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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 77)

2006-08-22 21:28

  CHAPTER   77

  As the cartons of survival rations diminished, I reduced my intake till I was following instructions exactly, holding myself to only two biscuits every eight hours. I was continuously hungry. I thought about food obsessively. The less I had to eat, the larger became the portions I dreamed of. My fantasy meals grew to be the size of India. A Ganges of dhal soup. Hot chapattis the size of Rajasthan. Bowls of rice as big as Uttar Pradesh. Sambars to flood all of Tamil Nadu. Ice cream heaped as high as the Himalayas. My dreaming became quite expert: all ingredients for my dishes were always in fresh and plentiful supply; the oven or frying pan was always at just the right temperature; the proportion of things was always bang on; nothing was ever burnt or undercooked, nothing too hot or too cold. Every meal was simply perfect-only just beyond the reach of my hands.

  By degrees the range of my appetite increased. Whereas at first I gutted fish and peeled their skin fastidiously, soon I no more than rinsed off their slimy slipperiness before biting into them, delighted to have such a treat between my teeth. I recall flying fish as being quite tasty, their flesh rosy white and tender. Dorado had a firmer texture and a stronger taste. I began to pick at fish heads rather than toss them to Richard Parker or use them as bait. It was a great discovery when I found that a fresh-tasting fluid could be sucked out not only from the eyes of larger fish but also from their vertebrae. Turtles-which previously I had roughly opened up with the knife and tossed onto the floor of the boat for Richard Parker, like a bowl of hot soup-became my favourite dish.

  It seems impossible to imagine that there was a time when I looked upon a live sea turtle as a ten-course meal of great delicacy, a blessed respite from fish. Yet so it was. In the veins of turtles coursed a sweet lassi that had to be drunk as soon as it spurted from their necks, because it coagulated in less than a minute. The best poriyals and kootus in the land could not rival turtle flesh, either cured brown or fresh deep red. No cardamom payasam I ever tasted was as sweet or as rich as creamy turtle eggs or cured turtle fat. A chopped-up mixture of heart, lungs, liver, flesh and cleaned-out intestines sprinkled with fish parts, the whole soaked in a yolk-and-serum gravy, made an unsurpassable, finger-licking thali. By the end of my journey I was eating everything a turtle had to offer. In the algae that covered the shells of some hawksbills I sometimes found small crabs and barnacles. Whatever I found in a turtle's stomach became my turn to eat. I whiled away many a pleasant hour gnawing at a flipper joint or splitting open bones and licking out their marrow. And my fingers were forever picking away at bits of dry fat and dry flesh that clung to the inner sides of shells, rummaging for food in the automatic way of monkeys.

  Turtle shells were very handy. I couldn't have done without them. They served not only as shields, but as cutting boards for fish and as bowls for mixing food. And when the elements had destroyed the blankets beyond repair, I used the shells to

  protect myself from the sun by propping them against each other and lying beneath them.

  It was frightening, the extent to which a full belly made for a good mood. The one would follow the other measure for measure: so much food and water, so much good mood. It was such a terribly fickle existence. I was at the mercy of turtle meat for smiles.

  By the time the last of the biscuits had disappeared, anything was good to eat, no matter the taste. I could put anything in my mouth, chew it and swallow it-delicious, foul or plain-so long as it wasn't salty. My body developed a revulsion for salt that I still experience to this day.

  I tried once to eat Richard Parker's feces. It happened early on, when my system hadn't learned yet to live with hunger and my imagination was still wildly searching for solutions. I had delivered fresh solar-still water to his bucket not long before. After draining it in one go, he had disappeared below the tarpaulin and I had returned to attending to some small matter in the locker. As I always did in those early days, I glanced below the tarpaulin every so often to make sure he wasn't up to something. Well, this one time, lo, he was. He was crouched, his back was rounded and his rear legs were spread. His tail was raised, pushing up against the tarpaulin. The position was tell-tale. Right away I had food in mind, not animal hygiene. I decided there was little danger. He was turned the other way and his head was out of sight. If I respected his peace and quiet, he might not even notice me. I grabbed a bailing cup and stretched my arm forward. My cup arrived in the nick of time. At the second it was in position at the base of his tail, Richard Parker's anus distended, and out of it, like a bubble-gum balloon, came a black sphere of excrement. It fell into my cup with a clink, and no doubt I will be considered to have abandoned the last vestiges of humanness by those who do not understand the degree of my suffering when I say that it sounded to my ears like the music of a five-rupee coin dropped into a beggar's cup. A smile cracked my lips and made them bleed. I felt deep gratitude towards Richard Parker. I pulled back the cup. I took the turd in my fingers. It was very warm, but the smell was not strong. In size it was like a big ball of gulab jamun, but with none of the softness. In fact, it was as hard as a rock. Load a musket with it and you could have shot a rhino.

  I returned the ball to the cup and added a little water. I covered it and set it aside. My mouth watered as I waited. When I couldn't stand the wait any longer, I popped the ball into my mouth. I couldn't eat it. The taste was acrid, but it wasn't that. It was rather my mouth's conclusion, immediate and obvious: there's nothing to be had here. It was truly waste matter, with no nutrients in it. I spat it out and was bitter at the loss of precious water. I took the gaff and went about collecting the rest of Richard Parker's feces. They went straight to the fish.

  After just a few weeks my body began to deteriorate. My feet and ankles started to swell and I was finding it very tiring to stand.

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