Life Of Pi: Survival

by Cadie Fowler

"I know my survival is hard to believe. When I think back, I can hardly believe it myself."
-Piscene Molitor Patel (pg. 223)

Survival is the method of living that one may use for an indefinite period of time in a perilous situation. It is conditioned instinctively from birth in humans and animals alike and is based off of ones strength of will, as is such in the case of Piscene Molitor Patel. Piscene's survival was categorized by his very first experiences with danger, the aftershock of the Tsimtsum sinking (and his immediate choices thereafter), his 227 days aboard a lifeboat in perilous situation and the after affects of his own psychological struggle with himself, his religion and his surroundings as he faded in and out of consciousness in his last few days on said lifeboat.

At an early age (approximately eight years old), Piscene was taught by his father just how dangerous some animals can be. Ironic, it seems, that Pi's father would start first by teaching his sons about the danger of a tiger. He then warns them that they should remember this lesson for the rest of their lives. He feeds a goat to the tiger, Mahisha, in front of two young vegetarian children to teach them just how dangerous it is to be in close proximity with one of those creatures.

Later on, Piscene delves into the psyche of animals from zoos. He believed that some animals escaped for lack of the ability to re-adapt to a new environment, excitement or bad enclosures. When they escape, "animals usually hide in the first place they find that gives them a sense of security and... are dangerous only to those who get between them and their reckoned safe spot." In fact, some escaped animals can survive weeks in cities. Piscene describes an animal that survived ten weeks without a trace of it being found. Thus, even animals have the instinct to survive and blend bred into them.

Although one might believe that simply instincts and conditioning given at birth and through childhood would keep one alive in the case of Piscene Patel, it is more than that. More than that, it is the willpower one has to stay alive. What inspires us to keep living when hope is lost? Mr. Patel explained it simply; "If I still had the will to love, it was thanks to Richard Parker. He kept me from thinking too much about my family and my tragic circumstances. He pushed me to go on living. I hated him for it, yet at the same time I was grateful. I am grateful. It's the plain truth: without Richard Parker, I wouldn't be alive today to tell you my story."

Initially, one could believe that the first few days on the Pacific Ocean, with a tiger, orangutan, zebra and hyena were the clearest survival days of Piscene's "adventure". When reading further you see more, and yet still the first week was the best example found here on immediate survival. After the Tsimtsum sank, Piscene had much danger. The weather could have sunk the little lifeboat. Richard Parker could have attacked him. The sharks could have easily lunged and torn him to pieces. The waves could have pulled him off the lifebuoy, and yet they did not. It couldn't have been more than pure luck for Piscene, luck that he would most definately need in the coming 227 days. He then fought with fear and reason in his own head. Fear told him that Richard Parker would easily kill him, reason said that he was safe. Reason won the argument and soon Piscene was quickly back in the lifeboat, and that was where he spent his first night.

The first day was filled with hope for Piscene. His spirits had been renewed ("Things would work out. The worst was over. I had survived the night."). By the second day, Piscene was weak in body and soul from lack of rations and from fear of the animals on board.

Piscene, in the first week, took the time to observe his surroundings, which was also crucial to his survival. Of course, there was the ocean. Inside of the lifeboat he took note of everything. He braved the danger of the den of Richard Parker to get to the Locker, which was most likely the best luck he had in the whole book. The discovery of the Locker was full of renewed hope and an all-over sense of happiness and well being once water and food and other useful things were found. Making sure to note everything in the lifeboat, Piscene took key precautions to survival by rationing. Then, Piscene built the raft. The raft provided him with key shelter, somewhere for him to stay (mostly) dry in the rain and the wind.

Planning became something that Piscene did. In his analytical mind (shockingly well-detailed for a sixteen year old) he tried to decide what to do with Richard Parker. He ended up with 6 things to do, (pushing Richard Parker off the lifeboat, killing him in various ways and waging a war of attrition, which was decided as the best option.) and yet in the end he was forced to come up with a 7th option (keep him alive) in order to have the willpower to survive. Piscenes planning was necessary and well-done, and helped him much with survival in the later chapters.

Then the survival manual was discovered. This listed important facts (Do not drink urine, pressing the eyes of fish will paralyze them, shelter yourself, etc.) that helped Pi later in the book. Mr. Patel drawled on a little more about the survival manual and the things inside of it, pondering and absorbing each word. He then went back to planning and made mental note of several things he must do to survive. First off, Piscene had to devise a training program for the aggressive Richard Parker. Secondly, fishing and shelter would come, necessary to his own survival. A second rope was also needed to tether the raft to the lifeboat, and the raft itself needed improvement. Last, he had to stop hoping to be rescued. "Survival had to start with me. In my experience, a castaway's worst mistake is to hope too much and do too little. Survival starts by paying attention to what is close at hand and immediate. To look out with idle hope is tantamount to dreaming one's life away." (Pg. 168-169). Piscene Patel had much to do. He solved the problems as quickly as possibly, and before he knew it, the first week since the Tsimtsum had sunk had gone by.

Now, one must remember that Piscene spent 227 days afloat since the sinking of the Tsimtsum before he reached the shores of Mexico. Seven days is not long out of 227. Pi had to spend many days trying to survive the furious, scorching ocean. His most important need was food and water.

Water was easy enough, because Pi had his solar stills. There were twelve in total, each holding one litre of water. The stills became a second rope to tether the raft to the lifeboat, giving them a second use that Pi desperately needed. Though he was doubtful of the flimsy things, they still aided him when he ran low on water. The taste was described as rubbery, but Pi surely could not have minded the taste as long as it was not salty.

Not only did Pi have the still water, he had three 50-litre plastic bags in which he kept rainwater and still water in the locker. He was terrified of them breaking in the locker, and wrapped them in blankets so they would not rub up against the metal of the locker and break. In order to conserve fresh water for himself, he added sea water to Richard Parker's ration. Still, for Pi and Richard Parker to have gotten along on so little water that they had was miraculous, and water was a constant source of problem for Piscene on the hot Pacific Ocean.

In order to continue living, the vegetarian Hindu boy had to fish for the first time in his life. He decided to use his shoe as bait, and unfortunately lost the whole shoe and hook. Piscene might have had many more hooks, but unfortunately he had no other bait. "Stupidity has a price. You should show more care and wisdom next time." (pg. 179) he scolds himself. He finds himself without bait to catch a fish, until he discovers the flying fish.

The flying fish were the initial reason he could catch fish and survive. It was purely accidental that he had flying fish to use as bait. Even so, he struggled to kill the flying fish, as it was against the way he had been raised. But, the desperation to keep going on was so great that when he caught a dorado, Piscene mercilessly bludgeoned the fish to death. The need to live on was so great that it could turn someone from a gentle, animal-loving person into someone who thirsted for the blood of sea-turtles and the crunch of shark cartilage between their teeth. He used gaffs to snatch small fish out of the water, grabbed them from the air with his fingers and dried jacks and mackerels until there was no space left on the boat to put pieces. Pi Patel wore fish scales like clothes, and hauled sea turtles to throw to Richard Parker on his good days. He had "descended to a level of savagery he had never thought possible." (pg. 197)

Indeed there have been many accounts of those who have survived many days at sea. There were few listed in the book, and yet all are said to amaze. Over seven months (how long Pi was in the boat) is by far the longest listed in the book. One would find in the book Mr. Patel's reason as to why he survived- because he forgot. Indeed, the accounts of time in the actual book were sketchy, and one could suppose that in order to survive, not counting the days would help. Counting each day, sunset to sunrise, as another day you are left without help would be disconcerting to ones hope, ones willpower, and would most certainly be the end of ones own survival.

And then there was the psychological struggles Piscene had within himself. As Life of Pi progressed, one can simply feel him loosing grasp of his humanity as he delves into insanity and the brink of savagery. Not even that far along into the story, Pi begins to loose his temper with himself over the matter of the hungry Richard Parker. Certainly he demonstrates a lack of hope for his situation when he cries "Richard Parker is afraid of the sea right now. It was nearly his grave. But crazed with thirst and hunger he will surmount his fear, and he will do whatever is necessary to appease his need. He will turn this moat into a bridge. He will swim as far as he has to, to catch the drifting raft and the food upon it. As for water, have you forgotten that tigers from the Sudarbans are known to drink saline water? Do you think you can outlast his kidneys? I tell you, if you wage a war of attrition you will lose it! You will die! IS THAT CLEAR?" (pg. 160)

The survival manual had something about keeping the mind entertained in it. Piscene had much to muse over, one could suppose, and therefore did not find it useful to play games of I Spy or Twenty Questions by himself. "Life of a lifeboat is not much of a life... You must make adjustments if you want to survive. Much becomes expendable. You get your happiness where you can. You reach a point where you're at the bottom of hell, yet you have your arms crossed and a smile on your face, and you feel like you're the luckiest person in the world. Why? Because at your feet you have tiny dead fish."

Lightning is a rarity in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, or at least it was for Piscene. There is only one account of him seeing lightning in the book, and chills one with the bizarreness of said writing. Piscene is gripped with happiness at seeing lightning strike the place where their boat is. It is one of the first few signs of him loosing control over his psyche. In chapter 87, there is a log about him asphyxiating himself as a method of escape with a "dream cloth", a wet rag, to pass the time. In Chapter 90 to 93, one can be certain that Pi has most definately lost it. He meets a Frenchman on a lifeboat who is torn to pieces by Richard Parker, and then descends upon a living island that kills people and finds only teeth left over from someone who had been there previously. It's easy to see that Piscene barely is alive at the end of his journey across the Pacific to the coast of Mexico.

The psychological effects of his survival are great. If the story was indeed something other than fiction, one could diagnose the Piscene Patel near the end of his journey with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Vietnam veterans have been diagnosed with the same disorder, but it is not limited to just war veterans. Indeed, a stressful situation in which one cannot find release from may cause PTSD, and although Pi survived, it was not without some after-effect. The story that he told in place of the truth to the investigators in Mexico show that he did not want to discuss the truth, and instead made a plausible reality for him to stay in and believe while others did not.

In review, the things he learned before the fatal trip to Canada, a flying fish, and the survival manual all contributed to Pi's survival. But more importantly, Piscene's will to survive rescued him from complete and utter physical and mental deterioration at the mercy of the Ocean and a tiger named Richard Parker.