Life of pi, p.20
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       Life of Pi, p.20

           Yann Martel


  I fished with a variety of hooks at a variety of depths for a variety of fish, from deep-sea fishing with large hooks and many sinkers to surface fishing with smaller hooks and only one or two sinkers. Success was slow to come, and when it did, it was much appreciated, but the effort seemed out of proportion to the reward. The hours were long, the fish were small, and Richard Parker was forever hungry.

  It was the gaffs that finally proved to be my most valuable fishing equipment. They came in three screw-in pieces: two tubular sections that formed the shaft--one with a moulded plastic handle at its end and a ring for securing the gaff with a rope--and a head that consisted of a hook measuring about two inches across its curve and ending in a needle-sharp, barbed point. Assembled, each gaff was about five feet long and felt as light and sturdy as a sword.

  At first I fished in open water. I would sink the gaff to a depth of four feet or so, sometimes with a fish speared on the hook as bait, and I would wait. I would wait for hours, my body tense till it ached. When a fish was in just the right spot, I jerked the gaff up with all the might and speed I could muster. It was a split-second decision. Experience taught me that it was better to strike when I felt I had a good chance of success than to strike wildly, for a fish learns from experience too, and rarely falls for the same trap twice.

  When I was lucky, a fish was properly snagged on the hook, impaled, and I could confidently bring it aboard. But if I gaffed a large fish in the stomach or tail, it would often get away with a twist and a forward spurt of speed. Injured, it would be easy prey for another predator, a gift I had not meant to make. So with large fish I aimed for the ventral area beneath their gills and their lateral fins, for a fish's instinctive reaction when struck there was to swim up, away from the hook, in the very direction I was pulling. Thus it would happen: sometimes more pricked than actually gaffed, a fish would burst out of the water in my face. I quickly lost my revulsion at touching sea life. None of this prissy fish blanket business any more. A fish jumping out of water was confronted by a famished boy with a hands-on, no-holds-barred approach to capturing it. If I felt the gaff's hold was uncertain, I would let go of it--I had not forgotten to secure it with a rope to the raft--and I would clutch at the fish with my hands. Fingers, though blunt, were far more nimble than a hook. The struggle would be fast and furious. Those fish were slippery and desperate, and I was just plain desperate. If only I had had as many arms as the goddess Durga--two to hold the gaffs, four to grasp the fish and two to wield the hatchets. But I had to make do with two. I stuck fingers into eyes, jammed hands into gills, crushed soft stomachs with knees, bit tails with my teeth--I did whatever was necessary to hold a fish down until I could reach for the hatchet and chop its head off.

  With time and experience I became a better hunter. I grew bolder and more agile. I developed an instinct, a feel, for what to do.

  My success improved greatly when I started using part of the cargo net. As a fishing net it was useless--too stiff and heavy and with a weave that wasn't tight enough. But it was perfect as a lure. Trailing freely in the water, it proved irresistibly attractive to fish, and even more so when seaweed started growing on it. Fish that were local in their ambit made the net their neighbourhood, and the quick ones, the ones that tended to streak by, the dorados, slowed down to visit the new development. Neither the residents nor the travellers ever suspected that a hook was hidden in the weave. There were some days--too few unfortunately--when I could have all the fish I cared to gaff. At such times I hunted far beyond the needs of my hunger or my capacity to cure; there simply wasn't enough space on the lifeboat, or lines on the raft, to dry so many strips of dorado, flying fish, jacks, groupers and mackerels, let alone space in my stomach to eat them. I kept what I could and gave the rest to Richard Parker. During those days of plenty, I laid hands on so many fish that my body began to glitter from all the fish scales that became stuck to it. I wore these spots of shine and silver like tilaks, the marks of colour that we Hindus wear on our foreheads as symbols of the divine. If sailors had come upon me then, I'm sure they would have thought I was a fish god standing atop his kingdom and they wouldn't have stopped. Those were the good days. They were rare.

  Turtles were an easy catch indeed, as the survival manual said they were. Under the "hunting and gathering" heading, they would go under "gathering". Solid in build though they were, like tanks, they were neither fast nor powerful swimmers; with just one hand gripped around a back flipper, it was possible to hold on to a turtle. But the survival manual failed to mention that a turtle caught was not a turtle had. It still needed to be brought aboard. And hauling a struggling 130-pound turtle aboard a lifeboat was anything but easy. It was a labour that demanded feats of strength worthy of Hanuman. I did it by bringing the victim alongside the bow of the boat, carapace against hull, and tying a rope to its neck, a front flipper and a back flipper. Then I pulled until I thought my arms would come apart and my head would explode. I ran the ropes around the tarpaulin hooks on the opposite side of the bow; every time a rope yielded a little, I secured my gain before the rope slipped back. Inch by inch, a turtle was heaved out of the water. It took time. I remember one green sea turtle that hung from the side of the lifeboat for two days, the whole while thrashing about madly, free flippers beating in the air. Luckily, at the last stage, on the lip of the gunnel, it would often happen that a turtle would help me without meaning to. In an attempt to free its painfully twisted flippers, it would pull on them; if I pulled at the same moment, our conflicting efforts sometimes came together and suddenly it would happen, easily: in the most dramatic fashion imaginable, a turtle would surge over the gunnel and slide onto the tarpaulin. I would fall back, exhausted but jubilant.

  Green sea turtles gave more meat than hawksbills, and their belly shells were thinner. But they tended to be bigger than hawksbills, often too big to lift out of the water for the weakened castaway that I became.

  Lord, to think that I'm a strict vegetarian. To think that when I was a child I always shuddered when I snapped open a banana because it sounded to me like the breaking of an animal's neck. I descended to a level of savagery I never imagined possible.


  The underside of the raft became host to a multitude of sea life, like the net but smaller in form. It started with a soft green algae that clung to the life jackets. Stiffer algae of a darker kind joined it. They did well and became thick. Animal life appeared. The first that I saw were tiny, translucent shrimp, hardly half an inch long. They were followed by fish no bigger that looked like they were permanently under X-ray; their internal organs showed through their transparent skins. After that I noticed the black worms with the white spines, the green gelatinous slugs with the primitive limbs, the inch-long, motley-coloured fish with the potbellies, and lastly the crabs, half to three-quarters of an inch across and brown in colour. I tried everything but the worms, including the algae. Only the crabs didn't have an unpalatably bitter or salty taste. Every time they appeared, I popped them one after another into my mouth like candy until there were none left. I couldn't control myself. It was always a long wait between fresh crops of crabs.

  The hull of the lifeboat invited life too, in the form of small gooseneck barnacles. I sucked their fluid. Their flesh made for good fishing bait.

  I became attached to these oceanic hitchhikers, though they weighed the raft down a little. They provided distraction, like Richard Parker. I spent many hours doing nothing but lying on my side, a life jacket pushed out of place a few inches, like a curtain from a window, so that I might have a clear view. What I saw was an upside-down town, small, quiet and peaceable, whose citizens went about with the sweet civility of angels. The sight was a welcome relief for my frayed nerves.


  My sleep pattern changed. Though I rested all the time, I rarely slept longer than an hour or so at a stretch, even at night. It was not the ceaseless motion of the sea that disturbed me, nor the wind; you get
used to those the way you get used to lumps in a mattress. It was apprehension and anxiety that roused me. It was remarkable how little sleep I got by on.

  Unlike Richard Parker. He became a champion napper. Most of the time he rested beneath the tarpaulin. But on calm days when the sun was not too harsh and on calm nights, he came out. One of his favourite positions in the open was lying on the stern bench on his side, stomach overhanging the edge of it, front and back legs extending down the side benches. It was a lot of tiger to squeeze onto a fairly narrow ledge, but he managed it by making his back very round. When he was truly sleeping, he laid his head on his front legs, but when his mood was slightly more active, when he might choose to open his eyes and look about, he turned his head and lay his chin on the gunnel.

  Another favourite position of his was sitting with his back to me, his rear half resting on the floor of the boat and his front half on the bench, his face buried into the stern, paws right next to his head, looking as if we were playing hide-and-seek and he were the one counting. In this position he tended to lie very still, with only the occasional twitching of his ears to indicate that he was not necessarily sleeping.


  On many nights I was convinced I saw a light in the distance. Each time I set off a flare. When I had used up the rocket flares, I expended the hand flares. Were they ships that failed to see me? The light of rising or setting stars bouncing off the ocean? Breaking waves that moonlight and forlorn hope fashioned into illusion? Whatever the case, every time it was for nothing. Never a result. Always the bitter emotion of hope raised and dashed. In time I gave up entirely on being saved by a ship. If the horizon was two and a half miles away at an altitude of five feet, how far away was it when I was sitting against the mast of my raft, my eyes not even three feet above the water? What chance was there that a ship crossing the whole great big Pacific would cut into such a tiny circle? Not only that: that it would cut into such a tiny circle and see me--what chance was there of that? No, humanity and its unreliable ways could not be counted upon. It was land I had to reach, hard, firm, certain land.

  I remember the smell of the spent hand-flare shells. By some freak of chemistry they smelled exactly like cumin. It was intoxicating. I sniffed the plastic shells and immediately Pondicherry came to life in my mind, a marvellous relief from the disappointment of calling for help and not being heard. The experience was very strong, nearly a hallucination. From a single smell a whole town arose. (Now, when I smell cumin, I see the Pacific Ocean.) Richard Parker always froze when a hand flare hissed to life. His eyes, round pupils the size of pinpricks, fixed on the light steadily. It was too bright for me, a blinding white centre with a pinkish red aureole. I had to turn away. I held the flare in the air at arm's length and waved it slowly. For about a minute heat showered down upon my forearm and everything was weirdly lit. Water around the raft, until a moment before opaquely black, showed itself to be crowded with fish.


  Butchering a turtle was hard work. My first one was a small hawksbill. It was its blood that tempted me, the "good, nutritious, salt-free drink" promised by the survival manual. My thirst was that bad. I took hold of the turtle's shell and grappled with one of its back flippers. When I had a good grip, I turned it over in the water and attempted to pull it onto the raft. The thing was thrashing violently. I would never be able to deal with it on the raft. Either I let it go--or I tried my luck on the lifeboat. I looked up. It was a hot and cloudless day. Richard Parker seemed to tolerate my presence at the bow on such days, when the air was like the inside of an oven and he did not move from under the tarpaulin until sunset.

  I held on to one of the turtle's back flippers with one hand and I pulled on the rope to the lifeboat with the other. It was not easy climbing aboard. When I had managed it, I jerked the turtle in the air and brought it onto its back on the tarpaulin. As I had hoped, Richard Parker did no more than growl once or twice. He was not up to exerting himself in such heat.

  My determination was grim and blind. I felt I had no time to waste. I turned to the survival manual as to a cookbook. It said to lay the turtle on its back. Done. It advised that a knife should be "inserted into the neck" to sever the arteries and veins running through it. I looked at the turtle. There was no neck. The turtle had retracted into its shell; all that showed of its head was its eyes and its beak, surrounded by circles of skin. It was looking at me upside down with a stern expression. I took hold of the knife and, hoping to goad it, poked a front flipper. It only shrank further into its shell. I decided on a more direct approach. As confidently as if I had done it a thousand times, I jammed the knife just to the right of the turtle's head, at an angle. I pushed the blade deep into the folds of skin and twisted it. The turtle retreated even further, favouring the side where the blade was, and suddenly shot its head forward, beak snapping at me viciously. I jumped back. All four flippers came out and the creature tried to make its getaway. It rocked on its back, flippers beating wildly and head shaking from side to side. I took hold of a hatchet and brought it down on the turtle's neck, gashing it. Bright red blood shot out. I grabbed the beaker and collected about three hundred millilitres, a pop can's worth. I might have got much more, a litre I would guess, but the turtle's beak was sharp and its front flippers were long and powerful, with two claws on each. The blood I managed to collect gave off no particular smell. I took a sip. It tasted warm and animal, if my memory is right. It's hard to remember first impressions. I drank the blood to the last drop.

  I thought I would use the hatchet to remove the tough belly shell, but it proved easier with the sawtoothed edge of the knife. I set one foot at the centre of the shell, the other clear of the flailing flippers. The leathery skin at the head end of the shell was easy cutting, except around the flippers. Sawing away at the rim, however, where shell met shell, was very hard work, especially as the turtle wouldn't stop moving. By the time I had gone all the way around I was bathed in sweat and exhausted. I pulled on the belly shell. It lifted reluctantly, with a wet sucking sound. Inner life was revealed, twitching and jerking--muscles, fat, blood, guts and bones. And still the turtle thrashed about. I slashed its neck to the vertebrae. It made no difference. Flippers continued to beat. With two blows of the hatchet I cut its head right off. The flippers did not stop. Worse, the separated head went on gulping for air and blinking its eyes. I pushed it into the sea. The living rest of the turtle I lifted and dropped into Richard Parker's territory. He was making noises and sounded as if he were about to stir. He had probably smelled the turtle's blood. I fled to the raft.

  I watched sullenly as he loudly appreciated my gift and made a joyous mess of himself. I was utterly spent. The effort of butchering the turtle had hardly seemed worth the cup of blood.

  I started thinking seriously about how I was going to deal with Richard Parker. This forbearance on his part on hot, cloudless days, if that is what it was and not simple laziness, was not good enough. I couldn't always be running away from him. I needed safe access to the locker and the top of the tarpaulin, no matter the time of day or the weather, no matter his mood. It was rights I needed, the sort of rights that come with might.

  It was time to impose myself and carve out my territory.


  To those who should ever find themselves in a predicament such as I was in, I would recommend the following program:

  Choose a day when the waves are small but regular. You want a sea that will put on a good show when your lifeboat is broadside to it, though without capsizing your boat.

  Stream your sea anchor full out to make your lifeboat as stable and comfortable as possible. Prepare your safe haven from the lifeboat in case you should need it (you most likely will). If you can, devise some means of bodily protection. Almost anything can make a shield. Wrapping clothes or blankets around your limbs will make for a minimal form of armour.

  Now comes the difficult part: you must provoke the animal that is afflicting you. Tiger, rhinoceros,
ostrich, wild boar, brown bear--no matter the beast, you must get its goat. The best way to do this will most likely be to go to the edge of your territory and noisily intrude into the neutral zone. I did just that: I went to the edge of the tarpaulin and stamped upon the middle bench as I mildly blew into the whistle. It is important that you make a consistent, recognizable noise to signal your aggression. But you must be careful. You want to provoke your animal, but only so much. You don't want it to attack you outright. If it does, God be with you. You will be torn to pieces, trampled flat, disembowelled, very likely eaten. You don't want that. You want an animal that is piqued, peeved, vexed, bothered, irked, annoyed--but not homicidal. Under no circumstances should you step into your animal's territory. Contain your aggression to staring into its eyes and hurling toots and taunts.

  When your animal has been roused, work in all bad faith to provoke a border intrusion. A good way of bringing this about in my experience is to back off slowly as you are making your noises. BE SURE NOT TO BREAK EYE CONTACT! As soon as the animal has laid a paw in your territory, or even made a determined advance into the neutral territory, you have achieved your goal. Don't be picky or legalistic as to where its paw actually landed. Be quick to be affronted. Don't wait to construe--misconstrue as fast as you can. The point here is to make your animal understand that its upstairs neighbour is exceptionally persnickety about territory.

  Once your animal has trespassed upon your territory, be unflagging in your outrage. Whether you have fled to your safe haven off the lifeboat or retreated to the back of your territory on the lifeboat, START BLOWING YOUR WHISTLE AT FULL BLAST and IMMEDIATELY TRIP THE SEA ANCHOR. These two actions are of pivotal importance. You must not delay putting them into effect. If you can help your lifeboat get broadside to the waves by other means, with an oar for example, apply yourself right away. The faster your lifeboat broaches to the waves, the better.

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