Finding Hope in God and Richard Parker

by Sophia SakelleriouProduction Editor

Sitting on the shore of a sunny South Carolina beach with the waves coming and going at my feet, I looked up at the immense sea before me in awe and fear as I looked back down at the pages of Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi.” So beautiful from where I sat, the ocean was always a source of calm for me, but as I read about the story of young Pi, I was reminded of its power.

The Author’s Note begins with an anonymous author figure who traveled from Canada to India in search of inspiration when he meets an elderly man. This man says he has a story for the author that will give him faith in God and that is the story of Pi Patel.

Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel grew up on a zoo in Pondicherry, India. The book shows the wonder of a zoo through Pi’s eyes as he wanders the grounds each day and learns about the nature of animals. His father taught Pi and his brother the danger of animal instinct when he fed a live goat to a tiger to right before their young eyes, demonstrating its immense power and instantly instilling fear in Pi.

Zoology is not the only thing Pi learns about in his daily life. Raised a Hindu, he takes great interest in learning more about his spirituality as he discovers Christianity, then Islam and practices all three at the same time. His mentors of each protest that practicing all three is not right, but Pi persists in showing his love for God.

Pi and his family decide to move their zoo to Canada as they are caught in India’s political strife in the late 1970s. They set sail in a cargo ship loaded with cages of the zoo animals when disaster strikes. In a scene of mayhem, the ship gets swept up in a storm and sinks. Pi awakes to find himself on a lifeboat in the company of a hyena and a zebra with a broken leg. Soon they are joined by an orangutan as well.

Pi is in despair as he mourns his family and his whole world that disappeared along with the ship. Time passes slowly as things worsen when the hyena acts on its instinct, attacking the other animals. The fear in Pi grows as he thinks he’s the next victim when from beneath the canvas covering of the lifeboat he’s been safely perched on, Richard Parker emerges in all his terrifying orange glory.

Richard Parker was one of the bengal tigers Pi’s family had at the zoo. When Parker emerges from the depths of the lifeboat, Pi is relieved that the hyena is no longer a thing to be feared as Parker devours him. However that relief is short lived and the fear intensifies when Pi is reminded of his father’s demonstration with the goat from his youth.

Days pass slowly and Pi subsists on the emergency rations in the boat, all while sharing with Parker in order to maintain peace. A tiger is fearful in itself, let alone a hungry one, and Pi draws on the skills he learned at the zoo in order to train and master Parker. He compares the process to a ringmaster in a circus. The ringmaster is not stronger or more powerful than the lion, in fact he is far from it, but by stomping his feet and clapping his hands he’s established that he is the alpha, and that is what Pi tries day in and day out to do with Parker. In order for them to co-exist on this small boat in the vast ocean, he must be the alpha.

Pi draws on his spirituality when his hope is at its lowest, specifically nights when the darkness consumes the world and all his senses. Days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months as Pi and Parker are still stranded on the lifeboat. As time passes and the rations gradually diminish, Pi’s own animalistic instincts grow stronger, and he finds himself devouring a fish with the same veracity as the tiger. What has he become?

When the boat finally washes ashore, Parker runs away and Pi is left with a story that no one believes. Officials from the Japanese Military Transport question him, hoping he can shed light on the fate of the ship, but they think he is delusional as he tells the tales of his time at sea with a tiger. Yet, the anonymous author figure comforts the reader that the story has a happy ending. Pi grew up to have a family, still practicing any and all religions he chooses and studying zoology.

As someone who’s never been very religious, Life of Pi caused me to reflect on my own spirituality. Pi endured an unimaginable journey of loss and survival, yet never lost his faith because if he was still alive, that meant God was with him. His belief in a higher loving power that all three religions he practiced share, gave him strength because even when all was lost, he still had the gift of life and to him, that was enough.

Sitting in my beach chair facing the ocean, I was left with a sense of enlightenment that led me to reflect on my own life experiences. Granted, none have been as arduous as being lost at sea, but it’s easy to get swept up in all of the challenges life throws our way. It’s a nice thought that in the midst of all the chaos, we can turn inward and find solace in simply being here and able to live it all, the good and the bad.