Life of pi, p.17
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       Life of Pi, p.17

           Yann Martel

  I had heard all these sounds growing up. Except for prusten. If I knew of it, it was because Father had told me about it. He had read descriptions of it in the literature. But he had heard it only once, while on a working visit to the Mysore Zoo, in their animal hospital, from a young male being treated for pneumonia. Prusten is the quietest of tiger calls, a puff through the nose to express friendliness and harmless intentions.

  Richard Parker did it again, this time with a rolling of the head. He looked exactly as if he were asking me a question.

  I looked at him, full of fearful wonder. There being no immediate threat, my breath slowed down, my heart stopped knocking about in my chest, and I began to regain my senses.

  I had to tame him. It was at that moment that I realized this necessity. It was not a question of him or me, but of him and me. We were, literally and figuratively, in the same boat. We would live--or we would die--together. He might be killed in an accident, or he could die shortly of natural causes, but it would be foolish to count on such an eventuality. More likely the worst would happen: the simple passage of time, in which his animal toughness would easily outlast my human frailty. Only if I tamed him could I possibly trick him into dying first, if we had to come to that sorry business.

  But there's more to it. I will come clean. I will tell you a secret: a part of me was glad about Richard Parker. A part of me did not want Richard Parker to die at all, because if he died I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger. If I still had the will to live, it was thanks to Richard Parker. He kept me from thinking too much about my family and my tragic circumstances. He pushed me to go on living. I hated him for it, yet at the same time I was grateful. I am grateful. It's the plain truth: without Richard Parker, I wouldn't be alive today to tell you my story.

  I looked around at the horizon. Didn't I have here a perfect circus ring, inescapably round, without a single corner for him to hide in? I looked down at the sea. Wasn't this an ideal source of treats with which to condition him to obey? I noticed a whistle hanging from one of the life jackets. Wouldn't this make a good whip with which to keep him in line? What was missing here to tame Richard Parker? Time? It might be weeks before a ship sighted me. I had all the time in the world. Resolve? There's nothing like extreme need to give you resolve. Knowledge? Was I not a zookeeper's son? Reward? Was there any reward greater than life? Any punishment worse than death? I looked at Richard Parker. My panic was gone. My fear was dominated. Survival was at hand.

  Let the trumpets blare. Let the drums roll. Let the show begin. I rose to my feet. Richard Parker noticed. The balance was not easy. I took a deep breath and shouted, "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, hurry to your seats! Hurry, hurry. You don't want to be late. Sit down, open your eyes, open your hearts and prepare to be amazed. Here it is, for your enjoyment and instruction, for your gratification and edification, the show you've been waiting for all your life, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH! Are you ready for the miracle of it? Yes? Well then: they are amazingly adaptable. You've seen them in freezing, snow-covered temperate forests. You've seen them in dense, tropical monsoon jungles. You've seen them in sparse, semi-arid scrublands. You've seen them in brackish mangrove swamps. Truly, they would fit anywhere. But you've never seen them where you are about to see them now! Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, without further ado, it is my pleasure and honour to present to you: THE PI PATEL, INDO-CANADIAN, TRANS-PACIFIC, FLOATING CIRCUUUUUSSSSSSSSSSSS!!! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE!"

  I had an effect on Richard Parker. At the very first blow of the whistle he cringed and he snarled. Ha! Let him jump into the water if he wanted to! Let him try!


  He roared and he clawed the air. But he did not jump. He might not be afraid of the sea when he was driven mad by hunger and thirst, but for the time being it was a fear I could rely on.


  He backed off and dropped to the bottom of the boat. The first training session was over. It was a resounding success. I stopped whistling and sat down heavily on the raft, out of breath and exhausted.

  And so it came to be:

  Plan Number Seven: Keep Him Alive.


  I pulled out the survival manual. Its pages were still wet. I turned them carefully. The manual was written by a British Royal Navy commander. It contained a wealth of practical information on surviving at sea after a shipwreck. It included survival tips such as:

  Always read instructions carefully.

  Do not drink urine. Or sea water. Or bird blood.

  Do not eat jellyfish. Or fish that are armed with spikes. Or that have parrot-like beaks. Or that puff up like balloons.

  Pressing the eyes of fish will paralyze them.

  The body can be a hero in battle. If a castaway is injured, beware of well-meaning but ill-founded medical treatment. Ignorance is the worst doctor, while rest and sleep are the best nurses.

  Put up your feet at least five minutes every hour.

  Unnecessary exertion should be avoided. But an idle mind tends to sink, so the mind should be kept occupied with whatever light distraction may suggest itself. Playing card games, Twenty Questions and I Spy With My Little Eye are excellent forms of simple recreation. Community singing is another sure-fire way to lift the spirits. Yarn spinning is also highly recommended.

  Green water is shallower than blue water.

  Beware of far-off clouds that look like mountains. Look for green. Ultimately, a foot is the only good judge of land.

  Do not go swimming. It wastes energy. Besides, a survival craft may drift faster than you can swim. Not to mention the danger of sea life. If you are hot, wet your clothes instead.

  Do not urinate in your clothes. The momentary warmth is not worth the nappy rash.

  Shelter yourself. Exposure can kill faster than thirst or hunger.

  So long as no excessive water is lost through perspiration, the body can survive up to fourteen days without water. If you feel thirsty, suck a button.

  Turtles are an easy catch and make for excellent meals. Their blood is a good, nutritious, salt-free drink; their flesh is tasty and filling; their fat has many uses; and the castaway will find turtle eggs a real treat. Mind the beak and the claws.

  Don't let your morale flag. Be daunted, but not defeated. Remember: the spirit, above all else, counts. If you have the will to live, you will. Good luck!

  There were also a few highly cryptic lines distilling the art and science of navigation. I learned that the horizon, as seen from a height of five feet on a calm day, was two and a half miles away.

  The injunction not to drink urine was quite unnecessary. No one called "Pissing" in his childhood would be caught dead with a cup of pee at his lips, even alone in a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific. And the gastronomic suggestions only confirmed to my mind that the English didn't know the meaning of the word food. Otherwise, the manual was a fascinating pamphlet on how to avoid being pickled in brine. Only one important topic was not addressed: the establishing of alpha-omega relationships with major lifeboat pests.

  I had to devise a training program for Richard Parker. I had to make him understand that I was the top tiger and that his territory was limited to the floor of the boat, the stern bench and the side benches as far as the middle cross bench. I had to fix in his mind that the top of the tarpaulin and the bow of the boat, bordered by the neutral territory of the middle bench, was my territory and utterly forbidden to him.

  I had to start fishing very soon. It would not take long for Richard Parker to finish the animal carcasses. At the zoo the adult lions and tigers ate on average ten pounds of meat a day.

  There were many other things I had to do. I had to find a means of sheltering myself. If Richard Parker stayed under the tarpaulin all the time, it was for a good reason. To be continuously outside, exposed to sun, wind, r
ain and sea, was exhausting, and not only to the body but also to the mind. Hadn't I just read that exposure could inflict a quick death? I had to devise some sort of canopy.

  I had to tie the raft to the lifeboat with a second rope, in case the first should break or become loose.

  I had to improve the raft. At present it was seaworthy, but hardly habitable. I would have to make it fit for living in until I could move to my permanent quarters on the lifeboat. For example, I had to find a way to stay dry on it. My skin was wrinkled and swollen all over from being constantly wet. That had to change. And I had to find a way to store things on the raft.

  I had to stop hoping so much that a ship would rescue me. I should not count on outside help. Survival had to start with me. In my experience, a castaway's worst mistake is to hope too much and do too little. Survival starts by paying attention to what is close at hand and immediate. To look out with idle hope is tantamount to dreaming one's life away.

  There was much I had to do.

  I looked out at the empty horizon. There was so much water. And I was all alone. All alone.

  I burst into hot tears. I buried my face in my crossed arms and sobbed. My situation was patently hopeless.


  Alone or not, lost or not, I was thirsty and hungry. I pulled on the rope. There was a slight tension. As soon as I lessened my grip on it, it slid out, and the distance between the lifeboat and the raft increased. So the lifeboat drifted faster than the raft, pulling it along. I noted the fact without thinking anything of it. My mind was more focused on the doings of Richard Parker.

  By the looks of it, he was under the tarpaulin.

  I pulled the rope till I was right next to the bow. I reached up to the gunnel. As I was crouched, preparing myself for a quick raid on the locker, a series of waves got me thinking. I noticed that with the raft next to it, the lifeboat had changed directions. It was no longer perpendicular to the waves but broadside to them and was beginning to roll from side to side, that rolling that was so unsettling for the stomach. The reason for this change became clear to me: the raft, when let out, was acting as a sea anchor, as a drag that pulled on the lifeboat and turned its bow to face the waves. You see, waves and steady winds are usually perpendicular to each other. So, if a boat is pushed by a wind but held back by a sea anchor, it will turn until it offers the least resistance to the wind--that is, until it is in line with it and at right angles to the waves, which makes for a front-to-back pitching that is much more comfortable than a side-to-side rolling. With the raft next to the boat, the dragging effect was gone, and there was nothing to steer the boat head into the wind. Therefore it turned broadside and rolled.

  What may seem like a detail to you was something which would save my life and which Richard Parker would come to regret.

  As if to confirm my fresh insight, I heard him growl. It was a disconsolate growl, with something indefinably green and queasy in its tone. He was maybe a good swimmer, but he was not much of a sailor.

  I had a chance yet.

  Lest I got cocky about my abilities to manipulate him, I received at that moment a quiet but sinister warning about what I was up against. It seemed Richard Parker was such a magnetic pole of life, so charismatic in his vitality, that other expressions of life found it intolerable. I was on the point of raising myself over the bow when I heard a gentle thrashing buzz. I saw something small land in the water next to me.

  It was a cockroach. It floated for a second or two before being swallowed by an underwater mouth. Another cockroach landed in the water. In the next minute, ten or so cockroaches plopped into the water on either side of the bow. Each was claimed by a fish.

  The last of the foreign life forms was abandoning ship.

  I carefully brought my eyes over the gunnel. The first thing I saw, lying in a fold of the tarpaulin above the bow bench, was a large cockroach, perhaps the patriarch of the clan. I watched it, strangely interested. When it decided it was time, it deployed its wings, rose in the air with a minute clattering, hovered above the lifeboat momentarily, as if making sure no one had been left behind, and then veered overboard to its death.

  Now we were two. In five days the populations of orang-utans, zebras, hyenas, rats, flies and cockroaches had been wiped out. Except for the bacteria and worms that might still be alive in the remains of the animals, there was no other life left on the lifeboat but Richard Parker and me.

  It was not a comforting thought.

  I lifted myself and breathlessly opened the locker lid. I deliberately did not look under the tarpaulin for fear that looking would be like shouting and would attract Richard Parker's attention. Only once the lid was leaning against the tarpaulin did I dare let my senses consider what was beyond it.

  A smell came to my nose, a musky smell of urine, quite sharp, what every cat cage in a zoo smells of. Tigers are highly territorial, and it is with their urine that they mark the boundaries of their territory. Here was good news wearing a foul dress: the odour was coming exclusively from below the tarpaulin. Richard Parker's territorial claims seemed to be limited to the floor of the boat. This held promise. If I could make the tarpaulin mine, we might get along.

  I held my breath, lowered my head and cocked it to the side to see beyond the edge of the lid. There was rainwater, about four inches of it, sloshing about the floor of the lifeboat--Richard Parker's own freshwater pond. He was doing exactly what I would be doing in his place: cooling off in the shade. The day was getting beastly hot. He was flat on the floor of the boat, facing away from me, his hind legs sticking straight back and splayed out, back paws facing up, and stomach and inner thighs lying directly against the floor. The position looked silly but was no doubt very pleasant.

  I returned to the business of survival. I opened a carton of emergency ration and ate my fill, about one-third of the package. It was remarkable how little it took to make my stomach feel full. I was about to drink from the rain-catcher pouch slung across my shoulder when my eyes fell upon the graduated drinking beakers. If I couldn't go for a dip, could I at least have a sip? My own supplies of water would not last forever. I took hold of one of the beakers, leaned over, lowered the lid just as much as I needed to and tremulously dipped the beaker into Parker's Pond, four feet from his back paws. His upturned pads with their wet fur looked like little desert islands surrounded by seaweed.

  I brought back a good 500 millilitres. It was a little discoloured. Specks were floating in it. Did I worry about ingesting some horrid bacteria? I didn't even think about it. All I had on my mind was my thirst. I drained that beaker to the dregs with great satisfaction.

  Nature is preoccupied with balance, so it did not surprise me that nearly right away I felt the urge to urinate. I relieved myself in the beaker. I produced so exactly the amount I had just downed that it was as if a minute hadn't passed and I were still considering Richard Parker's rainwater. I hesitated. I felt the urge to tilt the beaker into my mouth once more. I resisted the temptation. But it was hard. Mockery be damned, my urine looked delicious! I was not suffering yet from dehydration, so the liquid was pale in colour. It glowed in the sunlight, looking like a glass of apple juice. And it was guaranteed fresh, which certainly couldn't be said of the canned water that was my staple. But I heeded my better judgment. I splashed my urine on the tarpaulin and over the locker lid to stake my claim.

  I stole another two beakers of water from Richard Parker, without urinating this time. I felt as freshly watered as a potted plant.

  Now it was time to improve my situation. I turned to the contents of the locker and the many promises they held.

  I brought out a second rope and tethered the raft to the lifeboat with it.

  I discovered what a solar still is. A solar still is a device to produce fresh water from salt water. It consists of an inflatable transparent cone set upon a round lifebuoy-like buoyancy chamber that has a surface of black rubberized canvas stretched across its centre. The still operates on the principle of distillation: s
ea water lying beneath the sealed cone on the black canvas is heated by the sun and evaporates, gathering on the inside surface of the cone. This salt-free water trickles down and collects in a gully on the perimeter of the cone, from which it drains into a pouch. The lifeboat came equipped with twelve solar stills. I read the instructions carefully, as the survival manual told me to. I inflated all twelve cones with air and I filled each buoyancy chamber with the requisite ten litres of sea water. I strung the stills together, tying one end of the flotilla to the lifeboat and the other to the raft, which meant that not only would I not lose any stills should one of my knots become loose, but also that I had, in effect, a second emergency rope to keep me tethered to the lifeboat. The stills looked pretty and very technological as they floated on the water, but they also looked flimsy, and I was doubtful of their capacity to produce fresh water.

  I directed my attention to improving the raft. I examined every knot that held it together, making sure each was tight and secure. After some thought, I decided to transform the fifth oar, the footrest oar, into a mast of sorts. I undid the oar. With the sawtoothed edge of the hunting knife I painstakingly cut a notch into it, about halfway down, and with the knife's point I drilled three holes through its flat part. Work was slow but satisfying. It kept my mind busy. When I had finished I lashed the oar in a vertical position to the inside of one of the corners of the raft, flat part, the masthead, rising in the air, handle disappearing underwater. I ran the rope tightly into the notch, to prevent the oar from slipping down. Next, to ensure that the mast would stand straight, and to give myself lines from which to hang a canopy and supplies, I threaded ropes through the holes I had drilled in the masthead and tied them to the tips of the horizontal oars. I strapped the life jacket that had been attached to the footrest oar to the base of the mast. It would play a double role: it would provide extra flotation to compensate for the vertical weight of the mast, and it would make for a slightly raised seat for me.

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