Life of pi, p.27
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       Life of Pi, p.27

           Yann Martel

  The meerkats looked away. They did it like one man, all of them turning in the same direction at exactly the same time. I pulled myself out to see what it was. It was Richard Parker. He confirmed what I had suspected, that these meerkats had gone for so many generations without predators that any notion of flight distance, of flight, of plain fear, had been genetically weeded out of them. He was moving through them, blazing a trail of murder and mayhem, devouring one meerkat after another, blood dripping from his mouth, and they, cheek to jowl with a tiger, were jumping up and down on the spot, as if crying, "My turn! My turn! My turn!" I would see this scene time and again. Nothing distracted the meerkats from their little lives of pond staring and algae nibbling. Whether Richard Parker skulked up in masterly tiger fashion before landing upon them in a thunder of roaring, or slouched by indifferently, it was all the same to them. They were not to be ruffled. Meekness ruled.

  He killed beyond his need. He killed meerkats that he did not eat. In animals, the urge to kill is separate from the urge to eat. To go for so long without prey and suddenly to have so many--his pent-up hunting instinct was lashing out with a vengeance.

  He was far away. There was no danger to me. At least for the moment.

  The next morning, after he had gone, I cleaned the lifeboat. It needed it badly. I won't describe what the accumulation of human and animal skeletons, mixed in with innumerable fish and turtle remains, looked like. The whole foul, disgusting mess went overboard. I didn't dare step onto the floor of the boat for fear of leaving a tangible trace of my presence to Richard Parker, so the job had to be done with the gaff from the tarpaulin or from the side of the boat, standing in the water. What I could not clean up with the gaff--the smells and the smears--I rinsed with buckets of water.

  That night he entered his new, clean den without comment. In his jaws were a number of dead meerkats, which he ate during the night.

  I spent the following days eating and drinking and bathing and observing the meerkats and walking and running and resting and growing stronger. My running became smooth and unselfconscious, a source of euphoria. My skin healed. My pains and aches left me. Put simply, I returned to life.

  I explored the island. I tried to walk around it but gave up. I estimate that it was about six or seven miles in diameter, which means a circumference of about twenty miles. What I saw seemed to indicate that the shore was unvarying in its features. The same blinding greenness throughout, the same ridge, the same incline from ridge to water, the same break in the monotony: a scraggly tree here and there. Exploring the shore revealed one extraordinary thing: the algae, and therefore the island itself, varied in height and density depending on the weather. On very hot days, the algae's weave became tight and dense, and the island increased in height; the climb to the ridge became steeper and the ridge higher. It was not a quick process. Only a hot spell lasting several days triggered it. But it was unmistakable. I believe it had to do with water conservation, with exposing less of the algae's surface to the sun's rays.

  The converse phenomenon--the loosening of the island--was faster, more dramatic, and the reasons for it more evident. At such times the ridge came down, and the continental shelf, so to speak, stretched out, and the algae along the shore became so slack that I tended to catch my feet in it. This loosening was brought on by overcast weather and, faster still, by heavy seas.

  I lived through a major storm while on the island, and after the experience, I would have trusted staying on it during the worst hurricane. It was an awe-inspiring spectacle to sit in a tree and see giant waves charging the island, seemingly preparing to ride up the ridge and unleash bedlam and chaos--only to see each one melt away as if it had come upon quicksand. In this respect, the island was Gandhian: it resisted by not resisting. Every wave vanished into the island without a clash, with only a little frothing and foaming. A tremor shaking the ground and ripples wrinkling the surface of the ponds were the only indications that some great force was passing through. And pass through it did: in the lee of the island, considerably diminished, waves emerged and went on their way. It was the strangest sight, that, to see waves leaving a shoreline. The storm, and the resulting minor earthquakes, did not perturb the meerkats in the least. They went about their business as if the elements did not exist.

  Harder to understand was the island's complete desolation. I never saw such a stripped-down ecology. The air of the place carried no flies, no butterflies, no bees, no insects of any kind. The trees sheltered no birds. The plains hid no rodents, no grubs, no worms, no snakes, no scorpions; they gave rise to no other trees, no shrubs, no grasses, no flowers. The ponds harboured no freshwater fish. The seashore teemed with no weeds, no crabs, no crayfish, no coral, no pebbles, no rocks. With the single, notable exception of the meerkats, there was not the least foreign matter on the island, organic or inorganic. It was nothing but shining green algae and shining green trees.

  The trees were not parasites. I discovered this one day when I ate so much algae at the base of a small tree that I exposed its roots. I saw that the roots did not go their own independent way into the algae, but rather joined it, became it. Which meant that these trees either lived in a symbiotic relationship with the algae, in a giving-and-taking that was to their mutual advantage, or, simpler still, were an integral part of the algae. I would guess that the latter was the case because the trees did not seem to bear flowers or fruit. I doubt that an independent organism, however intimate the symbiosis it has entered upon, would give up on so essential a part of life as reproduction. The leaves' appetite for the sun, as testified by their abundance, their breadth and their super-chlorophyll greenness, made me suspect that the trees had primarily an energy-gathering function. But this is conjecture.

  There is one last observation I would like to make. It is based on intuition rather than hard evidence. It is this: that the island was not an island in the conventional sense of the term--that is, a small landmass rooted to the floor of the ocean--but was rather a free-floating organism, a ball of algae of leviathan proportions. And it is my hunch that the ponds reached down to the sides of this huge, buoyant mass and opened onto the ocean, which explained the otherwise inexplicable presence in them of dorados and other fish of the open seas.

  It would all bear much further study, but unfortunately I lost the algae that I took away.

  Just as I returned to life, so did Richard Parker. By dint of stuffing himself with meerkats, his weight went up, his fur began to glisten again, and he returned to his healthy look of old. He kept up his habit of returning to the lifeboat at the end of every day. I always made sure I was there before him, copiously marking my territory with urine so that he didn't forget who was who and what was whose. But he left at first light and roamed further afield than I did; the island being the same all over, I generally stayed within one area. I saw very little of him during the day. And I grew nervous. I saw how he raked the trees with his forepaws--great deep gouges in the trunks, they were. And I began to hear his hoarse roaring, that aaonh cry as rich as gold or honey and as spine-chilling as the depths of an unsafe mine or a thousand angry bees. That he was searching for a female was not in itself what troubled me; it was that it meant he was comfortable enough on the island to be thinking about producing young. I worried that in this new condition he might not tolerate another male in his territory, his night territory in particular, especially if his insistent cries went unanswered, as surely they would.

  One day I was on a walk in the forest. I was walking vigorously, caught up in my own thoughts. I passed a tree--and practically ran into Richard Parker. Both of us were startled. He hissed and reared up on his hind legs, towering over me, his great paws ready to swat me down. I stood frozen to the spot, paralyzed with fear and shock. He dropped back on all fours and moved away. When he had gone three, four paces, he turned and reared up again, growling this time. I continued to stand like a statue. He went another few paces and repeated the threat a third time. Satisfied that I was not a menace, he
ambled off. As soon as I had caught my breath and stopped trembling, I brought the whistle to my mouth and started running after him. He had already gone a good distance, but he was still within sight. My running was powerful. He turned, saw me, crouched--and then bolted. I blew into the whistle as hard as I could, wishing that its sound would travel as far and wide as the cry of a lonely tiger.

  That night, as he was resting two feet beneath me, I came to the conclusion that I had to step into the circus ring again.

  The major difficulty in training animals is that they operate either by instinct or by rote. The shortcut of intelligence to make new associations that are not instinctive is minimally available. Therefore, imprinting in an animal's mind the artificial connection that if it does a certain action, say, roll over, it will get a treat can be achieved only by mind-numbing repetition. It is a slow process that depends as much on luck as on hard work, all the more so when the animal is an adult. I blew into the whistle till my lungs hurt. I pounded my chest till it was covered with bruises. I shouted "Hep! Hep! Hep!"--my tiger-language command to say "Do!"--thousands of times. I tossed hundreds of meerkat morsels at him that I would gladly have eaten myself. The training of tigers is no easy feat. They are considerably less flexible in their mental make-up than other animals that are commonly trained in circuses and zoos--sea lions and chimpanzees, for example. But I don't want to take too much credit for what I managed to do with Richard Parker. My good fortune, the fortune that saved my life, was that he was not only a young adult but a pliable young adult, an omega animal. I was afraid that conditions on the island might play against me, that with such an abundance of food and water and so much space he might become relaxed and confident, less open to my influence. But he remained tense. I knew him well enough to sense it. At night in the lifeboat he was unsettled and noisy. I assigned this tension to the new environment of the island; any change, even positive, will make an animal tense. Whatever the cause, the strain he was under meant that he continued to show a readiness to oblige; more, that he felt a need to oblige.

  I trained him to jump through a hoop I made with thin branches. It was a simple routine of four jumps. Each one earned him part of a meerkat. As he lumbered towards me, I first held the hoop at the end of my left arm, some three feet off the ground. When he had leapt through it, and as he finished his run, I took hold of the hoop with my right hand and, my back to him, commanded him to return and leap through it again. For the third jump I knelt on the ground and held the hoop over my head. It was a nerve-racking experience to see him come my way. I never lost the fear that he would not jump but attack me. Thankfully, he jumped every time. After which I got up and tossed the hoop so that it rolled like a wheel. Richard Parker was supposed to follow it and go through it one last time before it fell over. He was never very good at this last part of the act, either because I failed to throw the hoop properly or because he clumsily ran into it. But at least he followed it, which meant he got away from me. He was always filled with amazement when the hoop fell over. He would look at it intently, as if it were some great fellow animal he had been running with that had collapsed unexpectedly. He would stay next to it, sniffing it. I would throw him his last treat and move away.

  Eventually I quit the boat. It seemed absurd to spend my nights in such cramped quarters with an animal who was becoming roomy in his needs, when I could have an entire island. I decided the safe thing to do would be to sleep in a tree. Richard Parker's nocturnal practice of sleeping in the lifeboat was never a law in my mind. It would not be a good idea for me to be outside my territory, sleeping and defenceless on the ground, the one time he decided to go for a midnight stroll.

  So one day I left the boat with the net, a rope and some blankets. I sought out a handsome tree on the edge of the forest and threw the rope over the lowest branch. My fitness was such that I had no problem pulling myself up by my arms and climbing the tree. I found two solid branches that were level and close together, and I tied the net to them. I returned at the end of the day.

  I had just finished folding the blankets to make my mattress when I detected a commotion among the meerkats. I looked. I pushed aside branches to see better. I looked in every direction and as far as the horizon. It was unmistakable. The meerkats were abandoning the ponds--indeed, the whole plain--and rapidly making for the forest. An entire nation of meerkats was on the move, their backs arched and their feet a blur. I was wondering what further surprise these animals held in store for me when I noticed with consternation that the ones from the pond closest to me had surrounded my tree and were climbing up the trunk. The trunk was disappearing under a wave of determined meerkats. I thought they were coming to attack me, that here was the reason why Richard Parker slept in the lifeboat: during the day the meerkats were docile and harmless, but at night, under their collective weight, they crushed their enemies ruthlessly. I was both afraid and indignant. To survive for so long in a lifeboat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger only to die up a tree at the hands of two-pound meerkats struck me as a tragedy too unfair and too ridiculous to bear.

  They meant me no harm. They climbed up to me, over me, about me--and past me. They settled upon every branch in the tree. It became laden with them. They even took over my bed. And the same as far as the eye could see. They were climbing every tree in sight. The entire forest was turning brown, an autumn that came in a few minutes. Collectively, as they scampered by in droves to claim empty trees deeper into the forest, they made more noise than a stampeding herd of elephants.

  The plain, meanwhile, was becoming bare and depopulated.

  From a bunk bed with a tiger to an overcrowded dormitory with meerkats--will I be believed when I say that life can take the most surprising turns? I jostled with meerkats so that I could have a place in my own bed. They snuggled up to me. Not a square inch of space was left free.

  They settled down and stopped squeaking and chirping. Silence came to the tree. We fell asleep.

  I woke up at dawn covered from head to toe in a living fur blanket. Some meerkittens had discovered the warmer parts of my body. I had a tight, sweaty collar of them around my neck--and it must have been their mother who had settled herself so contentedly on the side of my head--while others had wedged themselves in my groin area.

  They left the tree as briskly and as unceremoniously as they had invaded it. It was the same with every tree around. The plain grew thick with meerkats, and the noises of their day started filling the air. The tree looked empty. And I felt empty, a little. I had liked the experience of sleeping with the meerkats.

  I began to sleep in the tree every night. I emptied the lifeboat of useful items and made myself a nice treetop bedroom. I got used to the unintentional scratches I received from meerkats climbing over me. My only complaint would be that animals higher up occasionally relieved themselves on me.

  One night the meerkats woke me up. They were chattering and shaking. I sat up and looked in the direction they were looking. The sky was cloudless and the moon full. The land was robbed of its colour. Everything glowed strangely in shades of black, grey and white. It was the pond. Silver shapes were moving in it, emerging from below and breaking the black surface of the water.

  Fish. Dead fish. They were floating up from deep down. The pond--remember, forty feet across--was filling up with all kinds of dead fish until its surface was no longer black but silver. And from the way the surface kept on being disturbed, it was evident that more dead fish were coming up.

  By the time a dead shark quietly appeared, the meerkats were in a fury of excitement, shrieking like tropical birds. The hysteria spread to the neighbouring trees. It was deafening. I wondered whether I was about to see the sight of fish being hauled up trees.

  Not a single meerkat went down to the pond. None even made the first motions of going down. They did no more than loudly express their frustration.

  I found the sight sinister. There was something disturbing about all those dead fish.

  I lay down again and fo
ught to go back to sleep over the meerkats' racket. At first light I was stirred from my slumber by the hullabaloo they made trooping down the tree. Yawning and stretching, I looked down at the pond that had been the source of such fire and fluster the previous night.

  It was empty. Or nearly. But it wasn't the work of the meerkats. They were just now diving in to get what was left.

  The fish had disappeared. I was confounded. Was I looking at the wrong pond? No, for sure it was that one. Was I certain it was not the meerkats that had emptied it? Absolutely. I could hardly see them heaving an entire shark out of water, let alone carrying it on their backs and disappearing with it. Could it be Richard Parker? Possibly in part, but not an entire pond in one night.

  It was a complete mystery. No amount of staring into the pond and at its deep green walls could explain to me what had happened to the fish. The next night I looked, but no new fish came into the pond.

  The answer to the mystery came sometime later, from deep within the forest.

  The trees were larger in the centre of the forest and closely set. It remained clear below, there being no underbrush of any kind, but overhead the canopy was so dense that the sky was quite blocked off, or, another way of putting it, the sky was solidly green. The trees were so near one another that their branches grew into each other's spaces; they touched and twisted around each other so that it was hard to tell where one tree ended and the next began. I noted that they had clean, smooth trunks, with none of the countless tiny marks on their bark made by climbing meerkats. I easily guessed the reason why: the meerkats could travel from one tree to another without the need to climb up and down. I found, as proof of this, many trees on the perimeter of the heart of the forest whose bark had been practically shredded. These trees were without a doubt the gates into a meerkat arboreal city with more bustle in it than Calcutta.

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