Life of pi, p.22
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       Life of Pi, p.22

           Yann Martel

  After just a few weeks my body began to deteriorate. My feet and ankles started to swell and I was finding it very tiring to stand.


  There were many skies. The sky was invaded by great white clouds, flat on the bottom but round and billowy on top. The sky was completely cloudless, of a blue quite shattering to the senses. The sky was a heavy, suffocating blanket of grey cloud, but without promise of rain. The sky was thinly overcast. The sky was dappled with small, white, fleecy clouds. The sky was streaked with high, thin clouds that looked like a cotton ball stretched apart. The sky was a featureless milky haze. The sky was a density of dark and blustery rain clouds that passed by without delivering rain. The sky was painted with a small number of flat clouds that looked like sandbars. The sky was a mere block to allow a visual effect on the horizon: sunlight flooding the ocean, the vertical edges between light and shadow perfectly distinct. The sky was a distant black curtain of falling rain. The sky was many clouds at many levels, some thick and opaque, others looking like smoke. The sky was black and spitting rain on my smiling face. The sky was nothing but falling water, a ceaseless deluge that wrinkled and bloated my skin and froze me stiff.

  There were many seas. The sea roared like a tiger. The sea whispered in your ear like a friend telling you secrets. The sea clinked like small change in a pocket. The sea thundered like avalanches. The sea hissed like sandpaper working on wood. The sea sounded like someone vomiting. The sea was dead silent.

  And in between the two, in between the sky and the sea, were all the winds.

  And there were all the nights and all the moons.

  To be a castaway is to be a point perpetually at the centre of a circle. However much things may appear to change--the sea may shift from whisper to rage, the sky might go from fresh blue to blinding white to darkest black--the geometry never changes. Your gaze is always a radius. The circumference is ever great. In fact, the circles multiply. To be a castaway is to be caught in a harrowing ballet of circles. You are at the centre of one circle, while above you two opposing circles spin about. The sun distresses you like a crowd, a noisy, invasive crowd that makes you cup your ears, that makes you close your eyes, that makes you want to hide. The moon distresses you by silently reminding you of your solitude; you open your eyes wide to escape your loneliness. When you look up, you sometimes wonder if at the centre of a solar storm, if in the middle of the Sea of Tranquillity, there isn't another one like you also looking up, also trapped by geometry, also struggling with fear, rage, madness, hopelessness, apathy.

  Otherwise, to be a castaway is to be caught up in grim and exhausting opposites. When it is light, the openness of the sea is blinding and frightening. When it is dark, the darkness is claustrophobic. When it is day, you are hot and wish to be cool and dream of ice cream and pour sea water on yourself. When it is night, you are cold and wish to be warm and dream of hot curries and wrap yourself in blankets. When it is hot, you are parched and wish to be wet. When it rains, you are nearly drowned and wish to be dry. When there is food, there is too much of it and you must feast. When there is none, there is truly none and you starve. When the sea is flat and motionless, you wish it would stir. When it rises up and the circle that imprisons you is broken by hills of water, you suffer that peculiarity of the high seas, suffocation in open spaces, and you wish the sea would be flat again. The opposites often take place at the same moment, so that when the sun is scorching you till you are stricken down, you are also aware that it is drying the strips of fish and meat that are hanging from your lines and that it is a blessing for your solar stills. Conversely, when a rain squall is replenishing your fresh-water supplies, you also know that the humidity will affect your cured provisions and that some will probably go bad, turning pasty and green. When rough weather abates, and it becomes clear that you have survived the sky's attack and the sea's treachery, your jubilation is tempered by the rage that so much fresh water should fall directly into the sea and by the worry that it is the last rain you will ever see, that you will die of thirst before the next drops fall.

  The worst pair of opposites is boredom and terror. Sometimes your life is a pendulum swing from one to the other. The sea is without a wrinkle. There is not a whisper of wind. The hours last forever. You are so bored you sink into a state of apathy close to a coma. Then the sea becomes rough and your emotions are whipped into a frenzy. Yet even these two opposites do not remain distinct. In your boredom there are elements of terror: you break down into tears; you are filled with dread; you scream; you deliberately hurt yourself. And in the grip of terror--the worst storm--you yet feel boredom, a deep weariness with it all.

  Only death consistently excites your emotions, whether contemplating it when life is safe and stale, or fleeing it when life is threatened and precious.

  Life on a lifeboat isn't much of a life. It is like an end game in chess, a game with few pieces. The elements couldn't be more simple, nor the stakes higher. Physically it is extraordinarily arduous, and morally it is killing. You must make adjustments if you want to survive. Much becomes expendable. You get your happiness where you can. You reach a point where you're at the bottom of hell, yet you have your arms crossed and a smile on your face, and you feel you're the luckiest person on earth. Why? Because at your feet you have a tiny dead fish.


  There were sharks every day, mainly makos and blue sharks, but also oceanic whitetips, and once a tiger shark straight from the blackest of nightmares. Dawn and dusk were their favourite times. They never seriously troubled us. On occasion one knocked the hull of the lifeboat with its tail. I don't think it was accidental (other marine life did it too, turtles and even dorados). I believe it was part of a shark's way of determining the nature of the lifeboat. A good whack on the offender's nose with a hatchet sent it vanishing post-haste into the deep. The main nuisance of sharks was that they made being in the water risky, like trespassing on a property where there's a sign saying Beware of Dog. Otherwise, I grew quite fond of sharks. They were like curmudgeonly old friends who would never admit that they liked me yet came round to see me all the time. The blue sharks were smaller, usually no more than four or five feet long, and the most attractive, sleek and slender, with small mouths and discreet gill slits. Their backs were a rich ultramarine and their stomachs snow white, colours that vanished to grey or black when they were at any depth, but which close to the surface sparkled with surprising brilliance. The makos were larger and had mouths bursting with frightening teeth, but they too were nicely coloured, an indigo blue that shimmered beautifully in the sun. The oceanic whitetips were often shorter than the makos--some of which stretched to twelve feet--but they were much stockier and had enormous dorsal fins that they sailed high above the surface of the water, like a war banner, a rapidly moving sight that was always nerve-racking to behold. Besides, they were a dull colour, a sort of greyish brown, and the mottled white tips of their fins held no special attraction.

  I caught a number of small sharks, blue sharks for the most part, but some makos too. Each time it was just after sunset, in the dying light of the day, and I caught them with my bare hands as they came close to the lifeboat.

  The first one was my largest, a mako over four feet long. It had come and gone near the bow several times. As it was passing by yet again, I impulsively dropped my hand into the water and grabbed it just ahead of the tail, where its body was thinnest. Its harsh skin afforded such a marvellously good grip that without thinking about what I was doing, I pulled. As I pulled, it jumped, giving my arm a terrific shake. To my horror and delight the thing vaulted in the air in an explosion of water and spray. For the merest fraction of a second I didn't know what to do next. The thing was smaller than I--but wasn't I being a foolhardy Goliath here? Shouldn't I let go? I turned and swung, and falling on the tarpaulin, I threw the mako towards the stern. The fish fell from the sky into Richard Parker's territory. It landed with a crash and started thwacking about with such thunder that I was
afraid it would demolish the boat. Richard Parker was startled. He attacked immediately.

  An epic battle began. Of interest to zoologists I can report the following: a tiger will not at first attack a shark out of water with its jaws but will rather strike at it with its forepaws. Richard Parker started clubbing the shark. I shuddered at every blow. They were simply terrible. Just one delivered to a human would break every bone, would turn any piece of furniture into splinters, would reduce an entire house into a pile of rubble. That the mako was not enjoying the treatment was evident from the way it was twisting and turning and beating its tail and reaching with its mouth.

  Perhaps it was because Richard Parker was not familiar with sharks, had never encountered a predatory fish--whatever the case, it happened: an accident, one of those few times when I was reminded that Richard Parker was not perfect, that despite his honed instincts he too could bumble. He put his left paw into the mako's mouth. The mako closed its jaws. Immediately Richard Parker reared onto his back legs. The shark was jerked up, but it wouldn't let go. Richard Parker fell back down, opened his mouth wide and full-out roared. I felt a blast of hot air against my body. The air visibly shook, like the heat coming off a road on a hot day. I can well imagine that somewhere far off, 150 miles away, a ship's watch looked up, startled, and later reported the oddest thing, that he thought he heard a cat's meow coming from three o'clock. Days later that roar was still ringing in my guts. But a shark is deaf, conventionally speaking. So while I, who wouldn't think of pinching a tiger's paw, let alone of trying to swallow one, received a volcanic roar full in the face and quaked and trembled and turned liquid with fear and collapsed, the shark perceived only a dull vibration.

  Richard Parker turned and started clawing the shark's head with his free front paw and biting it with his jaws, while his rear legs began tearing at its stomach and back. The shark held on to his paw, its only line of defence and attack, and thrashed its tail. Tiger and shark twisted and tumbled about. With great effort I managed to gain enough control of my body to get onto the raft and release it. The lifeboat drifted away. I saw flashes of orange and deep blue, of fur and skin, as the lifeboat rocked from side to side. Richard Parker's snarling was simply terrifying.

  At last the boat stopped moving. After several minutes Richard Parker sat up, licking his left paw.

  In the following days he spent much time tending his four paws. A shark's skin is covered with minute tubercles that make it as rough as sandpaper. He had no doubt cut himself while repeatedly raking the shark. His left paw was injured, but the damage did not seem permanent; no toes or claws were missing. As for the mako, except for the tips of the tail and the mouth area, incongruously untouched, it was a half-eaten, butchered mess. Chunks of reddish grey flesh and clumps of internal organs were strewn about.

  I managed to gaff some of the shark's remains, but to my disappointment the vertebrae of sharks do not hold fluid. At least the flesh was tasty and unfishy, and the crunchiness of cartilage was a welcome respite from so much soft food.

  Subsequently I went for smaller sharks, pups really, and I killed them myself. I found that stabbing them through the eyes with the knife was a faster, less tiresome way of killing them than hacking at the tops of their heads with the hatchet.


  Of all the dorados, I remember one in particular, a special dorado. It was early morning on a cloudy day, and we were in the midst of a storm of flying fish. Richard Parker was actively swatting at them. I was huddled behind a turtle shell, shielding myself from the flying fish. I had a gaff with a piece of net hanging from it extended into the open. I was hoping to catch fish in this way. I wasn't having much luck. A flying fish whizzed by. The dorado that was chasing it burst out of the water. It was a bad calculation. The anxious flying fish got away, just missing my net, but the dorado hit the gunnel like a cannonball. The thud it made shook the whole boat. A spurt of blood sprayed the tarpaulin. I reacted quickly. I dropped beneath the hail of flying fish and reached for the dorado just ahead of a shark. I pulled it aboard. It was dead, or nearly there, and turning all kinds of colours. What a catch! What a catch! I thought excitedly. Thanks be to you, Jesus-Matsya. The fish was fat and fleshy. It must have weighed a good forty pounds. It would feed a horde. Its eyes and spine would irrigate a desert.

  Alas, Richard Parker's great head had turned my way. I sensed it from the corner of my eyes. The flying fish were still coming, but he was no longer interested in them; it was the fish in my hands that was now the focus of his attention. He was eight feet away. His mouth was half open, a fish wing dangling from it. His back became rounder. His rump wriggled. His tail twitched. It was clear: he was in a crouch and he was making to attack me. It was too late to get away, too late even to blow my whistle. My time had come.

  But enough was enough. I had suffered so much. I was so hungry. There are only so many days you can go without eating.

  And so, in a moment of insanity brought on by hunger--because I was more set on eating than I was on staying alive--without any means of defence, naked in every sense of the term, I looked Richard Parker dead in the eyes. Suddenly his brute strength meant only moral weakness. It was nothing compared to the strength in my mind. I stared into his eyes, wide-eyed and defiant, and we faced off. 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. But to know that and to apply it are two very different things (and it's a useless bit of knowledge if you're hoping to stare down a gregarious cat. While you hold one lion in the thrall of your gaze, another will come up to you from behind). 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.

  Richard Parker licked his nose, groaned and turned away. He angrily batted a flying fish. I had won. I gasped with disbelief, heaved the dorado into my hands and hurried away to the raft. Shortly thereafter, I delivered to Richard Parker a fair chunk of the fish.

  From that day onwards I felt my mastery was no longer in question, and I began to spend progressively more time on the lifeboat, first at the bow, then, as I gained confidence, on the more comfortable tarpaulin. I was still scared of Richard Parker, but only when it was necessary. His simple presence no longer strained me. You can get used to anything--haven't I already said that? Isn't that what all survivors say?

  Initially I lay on the tarpaulin with my head against its rolled-up bow edge. It was raised a little--since the ends of the lifeboat were higher than its middle--and so I could keep an eye on Richard Parker.

  Later on I turned the other way, with my head resting just above the middle bench, my back to Richard Parker and his territory. In this position I was further away from the edges of the boat and less exposed to wind and spray.


  I know my survival is hard to believe. When I think back, I can hardly believe it myself.

  My crude exploitation of Richard Parker's weak sea legs is not the only explanation. There is another: I was the source of food and water. Richard Parker had been a zoo animal as long as he could remember, and he was used to sustenance coming to him without his lifting a paw. True, when it rained and the whole boat became a rain catcher, he understood where the water came from. And when we were hit by a school of flying fish, there too my role was not apparent. But these events did not change the reality of things, which was that when he looked beyond the gunnel, he saw no jungle that he could hunt in and no river from which he could drink freely. Yet I brought him food and I brought him fresh water. My agency was pure and miraculous. It conferred power upon me. Proof: I remained alive day after day, week after week. Proof: he did not attack me, even when I was asleep on the tarpaulin. Proof: I am here to tell you this story.


  I kept rainwater and the water I collected from the solar stills in the locker, out of R
ichard Parker's sight, in the three 50-litre plastic bags. I sealed them with string. Those plastic bags wouldn't have been more precious to me had they contained gold, sapphires, rubies and diamonds. I worried incessantly about them. My worst nightmare was that I would open the locker one morning and find that all three had spilled or, worse still, had split. To forestall such a tragedy, I wrapped them in blankets to keep them from rubbing against the metal hull of the lifeboat, and I moved them as little as possible to reduce wear and tear. But I fretted over the necks of the bags. Would the string not wear them thin? How would I seal the bags if their necks were torn?

  When the going was good, when the rain was torrential, when the bags had as much water as I thought they could take, I filled the bailing cups, the two plastic buckets, the two multi-purpose plastic containers, the three beakers and the empty cans of water (which I now preciously kept). Next I filled all the plastic vomit bags, sealing them by twisting them shut and making a knot. After that, if the rain was still coming down, I used myself as a container. I stuck the end of the rain-catcher tube in my mouth and I drank and I drank and I drank.

  I always added a little sea water to Richard Parker's fresh water, in a greater proportion in the days following a rainfall, in a lesser during periods of drought. On occasion, in the early days, he dipped his head overboard, sniffed the sea and took a few sips, but quickly he stopped doing it.

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