Aug. 7, 2003 -- The Masters Book Club will be reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel as part of this month's "Read This" series. Join them by reading an excerpt of the book.
He is trapped in a lifeboat, along with a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, and the two share some frightening adventures as they drift along. Here is an excerpt from several chapters of the book.
The ship sank. It made a sound like a monstrous metallic burp. Things bubbled at the surface and then vanished. Everything was screaming: the sea, the wind, my heart. From the lifeboat I saw something in the water.
I cried, "Richard Parker, is that you? It's so hard to see. Oh, that this rain would stop! Richard Parker? Richard Parker? Yes, it is you!"
I could see his head. He was struggling to stay at the surface of the water.
"Jesus, Mary, Muhammad and Vishnu, how good to see you, Richard Parker! Don't give up, please. Come to the lifeboat. Do you hear this whistle? TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! You heard right. Swim, swim! You're a strong swimmer. It's not a hundred feet."
He had seen me. He looked panic-stricken. He started swimming my way. The water about him was shifting wildly. He looked small and helpless.
"Richard Parker, can you believe what has happened to us? Tell me it's a bad dream. Tell me it's not real. Tell me I'm still in my bunk on the Tsimtsum and I'm tossing and turning and soon I'll wake up from this nightmare. Tell me I'm still happy. Mother, my tender guardian angel of wisdom, where are you? And you, Father, my loving worrywart? And you, Ravi, dazzling hero of my childhood? Vishnu preserve me, Allah protect me, Christ save me, I can't bear it! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE!"
I was not wounded in any part of my body, but I had never experienced such intense pain, such a ripping of the nerves, such an ache of the heart.
He would not make it. He would drown. He was hardly moving forward and his movements were weak. His nose and mouth kept dipping underwater. Only his eyes were steadily on me.
"What are you doing, Richard Parker? Don't you love life? Keep swimming then! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! Kick with your legs. Kick! Kick! Kick!"
He stirred in the water and made to swim.
"And what of my extended family-birds, beasts and reptiles? They too have drowned. Every single thing I value in life has been destroyed. And I am allowed no explanation? I am to suffer hell without any account from heaven? In that case, what is the purpose of reason, Richard Parker? Is it no more than to shine at practicalities-the getting of food, clothing and shelter? Why can't reason give greater answers? Why can we throw a question further than we can pull in an answer? Why such a vast net if there's so little fish to catch?"
His head was barely above water. He was looking up, taking in the sky one last time. There was a lifebuoy in the boat with a rope tied to it. I took hold of it and waved it in the air.
"Do you see this lifebuoy, Richard Parker? Do you see it? Catch hold of it! HUMPF! I'll try again. HUMPF!"
He was too far. But the sight of the lifebuoy flying his way gave him hope. He revived and started beating the water with vigorous, desperate strokes.
"That's right! One, two. One, two. One, two. Breathe when you can. Watch for the waves. TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE!"
My heart was chilled to ice. I felt ill with grief. But there was no time for frozen shock. It was shock in activity. Something in me did not want to give up on life, was unwilling to let go, wanted to fight to the very end. Where that part of me got the heart, I don't know.
"Isn't it ironic, Richard Parker? We're in hell yet still we're afraid of immortality. Look how close you are! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! Hurrah, hurrah! You've made it, Richard Parker, you've made it. Catch! HUMPF!"
I threw the lifebuoy mightily. It fell in the water right in front of him. With his last energies he stretched forward and took hold of it.
"Hold on tight, I'll pull you in. Don't let go. Pull with your eyes while I pull with my hands. In a few seconds you'll be aboard and we'll be together. Wait a second. Together? We'll be together? Have I gone mad?"
I woke up to what I was doing. I yanked on the rope.
"Let go of that lifebuoy, Richard Parker! Let go, I said. I don't want you here, do you understand? Go somewhere else. Leave me alone. Get lost. Drown! Drown!"
He was kicking vigorously with his legs. I grabbed an oar. I thrust it at him, meaning to push him away. I missed and lost hold of the oar.
I grabbed another oar. I dropped it in an oarlock and pulled as hard as I could, meaning to move the lifeboat away. All I accomplished was to turn the lifeboat a little, bringing one end closer to Richard Parker.
I would hit him on the head! I lifted the oar in the air.
He was too fast. He reached up and pulled himself aboard. "Oh my God!"
Ravi was right. Truly I was to be the next goat. I had a wet, trembling, half-drowned, heaving and coughing three-year-old adult Bengal tiger in my lifeboat. Richard Parker rose unsteadily to his feet on the tarpaulin, eyes blazing as they met mine, ears laid tight to his head, all weapons drawn. His head was the size and colour of the lifebuoy, with teeth.
I turned around, stepped over the zebra and threw myself overboard.
I don't understand. For days the ship had pushed on, bullishly indifferent to its surroundings. The sun shone, rain fell, winds blew, currents flowed, the sea built up hills, the sea dug up valleys-the Tsimtsum did not care. It moved with the slow, massive confidence of a continent.
I had bought a map of the world for the trip; I had set it up in our cabin against a cork billboard. Every morning I got our position from the control bridge and marked it on the map with an orange-tipped pin. We sailed from Madras across the Bay of Bengal, down through the Strait of Malacca, around Singapore and up to Manila. I loved every minute of it. It was a thrill to be on a ship. Taking care of the animals kept us very busy. Every night we fell into bed weary to our bones. We were in Manila for two days, a question of fresh feed, new cargo and, we were told, the performing of routine maintenance work on the engines. I paid attention only to the first two. The fresh feed included a ton of bananas, and the new cargo, a female Congo chimpanzee, part of Father's wheeling and dealing. A ton of bananas bristles with a good three, four pounds of big black spiders. A chimpanzee is like a smaller, leaner gorilla, but meaner-looking, with less of the melancholy gentleness of its larger cousin. A chimpanzee shudders and grimaces when it touches a big black spider, like you and I would do, before squashing it angrily with its knuckles, not something you and I would do. I thought bananas and a chimpanzee were more interesting than a loud, filthy mechanical contraption in the dark bowels of a ship. Ravi spent his days there, watching the men work. Something was wrong with the engines, he said. Did something go wrong with the fixing of them? I don't know. I don't think anyone will ever know. The answer is a mystery lying at the bottom of thousands of feet of water.
We left Manila and entered the Pacific. On our fourth day out, midway to Midway, we sank. The ship vanished into a pinprick hole on my map. A mountain collapsed before my eyes and disappeared beneath my feet. All around me was the vomit of a dyspeptic ship. I felt sick to my stomach. I felt shock. I felt a great emptiness within me, which then filled with silence. My chest hurt with pain and fear for days afterwards.
I think there was an explosion. But I can't be sure. It happened while I was sleeping. It woke me up. The ship was no luxury liner. It was a grimy, hardworking cargo ship not designed for paying passengers or for their comfort. There were all kinds of noises all the time. It was precisely because the level of noise was so uniform that we slept like babies. It was a form of silence that nothing disturbed, not Ravi's snoring nor my talking in my sleep. So the explosion, if there was one, was not a new noise. It was an irregular noise. I woke up with a start, as if Ravi had burst a balloon in my ears. I looked at my watch. It was just after four-thirty in the morning. I leaned over and looked down at the bunk below. Ravi was still sleeping.
I dressed and climbed down. Normally I'm a sound sleeper. Normally I would have gone back to sleep. I don't know why I got up that night. It was more the sort of thing Ravi would do. He liked the word beckon; he would have said, "Adventure beckons," and would have gone off to prowl around the ship. The level of noise was back to normal again, but with a different quality perhaps, muffled maybe.
I shook Ravi. I said, "Ravi! There was a funny noise. Let's go exploring."
He looked at me sleepily. He shook his head and turned over, pulling the sheet up to his cheek. Oh, Ravi!
I opened the cabin door.
I remember walking down the corridor. Day or night it looked the same. But I felt the night in me. I stopped at Father and Mother's door and considered knocking on it. I remember looking at my watch and deciding against it. Father liked his sleep. I decided I would climb to the main deck and catch the dawn. Maybe I would see a shooting star. I was thinking about that, about shooting stars, as I climbed the stairs. We were two levels below the main deck. I had already forgotten about the funny noise.
It was only when I had pushed open the heavy door leading onto the main deck that I realized what the weather was like. Did it qualify as a storm? It's true there was rain, but it wasn't so very hard. It certainly wasn't a driving rain, like you see during the monsoons. And there was wind. I suppose some of the gusts would have upset umbrellas. But I walked through it without much difficulty. As for the sea, it looked rough, but to a landlubber the sea is always impressive and forbidding, beautiful and dangerous. Waves were reaching up, and their white foam, caught by the wind, was being whipped against the side of the ship. But I'd seen that on other days and the ship hadn't sunk. A cargo ship is a huge and stable structure, a feat of engineering. It's designed to stay afloat under the most adverse conditions. Weather like this surely wouldn't sink a ship? Why, I only had to close a door and the storm was gone. I advanced onto the deck. I gripped the railing and faced the elements. This was adventure.
"Canada, here I come!" I shouted as I was soaked and chilled. I felt very brave. It was dark still, but there was enough light to see by. Light on pandemonium it was. Nature can put on a thrilling show. The stage is vast, the lighting is dramatic, the extras are innumerable, and the budget for special effects is absolutely unlimited. What I had before me was a spectacle of wind and water, an earthquake of the senses, that even Hollywood couldn't orchestrate. But the earthquake stopped at the ground beneath my feet. The ground beneath my feet was solid. I was a spectator safely ensconced in his seat.
It was when I looked up at a lifeboat on the bridge castle that I started to worry. The lifeboat wasn't hanging straight down. It was leaning in from its davits. I turned and looked at my hands. My knuckles were white. The thing was, I wasn't holding on so tightly because of the weather, but because otherwise I would fall in towards the ship. The ship was listing to port, to the other side. It wasn't a severe list, but enough to surprise me. When I looked overboard the drop wasn't sheer any more. I could see the ship's great black side.
A shiver of cold went through me. I decided it was a storm after all. Time to return to safety. I let go, hotfooted it to the wall, moved over and pulled open the door.
Inside the ship, there were noises. Deep structural groans. I stumbled and fell. No harm done. I got up. With the help of the handrails I went down the stairwell four steps at a time. I had gone down just one level when I saw water. Lots of water. It was blocking my way. It was surging from below like a riotous crowd, raging, frothing and boiling. Stairs vanished into watery darkness. I couldn't believe my eyes. What was this water doing here? Where had it come from? I stood nailed to the spot, frightened and incredulous and ignorant of what I should do next. Down there was where my family was.
I ran up the stairs. I got to the main deck. The weather wasn't entertaining any more. I was very afraid. Now it was plain and obvious: the ship was listing badly. And it wasn't level the other way either. There was a noticeable incline going from bow to stern. I looked overboard. The water didn't look to be eighty feet away. The ship was sinking. My mind could hardly conceive it. It was as unbelievable as the moon catching fire.
Where were the officers and the crew? What were they doing? Towards the bow I saw some men running in the gloom. I thought I saw some animals too, but I dismissed the sight as illusion crafted by rain and shadow. We had the hatch covers over their bay pulled open when the weather was good, but at all times the animals were kept confined to their cages. These were dangerous wild animals we were transporting, not farm livestock. Above me, on the bridge, I thought I heard some men shouting.
The ship shook and there was that sound, the monstrous metallic burp. What was it? Was it the collective scream of humans and animals protesting their oncoming death? Was it the ship itself giving up the ghost? I fell over. I got to my feet. I looked overboard again. The sea was rising. The waves were getting closer. We were sinking fast.
I clearly heard monkeys shrieking. Something was shaking the deck. A gaur-an Indian wild ox-exploded out of the rain and thundered by me, terrified, out of control, berserk. I looked at it, dumbstruck and amazed. Who in God's name had let it out?
I ran for the stairs to the bridge. Up there was where the officers were, the only people on the ship who spoke English, the masters of our destiny here, the ones who would right this wrong. They would explain everything. They would take care of my family and me. I climbed to the middle bridge. There was no one on the starboard side. I ran to the port side. I saw three men, crew members. I fell. I got up. They were looking overboard. I shouted. They turned. They looked at me and at each other. They spoke a few words. They came towards me quickly. I felt gratitude and relief welling up in me. I said, "Thank God I've found you. What is happening? I am very scared. There is water at the bottom of the ship. I am worried about my family. I can't get to the level where our cabins are. Is this normal? Do you think-"
One of the men interrupted me by thrusting a life jacket into my arms and shouting something in Chinese. I noticed an orange whistle dangling from the life jacket. The men were nodding vigorously at me. When they took hold of me and lifted me in their strong arms, I thought nothing of it. I thought they were helping me. I was so full of trust in them that I felt grateful as they carried me in the air. Only when they threw me overboard did I begin to have doubts.
I landed with a trampoline-like bounce on the half-unrolled tarpaulin covering a lifeboat forty feet below. It was a miracle I didn't hurt myself. I lost the life jacket, except for the whistle, which stayed in my hand. The lifeboat had been lowered partway and left to hang. It was leaning out from its davits, swinging in the storm, some twenty feet above the water. I looked up. Two of the men were looking down at me, pointing wildly at the lifeboat and shouting. I didn't understand what they wanted me to do. I thought they were going to jump in after me. Instead they turned their heads, looked horrified, and this creature appeared in the air, leaping with the grace of a racehorse. The zebra missed the tarpaulin. It was a male Grant, weighing over five hundred pounds. It landed with a loud crash on the last bench, smashing it and shaking the whole lifeboat. The animal called out. I might have expected the braying of an ass or the neighing of a horse. It was nothing of the sort. It could only be called a burst of barking, a kwa-ha-ha, kwa-ha-ha, kwa-ha-ha put out at the highest pitch of distress. The creature's lips were widely parted, standing upright and quivering, revealing yellow teeth and dark pink gums. The lifeboat fell through the air and we hit the seething water.
Richard Parker did not jump into the water after me. The oar I intended to use as a club floated. I held on to it as I reached for the lifebuoy, now vacant of its previous occupant. It was terrifying to be in the water. It was black and cold and in a rage. I felt as if I were at the bottom of a crumbling well. Water kept crashing down on me. It stung my eyes. It pulled me down. I could hardly breathe. If there hadn't been the lifebuoy I wouldn't have lasted a minute.
I saw a triangle slicing the water fifteen feet away. It was a shark's fin. An awful tingle, cold and liquid, went up and down my spine. I swam as fast as I could to one end of the lifeboat, the end still covered by the tarpaulin. I pushed myself up on the lifebuoy with my arms. I couldn't see Richard Parker. He wasn't on the tarpaulin or on a bench. He was at the bottom of the lifeboat. I pushed myself up again. All I could see, briefly, at the other end, was the zebra's head thrashing about. As I fell back into the water another shark's fin glided right before me.
The bright orange tarpaulin was held down by a strong nylon rope that wove its way between metal grommets in the tarpaulin and blunt hooks on the side of the boat. I happened to be treading water at the bow. The tarpaulin was not as securely fixed going over the stem-which had a very short prow, what in a face would be called a snub nose-as it was elsewhere around the boat. There was a little looseness in the tarpaulin as the rope went from one hook on one side of the stem to the next hook on the other side. I lifted the oar in the air and I shoved its handle into this looseness, into this lifesaving detail. I pushed the oar in as far as it would go. The lifeboat now had a prow projecting over the waves, if crookedly. I pulled myself up and wrapped my legs around the oar. The oar handle pushed up against the tarpaulin, but tarpaulin, rope and oar held. I was out of the water, if only by a fluctuating two, three feet. The crest of the larger waves kept striking me.
I was alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me. Had I considered my prospects in the light of reason, I surely would have given up and let go of the oar, hoping that I might drown before being eaten. But I don't recall that I had a single thought during those first minutes of relative safety. I didn't even notice daybreak. I held on to the oar, I just held on, God only knows why.
After a while I made good use of the lifebuoy. I lifted it out of the water and put the oar through its hole. I worked it down until the ring was hugging me. Now it was only with my legs that I had to hold on. If Richard Parker appeared, it would be more awkward to drop from the oar, but one terror at a time, Pacific before tiger.
The elements allowed me to go on living. The lifeboat did not sink. Richard Parker kept out of sight. The sharks prowled but did not lunge. The waves splashed me but did not pull me off.
I watched the ship as it disappeared with much burbling and belching. Lights flickered and went out. I looked about for my family, for survivors, for another lifeboat, for anything that might bring me hope. There was nothing. Only rain, marauding waves of black ocean and the flotsam of tragedy.
The darkness melted away from the sky. The rain stopped.
I could not stay in the position I was in forever. I was cold. My neck was sore from holding up my head and from all the craning I had been doing. My back hurt from leaning against the lifebuoy. And I needed to be higher up if I were to see other lifeboats.
I inched my way along the oar till my feet were against the bow of the boat. I had to proceed with extreme caution. My guess was that Richard Parker was on the floor of the lifeboat beneath the tarpaulin, his back to me, facing the zebra, which he had no doubt killed by now. Of the five senses, tigers rely the most on their sight. Their eyesight is very keen, especially in detecting motion. Their hearing is good. Their smell is average. I mean compared to other animals, of course. Next to Richard Parker, I was deaf, blind and nose-dead. But at the moment he could not see me, and in my wet condition could probably not smell me, and what with the whistling of the wind and the hissing of the sea as waves broke, if I were careful, he would not hear me. I had a chance so long as he did not sense me. If he did, he would kill me right away. Could he burst through the tarpaulin, I wondered.
Fear and reason fought over the answer. Fear said Yes. He was a fierce, 450-pound carnivore. Each of his claws was as sharp as a knife. Reason said No. The tarpaulin was sturdy canvas, not a Japanese paper wall. I had landed upon it from a height. Richard Parker could shred it with his claws with a little time and effort, but he couldn't pop through it like a jack-in-the-box. And he had not seen me. Since he had not seen me, he had no reason to claw his way through it.
I slid along the oar. I brought both my legs to one side of the oar and placed my feet on the gunnel. The gunnel is the top edge of a boat, the rim if you want. I moved a little more till my legs were on the boat. I kept my eyes fixed on the horizon of the tarpaulin. Any second I expected to see Richard Parker rising up and coming for me. Several times I had fits of fearful trembling. Precisely where I wanted to be most still-my legs-was where I trembled most. My legs drummed upon the tarpaulin. A more obvious rapping on Richard Parker's door couldn't be imagined. The trembling spread to my arms and it was all I could do to hold on. Each fit passed.
When enough of my body was on the boat I pulled myself up. I looked beyond the end of the tarpaulin. I was surprised to see that the zebra was still alive. It lay near the stern, where it had fallen, listless, but its stomach was still panting and its eyes were still moving, expressing terror. It was on its side, facing me, its head and neck awkwardly propped against the boat's side bench. It had badly broken a rear leg. The angle of it was completely unnatural. Bone protruded through skin and there was bleeding. Only its slim front legs had a semblance of normal position. They were bent and neatly tucked against its twisted torso. From time to time the zebra shook its head and barked and snorted. Otherwise it lay quietly.
It was a lovely animal. Its wet markings glowed brightly white and intensely black. I was so eaten up by anxiety that I couldn't dwell on it; still, in passing, as a faint afterthought, the queer, clean, artistic boldness of its design and the fineness of its head struck me. Of greater significance to me was the strange fact that Richard Parker had not killed it. In the normal course of things he should have killed the zebra. That's what predators do: they kill prey. In the present circumstances, where Richard Parker would be under tremendous mental strain, fear should have brought out an exceptional level of aggression. The zebra should have been properly butchered.
The reason behind its spared life was revealed shortly. It froze my blood-and then brought a slight measure of relief. A head appeared beyond the end of the tarpaulin. It looked at me in a direct, frightened way, ducked under, appeared again, ducked under again, appeared once more, disappeared a last time. It was the bear-like, balding-looking head of a spotted hyena. Our zoo had a clan of six, two dominant females and four subordinate males. They were supposed to be going to Minnesota. The one here was a male. I recognized it by its right ear, which was badly torn, its healed jagged edge testimony to old violence. Now I understood why Richard Parker had not killed the zebra: he was no longer aboard. There couldn't be both a hyena and a tiger in such a small space. He must have fallen off the tarpaulin and drowned.
I had to explain to myself how a hyena had come to be on the lifeboat. I doubted hyenas were capable of swimming in open seas. I concluded that it must have been on board all along, hiding under the tarpaulin, and that I hadn't noticed it when I landed with a bounce. I realized something else: the hyena was the reason those sailors had thrown me into the lifeboat. They weren't trying to save my life. That was the last of their concerns. They were using me as fodder. They were hoping that the hyena would attack me and that somehow I would get rid of it and make the boat safe for them, no matter if it cost me my life. Now I knew what they were pointing at so furiously just before the zebra appeared.
I never thought that finding myself confined in a small space with a spotted hyena would be good news, but there you go. In fact, the good news was double: if it weren't for this hyena, the sailors wouldn't have thrown me into the lifeboat and I would have stayed on the ship and I surely would have drowned; and if I had to share quarters with a wild animal, better the upfront ferocity of a dog than the power and stealth of a cat. I breathed the smallest sigh of relief. As a precautionary measure I moved onto the oar. I sat astride it, on the rounded edge of the speared lifebuoy, my left foot against the tip of the prow, my right foot on the gunnel. It was comfortable enough and I was facing the boat.
I looked about. Nothing but sea and sky. The same when we were at the top of a swell. The sea briefly imitated every land feature-every hill, every valley, every plain. Accelerated geotectonics. Around the world in eighty swells. But nowhere on it could I find my family. Things floated in the water but none that brought me hope. I could see no other lifeboats.
The weather was changing rapidly. The sea, so immense, so breathtakingly immense, was settling into a smooth and steady motion, with the waves at heel; the wind was softening to a tuneful breeze; fluffy, radiantly white clouds were beginning to light up in a vast fathomless dome of delicate pale blue. It was the dawn of a beautiful day in the Pacific Ocean. My shirt was already beginning to dry. The night had vanished as quickly as the ship.
I began to wait. My thoughts swung wildly. I was either fixed on practical details of immediate survival or transfixed by pain, weeping silently, my mouth open and my hands at my head.
Excerpted from Life of Pi Copyright © 2001 by Yann Martel.