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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 5)

2006-08-22 21:00


  My name isn't the end of the story about my name. When your name is Bob no one asks you, “How do you spell that?” Not so with Piscine Molitor Patel.

  Some thought it was P. Singh and that I was a Sikh, and they Wondered why I wasn't wearing a turban.

  In my university days I visited Montreal once with some friends. It fell to me to order pizzas one night. I couldn't bear to have yet another French speaker guffawing at my name, so when the man on the phone asked, “Can I 'ave your name?” I said, “I am who I am.” Half an hour later two pizzas arrived for “Ian Hoolihan”。

  It is true that those we meet can change us, sometimes so profoundly that we are not the same afterwards, even unto our names. Witness Simon who is called Peter, Matthew also known as Levi, Nathaniel who is also Bartholomew, Judas, not Iscariot, who took the name Thaddeus, Simeon who went by Niger, Saul who became Paul.

  My Roman soldier stood in the schoolyard one morning when I was twelve. I had just arrived. He saw me and a flash of evil genius lit up his dull mind. He raised his arm, pointed at me and shouted, “It's Pissing Patel!”

  In a second everyone was laughing. It fell away as we filed into the class. I walked in last, wearing my crown of thorns.

  The cruelty of children comes as news to no one. The words would waft across the yard to my ears, unprovoked, uncalled for: “Where's Pissing? I've got to go.” Or: “You're facing the wall. Are you Pissing?” Or something of the sort. I would freeze or, the contrary, pursue my activity, pretending not to have heard. The sound would disappear, but the hurt would linger, like the smell of piss long after it has evaporated.

  Teachers started doing it too. It was the heat. As the day wore on, the geography lesson, which in the morning had been as compact as an oasis, started to stretch out like the Thar Desert; the history lesson, so alive when the day was young, became parched and dusty; the mathematics lesson, so precise at first, became muddled. In their afternoon fatigue, as they wiped their foreheads and the backs of their necks with their handkerchiefs, without meaning to offend or get a laugh, even teachers forgot the fresh aquatic promise of my name and distorted it in a shameful way. By nearly imperceptible modulations I could hear the change. It was as if their tongues were charioteers driving wild horses. They could manage well enough the first syllable, the Pea, but eventually the heat was too much and they lost control of their frothy-mouthed steeds and could no longer rein them in for the climb to the second syllable, the seen. Instead they plunged hell-bent into sing, and next time round, all was lost. My hand would be Up to give an answer> and j would be acknowledged with a “Yes, Pissing.” Often the teacher wouldn't realize what he had just called me. He would look at me wearily after a moment, wondering why I wasn>t coming Qut ^ the answer. And sometimes the class, as beaten down by the heat as he was, wouldn't react either. Not a snicker or a smile. But I always heard the slur.

  I spent my last year at St. Joseph's School feeling like the persecuted prophet Muhammad in Mecca, peace be upon him. But just as he planned his flight to Medina, the Hejira that would mark the beginning of Muslim time, I planned my escape and the beginning of a new time for me.

  After St. Joseph's, I went to Petit Seminaire, the best private English-medium secondary school in Pondicherry. Ravi was already there, and like all younger brothers, I would suffer from following in the footsteps of a popular older sibling. He was the athlete of his generation at Petit Seminaire, a fearsome bowler and a Powerful batter, the captain of the town's best cricket team, our very own Kapil Dev. That I was a swimmer made no waves; it seems to be a law of human nature that those who live by the sea are suspicious of swimmers, just as those who live in the mountains are suspicious of mountain climbers. But following in someone's shadow wasn't my escape, though I would have taken any name over “Pissing”, even “Ravi's brother”。 I had a better plan than that.

  I put it to execution on the very first day of school, in the very first class. Around me were other alumni of St. Joseph's. The class started the way all new classes start, with the stating of names. We called them out from our desks in the order in which we happened to be sitting.

  “Ganapathy Kumar,” said Ganapathy Kumar.

  “Vipin Nath,” said Vipin Nath.

  “Shamshool Hudha,” said Shamshool Hudha.

  “Peter Dharmaraj,” said Peter Dharmaraj.

  Each name elicited a tick on a list and a brief mnemonic stare from the teacher. I was terribly nervous.

  “Ajith Giadson,” said Ajith Giadson, four desks away……

  “Sampath Saroja,” said Sampath Saroja, three away……

  “Stanley Kumar,” said Stanley Kumar, two away……

  “Sylvester Naveen,” said Sylvester Naveen, right in front of me.

  It was my turn. Time to put down Satan. Medina, here I come.

  I got up from my desk and hurried to the blackboard. Before the teacher could say a word, I picked up a piece of chalk and said as I wrote:

  My name is

  Piscine Molitor Patel,

  known to all as

  -I double underlined the first two letters of my given name-

  Pi Patel.

  For good measure I added


  and I drew a large circle, which I then sliced in two with a diameter, to evoke that basic lesson of geometry.

  There was silence. The teacher was staring at the board. I was holding my breath. Then he said, “Very well, Pi. Sit down. Next time you will ask permission before leaving your desk.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  He ticked my name off. And looked at the next boy.

  “Mansoor Ahamad,” said Mansoor Ahamad.

  I was saved.

  “Gautham Selvaraj,” said Gautham Selvaraj.

  I could breathe.

  “Arun Annaji,” said Arun Annaji.

  A new beginning.

  I repeated the stunt with every teacher. Repetition is important in the training not only of animals but also of humans. Between one commonly named boy and the next, I rushed forward and emblazoned, sometimes with a terrible screech, the details of my rebirth. It got to be that after a few times the boys sang along with me, a crescendo that climaxed, after a quick intake of air while I underlined the proper note, with such a rousing rendition of my new name that it would have been the delight of any choirmaster. A few boys followed up with a whispered, urgent “Three! Point! One! Four!” as I wrote as fast as I could, and I ended the concert by slicing the circle with such vigour that bits of chalk went flying.

  When I put my hand up that day, which I did every chance I had, teachers granted me the right to speak with a single syllable that was music to my ears. Students followed suit. Even the St. Joseph's devils. In fact, the name caught on. Truly we are a nation of aspiring engineers: shortly after, there was a boy named Omprakash who was calling himself Omega, and another who was passing himself off as Upsilon, and for a while there was a Gamma, a Lambda and a Delta. But I was the first and the most enduring of the Greeks at Petit Seminaire. Even my brother, the captain of the cricket team, that local god, approved. He took me aside the next week.

  “What's this I hear about a nickname you have?” he said.

  I kept silent. Because whatever mocking was to come, it was to come. There was no avoiding it.

  “I didn't realize you liked the colour yellow so much.”

  The colour yellow? I looked around. No one must hear what he was about to say, especially not one of his lackeys. “Ravi, what do you mean?” I whispered.

  “It's all right with me, brother. Anything's better than 'Pissing'. Even 'Lemon Pie'.”

  As he sauntered away he smiled and said, “You look a bit red in the face.”

  But he held his peace.

  And so, in that Greek letter that looks like a shack with a corrugated tin roof, in that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge.

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