were now tethered. Next I attached a life jacket to each side of the raft, on its underside. Another life jacket I strapped across the hole of the lifebuoy to act as a seat. I turned the last oar into a footrest, lashing it on one side of the raft, about two feet from the lifebuoy, and tying the remaining life jacket to it. My fingers trembled as I worked, and my breath was short and strained. I checked and rechecked all my knots.

  I looked about the sea. Only great, gentle swells. No whitecaps. The wind was low and constant. I looked down. There were fish--big fish with protruding foreheads and very long dorsal fins, dorados they are called, and smaller fish, lean and long, unknown to me, and smaller ones still--and there were sharks.

  I eased the raft off the lifeboat. If for some reason it did not float, I was as good as dead. It took to the water beautifully. In fact, the buoyancy of the life jackets was such that they pushed the oars and the lifebuoy right out of the water. But my heart sank. As soon as the raft touched the water, the fish scattered--except for the sharks. They remained. Three or four of them. One swam directly beneath the raft. Richard Parker growled.

  I felt like a prisoner being pushed off a plank by pirates.

  I brought the raft as close to the lifeboat as the protruding tips of the oars would allow. I leaned out and lay my hands on the lifebuoy. Through the "cracks" in the floor of the raft--yawning crevasses would be more accurate--I looked directly into the bottomless depths of the sea. I heard Richard Parker again. I flopped onto the raft on my stomach. I lay flat and spread-eagled and did not move a finger. I expected the raft to overturn at any moment. Or a shark to lunge and bite right through the life jackets and oars. Neither happened. The raft sank lower and pitched and rolled, the tips of the oars dipping underwater, but it floated robustly. Sharks came close, but did not touch.

  I felt a gentle tug. The raft swung round. I raised my head. The lifeboat and the raft had already separated as far as the rope would go, about forty feet. The rope tensed and lifted out of the water and wavered in the air. It was a highly distressing sight. I had fled the lifeboat to save my life. Now I wanted to get back. This raft business was far too precarious. It only needed a shark to bite the rope, or a knot to become undone, or a large wave to crash upon me, and I would be lost. Compared to the raft, the lifeboat now seemed a haven of comfort and security.

  I gingerly turned over. I sat up. Stability was good, so far. My footrest worked well enough. But it was all too small. There was just enough space to sit on and no more. This toy raft, mini-raft, microraft, might do for a pond, but not for the Pacific Ocean. I took hold of the rope and pulled. The closer I got to the lifeboat, the slower I pulled. When I was next to the lifeboat, I heard Richard Parker. He was still eating.

  I hesitated for long minutes.

  I stayed on the raft. I didn't see what else I could do. My options were limited to perching above a tiger or hovering over sharks. I knew perfectly well how dangerous Richard Parker was. Sharks, on the other hand, had not yet proved to be dangerous. I checked the knots that held the rope to the lifeboat and to the raft. I let the rope out until I was thirty or so feet from the lifeboat, the distance that about rightly balanced my two fears: being too close to Richard Parker and being too far from the lifeboat. The extra rope, ten feet or so, I looped around the footrest oar. I could easily let out slack if the need arose.

  The day was ending. It started to rain. It had been overcast and warm all day. Now the temperature dropped, and the downpour was steady and cold. All around me heavy drops of fresh water plopped loudly and wastefully into the sea, dimpling its surface. I pulled on the rope again. When I was at the bow I turned onto my knees and took hold of the stem. I pulled myself up and carefully peeped over the gunnel. He wasn't in sight.

  I hurriedly reached down into the locker. I grabbed a rain catcher, a fifty-litre plastic bag, a blanket and the survival manual. I slammed the locker lid shut. I didn't mean to slam it--only to protect my precious goods from the rain--but the lid slipped from my wet hand. It was a bad mistake. In the very act of revealing myself to Richard Parker by bringing down what blocked his view, I made a great loud noise to attract his attention. He was crouched over the hyena. His head turned instantly. Many animals intensely dislike being disturbed while they are eating. Richard Parker snarled. His claws tensed. The tip of his tail twitched electrically. I fell back onto the raft, and I believe it was terror as much as wind and current that widened the distance between raft and lifeboat so swiftly. I let out all the rope. I expected Richard Parker to burst forth from the boat, sailing through the air, teeth and claws reaching for me. I kept my eyes on the boat. The longer I looked, the more unbearable was the expectation.

  He did not appear.

  By the time I had opened the rain catcher above my head and tucked my feet into the plastic bag, I was already soaked to the bones. And the blanket had got wet when I fell back onto the raft. I wrapped myself with it nonetheless.

  Night crept up. My surroundings disappeared into pitch-black darkness. Only the regular tugging of the rope at the raft told me that I was still attached to the lifeboat. The sea, inches beneath me yet too far for my eyes, buffeted the raft. Fingers of water reached up furtively through the cracks and wet my bottom.


  It rained all night. I had a horrible, sleepless time of it. It was noisy. On the rain catcher the rain made a drumming sound, and around me, coming from the darkness beyond, it made a hissing sound, as if I were at the centre of a great nest of angry snakes. Shifts in the wind changed the direction of the rain so that parts of me that were beginning to feel warm were soaked anew. I shifted the rain catcher, only to be unpleasantly surprised a few minutes later when the wind changed once more. I tried to keep a small part of me dry and warm, around my chest, where I had placed the survival manual, but the wetness spread with perverse determination. I spent the whole night shivering with cold. I worried constantly that the raft would come apart, that the knots holding me to the lifeboat would become loose, that a shark would attack. With my hands I checked the knots and lashings incessantly, trying to read them the way a blind man would read Braille.

  The rain grew stronger and the sea rougher as the night progressed. The rope to the lifeboat tautened with a jerk rather than with a tug, and the rocking of the raft became more pronounced and erratic. It continued to float, rising above every wave, but there was no freeboard and the surf of every breaking wave rode clear across it, washing around me like a river washing around a boulder. The sea was warmer than the rain, but it meant that not the smallest part of me stayed dry that night.

  At least I drank. I wasn't really thirsty, but I forced myself to drink. The rain catcher looked like an inverted umbrella, an umbrella blown open by the wind. The rain flowed to its centre, where there was a hole
. The hole was connected by a rubber tube to a catchment pouch made of thick, transparent plastic. At first the water had a rubbery taste, but quickly the rain rinsed the catcher and the water tasted fine.

  During those long, cold, dark hours, as the pattering of the invisible rain got to be deafening, and the sea hissed and coiled and tossed me about, I held on to one thought: Richard Parker. I hatched several plans to get rid of him so that the lifeboat might be mine.

  Plan Number One: Push Him off the Lifeboat. What good would that do? Even if I did manage to shove 450 pounds of living, fierce animal off the lifeboat, tigers are accomplished swimmers. In the Sundarbans they have been known to swim five miles in open, choppy waters. If he found himself unexpectedly overboard, Richard Parker would simply tread water, climb back aboard and make me pay the price for my treachery.

  Plan Number Two: Kill Him with the Six Morphine Syringes. But I had no idea what effect they would have on him. Would they be enough to kill him? And how exactly was I supposed to get the morphine into his system? I could remotely conceive surprising him once, for an instant, the way his mother had been when she was captured--but to surprise him long enough to give him six consecutive injections? Impossible. All I would do by pricking him with a needle would be to get a cuff in return that would take my head off.

  Plan Number Three: Attack Him with All Available Weaponry. Ludicrous. I wasn't Tarzan. I was a puny, feeble, vegetarian life form. In India it took riding atop great big elephants and shooting with powerful rifles to kill tigers. What was I supposed to do here? Fire off a rocket flare in his face? Go at him with a hatchet in each hand and a knife between my teeth? Finish him off with straight and curving sewing needles? If I managed to nick him, it would be a feat. In return he would tear me apart limb by limb, organ by organ. For if there's one thing more dangerous than a healthy animal, it's an injured animal.

  Plan Number Four: Choke Him. I had rope. If I stayed at the bow and got the rope to go around the stern and a noose to go around his neck, I could pull on the rope while he pulled to get at me. And so, in the very act of reaching for me, he would choke himself. A clever, suicidal plan.

  Plan Number Five: Poison Him, Set Him on Fire, Electrocute Him. How? With what?

  Plan Number Six: Wage a War of Attrition. All I had to do was let the unforgiving laws of nature run their course and I would be saved. Waiting for him to waste away and die would require no effort on my part. I had supplies for months to come. What did he have? Just a few dead animals that would soon go bad. What would he eat after that? Better still: where would he get water? He might last for weeks without food, but no animal, however mighty, can do without water for any extended period of time.

  A modest glow of hope flickered to life within me, like a candle in the night. I had a plan and it was a good one. I only needed to survive to put it into effect.


  Dawn came and matters were worse for it. Because now, emerging from the darkness, I could see what before I had only felt, the great curtains of rain crashing down on me from towering heights and the waves that threw a path over me and trod me underfoot one after another.

  Dull-eyed, shaking and numb, one hand gripping the rain catcher, the other clinging to the raft, I continued to wait.

  Sometime later, with a suddenness emphasized by the silence that followed, the rain stopped. The sky cleared and the waves seemed to flee with the clouds. The change was as quick and radical as changing countries on land. I was now in a different ocean. Soon the sun was alone in the sky, and the ocean was a smooth skin reflecting the light with a million mirrors.

  I was stiff, sore and exhausted, barely grateful to be still alive. The words "Plan Number Six, Plan Number Six, Plan Number Six" repeated themselves in my mind like a mantra and brought me a small measure of comfort, though I couldn't recall for the life of me what Plan Number Six was. Warmth started coming to my bones. I closed the rain catcher. I wrapped myself with the blanket and curled up on my side in such a way that no part of me touched the water. I fell asleep. I don't know how long I slept. It was mid-morning when I awoke, and hot. The blanket was nearly dry. It had been a brief bout of deep sleep. I lifted myself onto an elbow.

  All about me was flatness and infinity, an endless panorama of blue. There was nothing to block my view. The vastness hit me like a punch in the stomach. I fell back, winded. This raft was a joke. It was nothing but a few sticks and a little cork held together by string. Water came through every crack. The depth beneath would make a bird dizzy. I caught sight of the lifeboat. It was no better than half a walnut shell. It held on to the surface of the water like fingers gripping the edge of a cliff. It was only a matter of time before gravity pulled it down.

  My fellow castaway came into view. He raised himself onto the gunnel and looked my way. The sudden appearance of a tiger is arresting in any environment, but it was all the more so here. The weird contrast between the bright, striped, living orange of his coat and the inert white of the boat's hull was incredibly compelling. My overwrought senses screeched to a halt. Vast as the Pacific was around us, suddenly, between us, it seemed a very narrow moat, with no bars or walls.

  "Plan Number Six, Plan Number Six, Plan Number Six," my mind whispered urgently. But what was Plan Number Six? Ah yes. The war of attrition. The waiting game. Passivity. Letting things happen. The unforgiving laws of nature. The relentless march of time and the hoarding of resources. That was Plan Number Six.

  A thought rang in my mind like an angry shout: "You fool and idiot! You dimwit! You brainless baboon! Plan Number Six is the worst plan of all! Richard Parker is afraid of the sea right now. It was nearly his grave. But crazed with thirst and hunger he will surmount his fear, and he will do whatever is necessary to appease his need. He will turn this moat into a bridge. He will swim as far as he has to, to catch the drifting raft and the food upon it. As for water, have you forgotten that tigers from the Sundarbans are known to drink saline water? Do you really think you can outlast his kidneys? I tell you, if you wage a war of attrition, you will lose it! You will die! IS THAT CLEAR?"


  I must say a word about fear. It is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins in your mind, always. One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. Then fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind like a spy. Doubt meets disbelief and disbelief tries to push it out. But disbelief is a poorly armed foot soldier. Doubt does away with it with little trouble. You become anxious. Reason comes to do battle for you. You are reassured. Reason is fully equipped with the latest weapons technology. But, to your amazement, despite superior tactics and a number of undeniable victories, reason is laid low. You feel yourself weakening, wavering. Your anxiety becomes dread.

  Fear next turns fully to your body, which is already aware that something terribly wrong is going on. Already your lungs have flown away like a bird and your guts have slithered away like a snake. Now your tongue drops dead like an opossum, while your jaw begins to gallop on the spot. Your ears go deaf. Your muscles begin to shiver as if they had malaria and your knees to shake as though they were dancing. Your heart strains too hard, while your sphincter relaxes too much. And so with the rest of your body. Every part of you, in the manner most suited to it, falls apart. Only your eyes work well. They always pay proper attention to fear.

  Quickly you make rash decisions. You dismiss your last allies: hope and trust. There, you've defeated yourself. Fear, which is but an impression, has triumphed over you.

  The matter is difficult to put into words. For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face with your mortal end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene: it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it. So you must fight hard to
express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don't, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.


  It was Richard Parker who calmed me down. It is the irony of this story that the one who scared me witless to start with was the very same who brought me peace, purpose, I dare say even wholeness.

  He was looking at me intently. After a time I recognized the gaze. I had grown up with it. It was the gaze of a contented animal looking out from its cage or pit the way you or I would look out from a restaurant table after a good meal, when the time has come for conversation and people-watching. Clearly, Richard Parker had eaten his fill of hyena and drunk all the rainwater he wanted. No lips were rising and falling, no teeth were showing, no growling or snarling was coming from him. He was simply taking me in, observing me, in a manner that was sober but not menacing. He kept twitching his ears and varying the sideways turn of his head. It was all so, well, catlike. He looked like a nice, big, fat domestic cat, a 450-pound tabby.

  He made a sound, a snort from his nostrils. I pricked up my ears. He did it a second time. I was astonished. Prusten?

  Tigers make a variety of sounds. They include a number of roars and growls, the loudest of these being most likely the full-throated aaonh, usually made during the mating season by males and oestrous females. It's a cry that travels far and wide, and is absolutely petrifying when heard close up. Tigers go woof when they are caught unawares, a short, sharp detonation of fury that would instantly make your legs jump up and run away if they weren't frozen to the spot. When they charge, tigers put out throaty, coughing roars. The growl they use for purposes of threatening has yet another guttural quality. And tigers hiss and snarl, which, depending on the emotion behind it, sounds either like autumn leaves rustling on the ground, but a little more resonant, or, when it's an infuriated snarl, like a giant door with rusty hinges slowly opening--in both cases, utterly spine-chilling. Tigers make other sounds too. They grunt and they moan. They purr, though not as melodiously or as frequently as small cats, and only as they breathe out. (Only small cats purr breathing both ways. It is one of the characteristics that distinguishes big cats from small cats. Another is that only big cats can roar. A good thing that is. I'm afraid the popularity of the domestic cat would drop very quickly if little kitty could roar its displeasure.) Tigers even go meow, with an inflection similar to that of domestic cats, but louder and in a deeper range, not as encouraging to one to bend down and pick them up. And tigers can be utterly, majestically silent, that too.

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