A few weeks ago, when we were visiting the city of Brisbane on the East coast of Australia, we went to a book shop where I could chose any two books that I liked. I wanted to choose an adventure book that was a little bit like our adventure and I loved exciting stories. I decided to chose a book named Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The front cover of the book had a small boat with a big tiger and a man and it looked very interesting. I had already seen the movie Life of Pi on my birthday a few years ago when it came out. I remember it being very exciting and that it had a lot of sea and boats and I think there was also a zoo involved in it. We bought Life of Pi and another book called Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and walked back to our hotel. I couldn’t wait until we arrived so that I could start reading my books.
This is the story of Pi, written in my own words as if I was the main character, Pi. I hope you enjoy it!
LIFE OF PI (part 1)
I grew up in a small French speaking town in Pondicherry, South India. Mr. Satish Patel, the owner of the Pondicherry zoo, keeper, ranger and manager is also my Father. Before we moved to Pondicherry, father ran a big hotel in Madras but we moved here after he mysteriously had a strange liking of animals and took up the job of organising and setting up (from scratch) a zoo. Quite peculiar, I have to say. So I spent my childhood waking up to the sound of the growling tigers, walking to school with the noises of the screeching howler monkeys and coming back to the high-pitched bellow of the angry elephants. It was fun observing and learning about all the animals. I made friends with a baby female orangutan when I was young but now she has grown into a big wise adult.
I also have a three year older brother, Ravi who is a merciless teaser. My father also makes fun of me because I am into religion and I like to dedicate most of my days to praying and being humble, but somehow he doesn’t think that there is a problem with Ravi being mostly just into television, video games and India’s most popular sport, Cricket. Mother tends to defend me on this case (“and you think that is better!?”). She is very opinionated but also very sensitive as well.
My name was a main depression in my life. Allow me to explain how I got it.
One of my fathers earliest business partners Francis Adirubasamy became a good friend of the family. We called him mamaji, ‘mama’ meaning uncle in Tamil and ‘ji’ being the suffix used in India to show affection. Mamaji was a champion swimmer, in fact he used to be the champion of all South India. Mamaji tried to teach my parents to swim, but they just kicked and splashed in the water like a pair of ants drowning in a big lake. Ravi was just too indolent to even try. But mamaji didn’t give up on me. The day I came upon swimming age, which mamaji believed was seven, he brought me down to the beach, took me into the sea, and said “this is my gift to you.”
“And then he nearly DROWNED you!” said Mother.
Mamaji would take me swimming three times a week to the local Ashram swimming pool. It was a good place to train and it was very big. I loved going with mamaji as he would always make it so fun and after training, he would always give me a bit of free time in the end. One day for mamaji’s birthday, I did two lengths of my best butterfly stroke for him.
Mamaji studied in Paris for two years. The French were very fond of the sport swimming in those days and lots of hotels and public swimming pools were competing on whose would be the biggest and fanciest pool. Mamaji was very picky about swimming pools. He visited so many different pools in Paris. Even one of the pools that held the 1796 Olympics didn’t please mamaji as the water came straight from the Seine river and he complained that there were still fish in the water! After a big search for decent outdoor swimming pools, mamaji tried the local indoor swimming pools. “There was so much spit and gob in the water I thought I was swimming through jellyfish!”. After blaming France for bad personal hygiene, one of the last pools mamaji visited was Piscine Molitor in the heart of Paris. “It was a pool that the gods would have been delighted to swim in. The water was so clean that I could’ve made my morning coffee with it. There were two massive pools, an indoor and an outdoor. The pools became ice skating rinks for the children in the winter. The showers were so warm and lovely. It was…it was…it was…beautiful.
Father loved the talk of swimming, even though he couldn’t swim himself. He thought it was a beautiful sport and him and mamaji would go babbling about it for hours. Mother, but mainly father dreamed of visiting mamaji’s lifelong favourite pool.
And so that is finally how I got my name when I was born, just about three and a half years after Ravi: Piscine Molitor Patel.
I went to a primary school in Pondicherry called St. Joseph’s. I remember people used to call me “pissing” at school. I didn’t like it at all and the children laughed at me all the time. Even my teachers started calling me that. I would use to dread raising my hand to answer a question as I would get addressed with a “Yes, pissing”. They could get the first part right, “pea” but their tongues could never get round to getting the “seen”, so instead they said “sing”. I was really sad coming to school and getting a “Hi Pissing!” first thing in the morning. After being depressed by the sound of my name in St. Joseph’s, I went to Petit Sèminaire, the best English medium secondary school in Pondicherry. Ravi was already there and was the captain of the schools best cricket team.
I didn’t want another school laughing and teasing at my name so I made sure I didn’t start that habit again.
On my first day of school, I walked into my new classroom and met our new teacher. He told us his name and sat down at his desk. He instructed us to chose our desks and sit down. He said that we were to introduce ourselves in a row to row order as he ticked off his chart. I was hoping this would happen. The introduction began. I had seated myself on the back row so I would’ve been one of the last people to be called out. Finally, the name came to my row. Four away. Three. Two. The boy sitting right next to me called out his name. It was my turn. This was my chance. With all eyes staring at me, I rose from my seat and nervously walked towards the blackboard next to where the teacher was sitting. Before anyone could stop me, I picked up a piece of chalk and wrote in big letters:
My name is
Piscine Molitor Patel
Known to all as
I added a little maths sum at the bottom to take away the bad looks from my teacher and some of the other children in the class as well. Everybody gazed at me in shock and surprise. Finally the teacher calmly said: “Very well, Pi. Next time you will ask permission before you get up from your desk”. I added a: “Yes sir” before sitting back down at my desk. And so ever since that day, I was never called ‘pissing’ again, I was always addressed (except by my family or very close friends) by the name of Mr. Pi Patel.
I remember a very close lesson that I always keep in mind my whole life.
One afternoon after school, I was happily playing on my own when my father called Ravi and I to come over to him.
“Ravi, Piscine, I have a very important lesson for you today.” He said in one of the most stern voices I have ever heard. Mother came over too.
“Oh Santosh, is this really necessary?” cried mother in a very worrying tone.
“Gita, it may very well save their lives” said father.
Save our lives! What could this be? I decided to stop this.
“Whatever happened Ravi did it!” I shouted. “I am innocent!”
“What? How could you, you, you.. rascal!” Screamed Ravi.
“SILENCE!” Bellowed father. “I do not want to hear another peep from you two until the end of the lesson, do you understand?”
Both Ravi and I nodded.
“Come on Santosh, Piscine is only eight.” Cried mother.
“Gita, this is a very important lesson for the boys, especially Piscine. He is the one that worries me the most” returned father.
Mother gave him the evil eye as father asked us to follow him. He took us through the zoo and to the big cats. Their were leopards, hyenas, panthers and tigers. Father came to one of our female Bengal tigers, Mahisha.
“What is this animal?” He asked us.
“A Tiger” both Ravi and I answered weakly.
“Are Tigers dangerous?” He said.
“Tigers are very dangerous” he said. “I want you to understand how dangerous they are. With that, he nodded to their keeper, Babu who left. A few minutes later, Babu returned, holding a baby goat that had all four of its legs attached together by a rope. Mahisha’s growled ferociously. Mother grabbed me from behind. Later on, we found out that father had ordered Mahisha not to be fed for 3 days.
“Watch and learn children” father said as Babu entered the cage next to Mahisha’s, holding the poor scared goat. The tiger ran up to the next door cage and started pawing at the bars. Babu left the goat alone and shut the door. I was really afraid. I could feel mothers hand against my pounding heart. The goat was bleating loudly and started moving around and jumping and dodging at Mahisha’s furious pawing attempts. The tiger got hold of the goat. She growled loudly and…
The last thing I saw was blood as mother pushed me into her bright-purple sari. I was trembling with fear. It was enough to scare the vegetarian daylights out of me. Mother bundled us out. I could hear her angry shaking voice.
“What are you thinking Santosh? They’re only children!”
“Gita my bird, it’s for their own sake. What if piscine stuck his hand into the cages of a tiger. Better be a goat them him, no?”
We were forced to head home by mother, but the lesson wasn’t finished yet.
Father gave us a tour around the zoo.
“The lions and leopards” started father.
“The most beautiful predators, but don’t be fooled. Once their was some madman in Australia who was black belt in Karate. He wanted to prove himself against the lions. Sadly, he lost. The keepers found half of his body in the morning”.
“One bite of their flabby mouths and you will be crushed in between their teeth.”.
“The most powerful jaws in the animal kingdom”.
“As powerful as ten men. They will snap your bones as if they were toothpicks”.
“One kick and your back will be brocken against a wall”.
The spotted deers.
“If you upset them, one charge at you and your skin will get pierced like needles with their antlers”.
The Arabian Camel.
“One sloppy bite from them and your fingers will be in their mouths”.
“The most dangerous animal of all. You can get trodden over them, get their tusks through your body or have them charge at you. You must never, EVER enter an enclosure with an elephant, even a baby one”.
Finally, we came to the Guinea Pigs.
“These little creatures, well they aren’t dangerous. But watch out as they go have teeth that will still hurt you!” He chuckled as he handed me over a weak little Himalayan Guinea pig.
Mother gave him a cold shoulder for a week. There were no discussions at breakfast or dinner for nearly a fortnight. Ravi and I ignored him as well. Only that I was also in trouble with Ravi after accusing him for nothing.
“Wait until we’re alone, you’ll be the next goat!”
I was very religious but I couldn’t decide what religion to chose. I was born a Hindu but during my teenage-hood I couldn’t decide between Hinduism, Christianity or Islam. So I decided to go with all three. I went to church, walked to the mosque and prayed to the statue of Ganesha before and after school. I feel like I just want to love god. I loved the feeling when I would just walk into the local town mosque, see my Muslim friend Mr. Kumar and eat special Muslim bread for hours and pray on his beautifully woven prayer mats. Or I would love the feeling when I just came back from a long hard day at school and before entering the zoo I would pray to our small statue and take time to concentrate on my breathing and to have a calm rest in the afternoon. Or when I would enter church on a Saturday morning and sit calmly on the benches and put my hands together facing the direction of the big wooden cross holding dear Jesus in front of me. I loved that calm relaxing feeling. I pestered my father to have my own Muslim prayer mat. I begged mother for a bible. I managed to love god as one.
We were moving to Canada. I didn’t believe it at all at first. I couldn’t believe it. Father burst it out one morning at breakfast. “We’ll sail like pirates!” He said as we just heard the news. I was in shock. The animals were being sold to Americans who came over to Pondicherry to check the animals blood and checking for any illnesses before signing contracts. It happened so quickly, in fact, too quickly. We brought all the animals (and of course ourselves) onboard the Japanese cargo ship tsintsum and after a very busy month of packing, signing contracts, finishing school, we were boarding the ship. I wasn’t so sure about moving to a new country, but sometimes you just have to take life as it is. We finally left off the port of Madras on the 21st of June, 1977. Ravi and I were sharing a room in a small but pleasant cabin. The ship was huge and we were busy most days feeding and looking after our animals. I had a map hanging up next to my bed that I updated everyday by sticking pins on where we were in the world. We passed Southeast Asia, Singapore, Papua New Guinea and we were now in the plain Pacific Ocean.
We had peacefully rocked up and down amongst the waves while we were occupied with our duties. Ravi watched the sea. Mother and father were busy. We spotted dolphins and whales off the horizon. Everything was going well. One night, I woke up to the sound of a grunting noise coming from downstairs. I raised up from my bed with a start. Ravi was loudly snoring. It wasn’t him. It was much louder. I looked through our cabin window. It was dark outside and it was very windy and rainy. I got up and shook Ravi awake. He stirred and told me to go back to sleep. I looked at my watch. It was about four thirty in the morning. I opened the cabin door and looked right and left in the narrow corridor. I heard the noise again, but this time it was much, much louder. The ship suddenly moved. I gripped onto the door handle which made a big “BANG!” as it slammed shut with my weight. Ravi cursed me and went back to sleep. I decided to go exploring and to see if everything was OK. I quietly slipped down the stairs at the end of the corridor as the cargo ship jerked from side to side. As I climbed down, I suddenly saw a huge gush of water coming up the hallway in front of me. I ran back up the stairs before the water splashed onto me. I was feeling really nervous. I wondered if I should wake up mother and father. But I didn’t as I knew they loved their sleep. Where had this water come from?
The water was slowly creeping up the stairs. I ran back down, lifted up my pyjama shorts and walked through the ice-cold water. It was freezing. Suddenly, I heard a scream and somebody yelled in Chinese or Japanese. I looked around. I couldn’t see anybody. At the very end of the hallway I saw one of our Indian ox run up to me through the heavy rising water. It charged straight past me. I ran to the end of the hallway and opened the door that led to the outside balcony. As soon as I pulled open the heavy metal door, strong wind blew onto my anxious face. I closed the door and looked over to the sea. I realised what was happening. We were sinking.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. The ship was so low that I was nearly at the surface of the water. We were actually sinking. We were all going to die. We would drown on a pinprick spot on my map in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The end of life. I was dumbstruck with terror. No Bollywood movie could have ever described what I had seen that night. The ship was actually sinking before my very eyes. I heard it gurgling and groaning. I was going to run back to see if mother or father or Ravi were awake. Tears fell down my cheeks as I frantically reached for the handle of the metal door. Suddenly, I heard screams. There were three men, crew members, standing on the edge of the deck. I ran to them. I yelled: “Oh my God! Thank goodness I have found you. What is happening? Is the ship sinking?!”, I added a small ‘going down’ movement with my hand. “What is happening! Please tell m-” two of the men interrupted me and spoke something loud in Chinese over the whistling wind and rain. One of the men threw an orange life jacket around my neck. I thanked them all and asked them why they weren’t wearing one. Only when they lifted me up and threw me overboard did I begin to have doubts.
I landed on a bouncy tarpaulin on a small boat. It was a lifeboat. Thank Vishnu Muhammad and Christ. I was saved. I was very lucky that I didn’t hurt myself as the tarpaulin was only rolled up halfway up the lifeboat. I looked up. I could see the men still on the sinking ship, shouting and pointing at the lifeboat to me in Chinese. I thought that they would jump in after me. But they didn’t. Instead, a huge black and white figure was thrown overboard, missed the tarpaulin, and crashed onto the wooden bench of the lifeboat. It was a big zebra, a male grant. I noticed that it had badly broken its hind leg and was whimpering in a low tone. It’s bone had pierced through the poor zebra’s skin and blood was pouring all over the boat. As I took my eyes off the whimpering zebra, I spotted a stripy orange and black figure kicking in the water. It was Richard Parker, one of our 450-pound Royal male Bengal tigers. He was ferociously kicking in the sea and was heading for the lifeboat. I cried: “Richard Parker, is that you? Oh God, it is you! You hear this whistle? TRRREEEEEE! TRRREEEEEE! TRRREEEEEE! Swim towards me! Here grab onto this oar. Come on! You can do it! Don’t you love life? Kick with your legs! Please, kick kick kick! TRRREEEEEE! TRRREEEEEE!” I was too far away. He wouldn’t make it. I tossed the oar back onto the boat and threw a life buoy to him instead.
“Hold on! Here grab onto this life buoy! HAAYYYA!! Yes, that’s right. Grab onto it. YES! Good work Richard Parker!” He had managed to hold onto the life buoy. I pulled the rope that was attached to it as hard as I could in the monstrous heavy storm.
“Soon we will be together all safe and – wait a minute – together?! What am I thinking! A tiger and human in a tiny lifeboat together! Have I gone nuts?!”
I stuck my head in the freezing water below me to fully wake up. I took one of the oars I found in the boat and tried to push him off the life buoy.
“Get off you lazy tiger! What was I thinking! Get off!”
But he was too fast. He had reached the lifeboat. He climbed aboard engraving huge terrifying claw marks on the side of the boat.
“Oh my God!”
I stepped over the groaning zebra and threw myself overboard.
I was alone in the monstrous dark black sea. I was kicking and splashing in the water. I spotted big triangular fins that had lurked out from under the dark shadows of the sea and was drifting on the surface of the turbulent water. Sharks. I gazed at them with astonishment as they circled around their midnight feast. I made a lunge for the boat as quickly as I could. I peeked over the side. I couldn’t see Richard Parker, only the poor suffering zebra. He must’ve fell overboard and drowned. I weakly pulled myself aboard, shaking with fear. I fell asleep watching the Japanese cargo ship Tsimtsum sink into the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
I awoke again the next day with a start, first I nearly fell of the boat with astonishment when I saw (then remembered) where I was. Secondly, I thought I heard a noise of very peculiar laughing that morning. I kneeled up as I looked around the plain calm sea. It had stopped raining. The boat was all wet and so was I, but I would dry soon in the beautiful morning sun. The zebra was still asleep. Suddenly, I noticed a face under the tarpaulin. It was a dog. A spotty dog. I was terrifyingly surprised. It wasn’t a dog. It emerged out from under the tarpaulin. It was a male spotted hyena, one of the biggest attractions to coming to Pondicherry zoo. Now I understand what the crazy Chinese men were pointing at so ferociously. They were trying to use me as a fodder. How could they put some skinny Indian 16 year old teenager in a tiny lifeboat against a ferocious African male adult spotted hyena? I know a lot about hyenas as father used to always tell me and Ravi facts about these predators. Hyenas have the strongest jaws of all the animals in the world. They will hunt in clans (groups) and the packs are led by the females. Spotted hyenas are the largest of three hyena species. Brown and striped hyenas are the other two. These animals are carrion eaters and never put any food to waste, hyenas even eat the grass full of the deceased animals blood. All hyenas have very strong jaws and powerful stomach acid. This allows them to eat nearly every single part of a carcass, including hooves, teeth and bone. The only parts of the animal that hyenas can’t digest are the hair, hooves and horns, though their digestive systems can extract nutrients from these things. This was the animal that was staring right at me now. After a long nerve-wracking staring and looking at each other, the beast turned away and went back under the tarpaulin.
She came floating on an island of bananas. It was Orange Juice, on of our 110 pound female Orangutans that we had at the zoo. The proud mother of seven children. The once baby orang-utan that I used to play with at our dear zoo. The waves carried her to the side of the lifeboat. She was floating on a stack of maybe thirty bananas all tied up in a nylon net. Orange juice climbed aboard. What a delight it was too see her. I quickly grabbed the nylon net as all the bananas fell out of a hole and floated away into the morning horizon. I thought that perhaps the net could help me catch big fish that couldn’t escape through the holes. Orange juice lay down on the tarpaulin looking up to the sky looking like a dried up starfish with her hands and legs wide open. Suddenly the hyena was laughing from the other side of the boat.
The hyena got up and his whining turned into a scream. Then, he started to run around in circles around the boat. My only reaction was to freeze with fear. One lap, two, three, four, five, six… he was running so fast that I lost count. The zebra, who was still alive, groaned repeatedly over the hyenas screaming. I wondered why the beast hadn’t eaten the zebra by now. It was very strange.
After a long morning of screaming and whining and animal noises, the hyena coughed, jerked his head and threw up. He then lay and rolled over what he had just produced. After long hours of waiting, the hyena ripped off the poor zebras flesh, like a child ripping off his birthday present. Blood and organs spilled all over the lifeboat. The zebra screamed. He turned and kicked as the savage animal butchered him. The zebra abruptly snorted and blood poured out of his nose and spilled overboard. Seconds later their was knocks on the boat. Mako sharks. They were circling the boat, waiting for more blood and food, fins high above the waters surface. After circling the boat for nearly half an hour, the sharks left while the hyena left the half butchered zebra (but still alive) for his evening roast. The hyena went to sleep.
I thought that people would come to my rescue. In Honolulu, Vancouver, India, Panama, all over the world people would be picking up phones, alerts would be ringing and people would be saying “Oh my god! The tsimstum has sunk! A ship would come to my rescue. There would be mother, father and Ravi. Ravi would probably greet me with a tease: “What’s this? You escape on a lifeboat and you fill it with animals? You thing you’re Noah or something?” Helicopters would be circling above. Even submarines would be sent underwater to check for the shipwreck. Guns would be there to kill the hyena and put the zebra out of its misery. Orange juice could even be rescued. I would be saved. We would carry on living life again. We would be happy again.
The next morning, I awoke with the rising sun. I looked over the bloody mess on the boat. The zebra was still alive. I couldn’t believe it. It was sill pumping with life, but the poor animal had lost its soul. It’s eyes were wide open and it was breathing quickly.
A turtle came to visit at midday. It was a hawksbill sea turtle. He came right up to the side of the boat and waited there as I admired him and gently stroked his shell. He put his head up and I said “Go, go. Tell them that I am here”, and with that the fabulous creature slowly drifted away under the sea.
Tension broke out in the afternoon. The hyena was whining and yelling and Orange juice kept making lip smacking noises. After a lot of arguing, the hyena jumped over the zebra and sprang onto the Indonesian Orangutan . She bared her teeth. The hyena grabbed her by the wrist with his powerful jaws and Orange juice hit him on the head with her other hand. The hyena snarled, let go of her hand and bit her neck and shook her between his teeth. I wanted to get involved, but I was to scared. I acknowledged that I was a coward. There was no use. Never could a female orang-utan defeat a fully grown adult male African spotted hyena. Although Orange juice had very strong defensive skills, what use was it compare to the most powerful jaws on the planet. I watched as she fell to her death with horror. I was in tears. I couldn’t watch. I pray every day for the poor Indonesian orang-utan.
The boat was 3 foot deep, 8 foot wide and 26 foot long. It could hold a capacity of 32 men. I know that because it was written on the side of the first bench. The zebra was dead. It stunk of rotting animals and Orange juice’s body was nowhere to be seen. I was starting to get very hungry. I decided to search around the lifeboat for any food. I had to eat otherwise I was going to die. I was also incredibly thirsty. I walked over the dead body of the zebra. I stepped cautiously over the sleeping hyena. I looked for any cabinets or packed away food. My legs were quivering. I felt so weak. I climbed onto a bench to have a good look at the lifeboat. I stared at my feet. There, underneath the bench I was standing on was the head of Richard Parker. His face was as big as a bicycle wheel. His paws were as gigantic as encyclopaedias. He was sleeping right beneath my feet. Again I froze with fear. Now I understand why the hyena had hesitated to eat what would’ve been the grand cats meal. How did I not realise a Bengal tiger was sleeping on the same boat as me. From the tip of nose to end of tale, Richard Parker took up more than one third of the lifeboat. I was so weak and struck with fear that I thought I was going to faint. I thought I was going to die. I was in a tiny boat in the middle of nowhere with two man eating animals licking their lips at me all day. I sure was going to be the next goat.
Richard Parker was so named after a clerical error.
A panther was terrorising the Khulna district of Bangladesh. It had eaten seven people already. The panther had dragged the people out of town and into the forest to devour his feast alone. The deaths became so bad that they sent a security team professional out to set a trap for the panther. He watched the trap all night holding two rifles, one with real bullets and another with immobilising darts. Finally two animals came from out of the thick jungle ahead. But it wasn’t a panther. It was two tigers, a mother and a cub. They went over to the river for a drink. The hunter loaded his gun and shot the mother to sleep. But of course, the darts don’t work straight away and it takes a bit of time to put the animals to sleep. The mother went mad and raised her claw at the hunter meaning to scratch him. She collapsed with sneakiness before his very eyes. The cub was found behind some bushes near the village. Pondicherry zoo had two new tigers. The hunters name was Richard Parker and so that is how the now grown up tiger has got his name, Richard Parker.
In the morning I could not move. I was pinned with weakness against the slightly blood-stained tarpaulin. Richard Parker and the hyena were both awake. That meant I had to move fast. I couldn’t. It was very boring. I kept on thinking about my family and trying to work out how the ship could’ve sunk. I asked myself how the hyena was on this boat all along. I soon lost interest in this rhetorical question and strangely for the first time, I had a good days sleep with two savage beast on my heels. I was alone for the first time in the middle of the mysterious world of the Pacific Ocean.
(To be continued …)