Monday, May 24, 2010

Reflections: Life of Pi

We try to skirt past a lot of things in life, but some of them hound us with the same intensity with which we evade them. So it is with certain books. Having heard an assortment of unpleasant and mixed reviews for Life of Pi, my curiosity to read it was neutralized to the point where I didn't really care to give it another look. But library after library, book shop after shop, it stared, nudged and taunted. It's not easy to evade a well-acclaimed book like this. So finally, when I found it lying in a tub of $5 books, I was left with little choice. I went by my friend's words, "It's not a feel good book, but one you should read at some point." And I wholeheartedly agree.

The whole world knows its story. Pi Patel and his family decide to relocate their livelihood from Pondicherry, India, to Toronto, Canada. Pi's dad owned a zoo, so most of the exotic wild animals were shipped through the same cargo ship in which the family set out to travel. Misfortune strikes and the ship sinks. Pi finds himself in a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a ravenous hyena, a wizened orangutan, and a fierce Bengal tiger. An average 16 year old boy would have instantly plunged into the ocean, rather than contemplate survival amidst such a crazy menagerie. However, this story came about because Pi was different. In addition to the ocean teeming with merciless sharks, Pi suffers from an unshakable will to survive, which doesn't let him give up. He fights a fierce battle against all odds, and finally reaches land. His adventure and endurance are incomprehensibly courageous and incredulous. But his story reaffirms the power of human will.

This was truly a riveting book. I was sucked into the lifeboat along with Pi and I was glued to the words like my life depended on them. It was an intense read, fluctuating between revulsion, disbelief and insight. Despite my intolerance to gore and violence of any kind, I surprised myself by reading every page. Sadly, just like Pi, I too started getting used to the sheer brutality demanded out of survival in the wild. But it was primarily the writing that propelled me to want to get to the end. I loved Martel's writing - his words floated along the pages with much insight, vividly capturing every emotion and every thought of a castaway. Although it was revolting to read his graphic descriptions, his casual ease and nonchalance betrayed how much he was ingrained into the character of Pi. I think it is this harsh portrayal that truly emphasizes the magnitude of how wild and barbaric the game of survival is. He sensitively brings out Pi's moral gradation (or degradation)... from the fastidious, ethical, vegetarian, to the slow metamorphosis of a starving animal struggling to survive. Morality takes on a whole new definition. Interestingly (as I hark time and again), if our ancestors hadn't been amoral and ruthless, our species couldn't have come into being. In this present age, even without the threat of dying in the jaws of wild animals, it is the ruthless, aggressive kinds that survive. In many ways, the lifeboat and Pi's story are symbolic of our true shades of character - humanity seems to be meaningful only in the context of threat-free survival.

The ending dawned a whole new understanding of the concept of humanity and our various prejudices and hypocrisies. With the weight of our bloated ego, it is impossible for us to come to terms with humans exhibiting beastly characteristics. It is easier for us to escape into denial, and substitute, blame and conjure a convoluted understanding of an unpalatable situation with animals, rather than humans. It is acceptable if animals kill, but something in us rebels unceremoniously if humans are shown in the light of vicious, callous animals. Aspects of reality that cannot be digested are construed in a different pattern,  desperately associating meaning and forming an acceptable "story" or point of view that fits the mind. I think the book has proved this point with the distaste it has garnered among most readers with its story. While the conjecture of humanity dying in the face of survival is indeed unsettling, how we try to clothe it with our imagination is fascinating. The concept of God thus arose due to our need to tone down reality, and hold onto some expression of meaning and consolation. Faith gives us the ability to view reality differently.

Martel's wry sense of humor and the epic battle of Pi make a powerful experience. To a large extent I agreed with his discussion and defense of zoos. His research and understanding of animal psychology is quite impressive. Pi's story of courage and endurance is touching, even a tad inspiring. His violent struggles and his forced apathy for the lives of other creatures are disturbing. I have to agree with most other readers that the book indeed evokes a mixture of feelings. I don't think I can say that I loved the book, but I did find it to be an impressive and intense read, never to be forgotten. Does it make me believe in God? I believe in the need for trusting in some faith called God... but it reaffirms my faith in and understanding of Nature's relentless laws.


Srishti said...

This was the same kind of reaction I had when I read this book.
Try "inheritance of loss".. its also a morose kind of book which u can admire but not love :)

Neeraja said...

Inheritance of Loss is waiting to be read.. I found it with this book in the same bin at the store :)