Life of pi, p.4
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       Life of Pi, p.4

           Yann Martel
 

  "I didn't realize you liked the colour yellow so much."

  The colour yellow? I looked around. No one must hear what he was about to say, especially not one of his lackeys. "Ravi, what do you mean?" I whispered.

  "It's all right with me, brother. Anything's better than 'Pissing'. Even 'Lemon Pie'."

  As he sauntered away he smiled and said, "You look a bit red in the face."

  But he held his peace.

  And so, in that Greek letter that looks like a shack with a corrugated tin roof, in that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge.

  CHAPTER 6

  He's an excellent cook. His overheated house is always smelling of something delicious. His spice rack looks like an apothecary's shop. When he opens his refrigerator or his cupboards, there are many brand names I don't recognize; in fact, I can't even tell what language they're in. We are in India. But he handles Western dishes equally well. He makes me the most zesty yet subtle macaroni and cheese I've ever had. And his vegetarian tacos would be the envy of all Mexico.

  I notice something else: his cupboards are jam-packed. Behind every door, on every shelf, stand mountains of neatly stacked cans and packages. A reserve of food to last the siege of Leningrad.

  CHAPTER 7

  It was my luck to have a few good teachers in my youth, men and women who came into my dark head and lit a match. One of these was Mr. Satish Kumar, my biology teacher at Petit Seminaire and an active Communist who was always hoping Tamil Nadu would stop electing movie stars and go the way of Kerala. He had a most peculiar appearance. The top of his head was bald and pointy, yet he had the most impressive jowls I have ever seen, and his narrow shoulders gave way to a massive stomach that looked like the base of a mountain, except that the mountain stood in thin air, for it stopped abruptly and disappeared horizontally into his pants. It's a mystery to me how his stick-like legs supported the weight above them, but they did, though they moved in surprising ways at times, as if his knees could bend in any direction. His construction was geometric: he looked like two triangles, a small one and a larger one, balanced on two parallel lines. But organic, quite warty actually, and with sprigs of black hair sticking out of his ears. And friendly. His smile seemed to take up the whole base of his triangular head.

  Mr. Kumar was the first avowed atheist I ever met. I discovered this not in the classroom but at the zoo. He was a regular visitor who read the labels and descriptive notices in their entirety and approved of every animal he saw. Each to him was a triumph of logic and mechanics, and nature as a whole was an exceptionally fine illustration of science. To his ears, when an animal felt the urge to mate, it said "Gregor Mendel", recalling the father of genetics, and when it was time to show its mettle, "Charles Darwin", the father of natural selection, and what we took to be bleating, grunting, hissing, snorting, roaring, growling, howling, chirping and screeching were but the thick accents of foreigners. When Mr. Kumar visited the zoo, it was to take the pulse of the universe, and his stethoscopic mind always confirmed to him that everything was in order, that everything was order. He left the zoo feeling scientifically refreshed.

  The first time I saw his triangular form teetering and tottering about the zoo, I was shy to approach him. As much as I liked him as a teacher, he was a figure of authority, and I, a subject. I was a little afraid of him. I observed him at a distance. He had just come to the rhinoceros pit. The two Indian rhinos were great attractions at the zoo because of the goats. Rhinos are social animals, and when we got Peak, a young wild male, he was showing signs of suffering from isolation and he was eating less and less. As a stopgap measure, while he searched for a female, Father thought of seeing if Peak couldn't be accustomed to living with goats. If it worked, it would save a valuable animal. If it didn't, it would only cost a few goats. It worked marvellously. Peak and the herd of goats became inseparable, even when Summit arrived. Now, when the rhinos bathed, the goats stood around the muddy pool, and when the goats ate in their corner, Peak and Summit stood next to them like guards. The living arrangement was very popular with the public.

  Mr. Kumar looked up and saw me. He smiled and, one hand holding onto the railing, the other waving, signalled me to come over.

  "Hello, Pi," he said.

  "Hello, sir. It's good of you to come to the zoo."

  "I come here all the time. One might say it's my temple. This is interesting ..." He was indicating the pit. "If we had politicians like these goats and rhinos we'd have fewer problems in our country. Unfortunately we have a prime minister who has the armour plating of a rhinoceros without any of its good sense."

  I didn't know much about politics. Father and Mother complained regularly about Mrs. Gandhi, but it meant little to me. She lived far away in the north, not at the zoo and not in Pondicherry. But I felt I had to say something.

  "Religion will save us," I said. Since when I could remember, religion had been very close to my heart.

  "Religion?" Mr. Kumar grinned broadly. "I don't believe in religion. Religion is darkness."

  Darkness? I was puzzled. I thought, Darkness is the last thing that religion is. Religion is light. Was he testing me? Was he saying, "Religion is darkness," the way he sometimes said in class things like "Mammals lay eggs," to see if someone would correct him? ("Only platypuses, sir.")

  "There are no grounds for going beyond a scientific explanation of reality and no sound reason for believing anything but our sense experience. A clear intellect, close attention to detail and a little scientific knowledge will expose religion as superstitious bosh. God does not exist."

  Did he say that? Or am I remembering the lines of later atheists? At any rate, it was something of the sort. I had never heard such words.

  "Why tolerate darkness? Everything is here and clear, if only we look carefully."

  He was pointing at Peak. Now though I had great admiration for Peak, I had never thought of a rhinoceros as a light bulb.

  He spoke again. "Some people say God died during the Partition in 1947. He may have died in 1971 during the war. Or he may have died yesterday here in Pondicherry in an orphanage. That's what some people say, Pi. When I was your age, I lived in bed, racked with polio. I asked myself every day, 'Where is God? Where is God? Where is God?' God never came. It wasn't God who saved me--it was medicine. Reason is my prophet and it tells me that as a watch stops, so we die. It's the end. If the watch doesn't work properly, it must be fixed here and now by us. One day we will take hold of the means of production and there will be justice on earth."

  This was all a bit much for me. The tone was right--loving and brave--but the details seemed bleak. I said nothing. It wasn't for fear of angering Mr. Kumar. I was more afraid that in a few words thrown out he might destroy something that I loved. What if his words had the effect of polio on me? What a terrible disease that must be if it could kill God in a man.

  He walked off, pitching and rolling in the wild sea that was the steady ground. "Don't forget the test on Tuesday. Study hard, 3.14!"

  "Yes, Mr. Kumar."

  He became my favourite teacher at Petit Seminaire and the reason I studied zoology at the University of Toronto. I felt a kinship with him. It was my first clue that atheists are my brothers and sisters of a different faith, and every word they speak speaks of faith. Like me, they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them--and then they leap.

  I'll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.

  CHAPTER 8

  We commonly say in the trade that the most dangerous animal in a zoo is Man. In a general way we mean how our
species' excessive predatoriness has made the entire planet our prey. More specifically, we have in mind the people who feed fishhooks to the otters, razors to the bears, apples with small nails in them to the elephants and hardware variations on the theme: ballpoint pens, paper clips, safety pins, rubber bands, combs, coffee spoons, horseshoes, pieces of broken glass, rings, brooches and other jewellery (and not just cheap plastic bangles: gold wedding bands, too), drinking straws, plastic cutlery, ping-pong balls, tennis balls and so on. The obituary of zoo animals that have died from being fed foreign bodies would include gorillas, bison, storks, rheas, ostriches, seals, sea lions, big cats, bears, camels, elephants, monkeys, and most every variety of deer, ruminant and songbird. Among zookeepers, Goliath's death is famous; he was a bull elephant seal, a great big venerable beast of two tons, star of his European zoo, loved by all visitors. He died of internal bleeding after someone fed him a broken beer bottle.

  The cruelty is often more active and direct. The literature contains reports on the many torments inflicted upon zoo animals: a shoebill dying of shock after having its beak smashed with a hammer; a moose stag losing its beard, along with a strip of flesh the size of an index finger, to a visitor's knife (this same moose was poisoned six months later); a monkey's arm broken after reaching out for proffered nuts; a deer's antlers attacked with a hacksaw; a zebra stabbed with a sword; and other assaults on other animals, with walking sticks, umbrellas, hairpins, knitting needles, scissors and whatnot, often with an aim to taking an eye out or to injuring sexual parts. Animals are also poisoned. And there are indecencies even more bizarre: onanists breaking a sweat on monkeys, ponies, birds; a religious freak who cut a snake's head off; a deranged man who took to urinating in an elk's mouth.

  At Pondicherry we were relatively fortunate. We were spared the sadists who plied European and American zoos. Nonetheless, our golden agouti vanished, stolen by someone who ate it, Father suspected. Various birds--pheasants, peacocks, macaws--lost feathers to people greedy for their beauty. We caught a man with a knife climbing into the pen for mouse deer; he said he was going to punish evil Ravana (who in the Ramayana took the form of a deer when he kidnapped Sita, Rama's consort). Another man was nabbed in the process of stealing a cobra. He was a snake charmer whose own snake had died. Both were saved: the cobra from a life of servitude and bad music, and the man from a possible death bite. We had to deal on occasion with stone throwers, who found the animals too placid and wanted a reaction. And we had the lady whose sari was caught by a lion. She spun like a yo-yo, choosing mortal embarrassment over mortal end. The thing was, it wasn't even an accident. She had leaned over, thrust her hand in the cage and waved the end of her sari in the lion's face, with what intent we never figured out. She was not injured; there were many fascinated men who came to her assistance. Her flustered explanation to Father was, "Whoever heard of a lion eating a cotton sari? I thought lions were carnivores." Our worst troublemakers were the visitors who gave food to the animals. Despite our vigilance, Dr. Atal, the zoo veterinarian, could tell by the number of animals with digestive disturbances which had been the busy days at the zoo. He called "tidbit-itis" the cases of enteritis or gastritis due to too many carbohydrates, especially sugar. Sometimes we wished people had stuck to sweets. People have a notion that animals can eat anything without the least consequence to their health. Not so. One of our sloth bears became seriously ill with severe hemorrhagic enteritis after being given fish that had gone putrid by a man who was convinced he was doing a good deed.

  Just beyond the ticket booth Father had had painted on a wall in bright red letters the question: DO YOU KNOW WHICH IS THE MOST DANGEROUS ANIMAL IN THE ZOO? An arrow pointed to a small curtain. There were so many eager, curious hands that pulled at the curtain that we had to replace it regularly. Behind it was a mirror.

  But I learned at my expense that Father believed there was another animal even more dangerous than us, and one that was extremely common, too, found on every continent, in every habitat: the redoubtable species Animalus anthropomorphicus, the animal as seen through human eyes. We've all met one, perhaps even owned one. It is an animal that is "cute", "friendly", "loving", "devoted", "merry", "understanding". These animals lie in ambush in every toy store and children's zoo. Countless stories are told of them. They are the pendants of those "vicious", "bloodthirsty", "depraved" animals that inflame the ire of the maniacs I have just mentioned, who vent their spite on them with walking sticks and umbrellas. In both cases we look at an animal and see a mirror. The obsession with putting ourselves at the centre of everything is the bane not only of theologians but also of zoologists.

  I learned the lesson that an animal is an animal, essentially and practically removed from us, twice: once with Father and once with Richard Parker.

  It was on a Sunday morning. I was quietly playing on my own. Father called out.

  "Children, come here."

  Something was wrong. His tone of voice set off a small alarm bell in my head. I quickly reviewed my conscience. It was clear. Ravi must be in trouble again. I wondered what he had done this time. I walked into the living room. Mother was there. That was unusual. The disciplining of children, like the tending of animals, was generally left to Father. Ravi walked in last, guilt written all over his criminal face.

  "Ravi, Piscine, I have a very important lesson for you today."

  "Oh really, is this necessary?" interrupted Mother. Her face was flushed.

  I swallowed. If Mother, normally so unruffled, so calm, was worried, even upset, it meant we were in serious trouble. I exchanged glances with Ravi.

  "Yes, it is," said Father, annoyed. "It may very well save their lives."

  Save our lives! It was no longer a small alarm bell that was ringing in my head--they were big bells now, like the ones we heard from Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, not far from the zoo.

  "But Piscine? He's only eight," Mother insisted.

  "He's the one who worries me the most."

  "I'm innocent!" I burst out. "It's Ravi's fault, whatever it is. He did it!"

  "What?" said Ravi. "I haven't done anything wrong." He gave me the evil eye.

  "Shush!" said Father, raising his hand. He was looking at Mother. "Gita, you've seen Piscine. He's at that age when boys run around and poke their noses everywhere."

  Me? A run-arounder? An everywhere-nose-poker? Not so, not so! Defend me, Mother, defend me, I implored in my heart. But she only sighed and nodded, a signal that the terrible business could proceed.

  "Come with me," said Father.

  We set out like prisoners off to their execution.

  We left the house, went through the gate, entered the zoo. It was early and the zoo hadn't opened yet to the public. Animal keepers and groundskeepers were going about their work. I noticed Sitaram, who oversaw the orang-utans, my favourite keeper. He paused to watch us go by. We passed birds, bears, apes, monkeys, ungulates, the terrarium house, the rhinos, the elephants, the giraffes.

  We came to the big cats, our tigers, lions and leopards. Babu, their keeper, was waiting for us. We went round and down the path, and he unlocked the door to the cat house, which was at the centre of a moated island. We entered. It was a vast and dim cement cavern, circular in shape, warm and humid, and smelling of cat urine. All around were great big cages divided up by thick, green, iron bars. A yellowish light filtered down from the skylights. Through the cage exits we could see the vegetation of the surrounding island, flooded with sunlight. The cages were empty--save one: Mahisha, our Bengal tiger patriarch, a lanky, hulking beast of 550 pounds, had been detained. As soon as we stepped in, he loped up to the bars of his cage and set off a full-throated snarl, ears flat against his skull and round eyes fixed on Babu. The sound was so loud and fierce it seemed to shake the whole cat house. My knees started quaking. I got close to Mother. She was trembling, too. Even Father seemed to pause and steady himself. Only Babu was indifferent to the outburst and to the searing stare that bored into him like a drill. He had a tested
trust in iron bars. Mahisha started pacing to and fro against the limits of his cage.

  Father turned to us. "What animal is this?" he bellowed above Mahisha's snarling.

  "It's a tiger," Ravi and I answered in unison, obediently pointing out the blindingly obvious.

  "Are tigers dangerous?"

  "Yes, Father, tigers are dangerous."

  "Tigers are very dangerous," Father shouted. "I want you to understand that you are never--under any circumstances--to touch a tiger, to pet a tiger, to put your hands through the bars of a cage, even to get close to a cage. Is that clear? Ravi?"

  Ravi nodded vigorously.

  "Piscine?"

  I nodded even more vigorously.

  He kept his eyes on me.

  I nodded so hard I'm surprised my neck didn't snap and my head fall to the floor.

  I would like to say in my own defence that though I may have anthropomorphized the animals till they spoke fluent English, the pheasants complaining in uppity British accents of their tea being cold and the baboons planning their bank robbery getaway in the flat, menacing tones of American gangsters, the fancy was always conscious. I quite deliberately dressed wild animals in tame costumes of my imagination. But I never deluded myself as to the real nature of my playmates. My poking nose had more sense than that. I don't know where Father got the idea that his youngest son was itching to step into a cage with a ferocious carnivore. But wherever the strange worry came from--and Father was a worrier--he was clearly determined to rid himself of it that very morning.

  "I'm going to show you how dangerous tigers are," he continued. "I want you to remember this lesson for the rest of your lives."

  He turned to Babu and nodded. Babu left. Mahisha's eyes followed him and did not move from the door he disappeared through. He returned a few seconds later carrying a goat with its legs tied. Mother gripped me from behind. Mahisha's snarl turned into a growl deep in the throat.

  Babu unlocked, opened, entered, closed and locked a cage next to the tiger's cage. Bars and a trapdoor separated the two. Immediately Mahisha was up against the dividing bars, pawing them. To his growling he now added explosive, arrested woofs. Babu placed the goat on the floor; its flanks were heaving violently, its tongue hung from its mouth, and its eyes were spinning orbs. He untied its legs. The goat got to its feet. Babu exited the cage in the same careful way he had entered it. The cage had two floors, one level with us, the other at the back, higher by about three feet, that led outside to the island. The goat scrambled to this second level. Mahisha, now unconcerned with Babu, paralleled the move in his cage in a fluid, effortless motion. He crouched and lay still, his slowly moving tail the only sign of tension.

 
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