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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 8)

2006-08-22 21:00

  CHAPTER   8

  We commonly say in the trade that the most dangerous animal in a zoo is Man. In a general way we mean how our species' excessive predatoriness has made the entire planet our prey. More specifically, we have in mind the people who feed fishhooks to the otters, razors to the bears, apples with small nails in them to the elephants and hardware variations

  on the theme: ballpoint pens, paper clips, safety pins, rubber bands, combs, coffee spoons, horseshoes, pieces of broken glass, rings, brooches and other jewellery (and not just cheap plastic bangles: gold wedding bands, too), drinking straws, plastic cutlery, ping-pong balls, tennis balls and so on. The obituary of zoo animals that have died from being fed foreign bodies would include gorillas, bison, storks, rheas, ostriches, seals, sea lions, big cats, bears, camels, elephants, monkeys, and most every variety of deer, ruminant and songbird. Among zookeepers, Goliath's death is famous; he was a bull elephant seal, a great big venerable beast of two tons, star of his European zoo, loved by all visitors. He died of internal bleeding after someone fed him a broken beer bottle.

  The cruelty is often more active and direct. The literature contains reports on the many torments inflicted upon zoo animals: a shoebill dying of shock after having its beak smashed with a hammer; a moose stag losing its beard, along with a strip of flesh the size of an index finger, to a visitor's knife (this same moose was poisoned six months later); a monkey's arm broken after reaching out for proffered nuts; a deer's antlers attacked with a hacksaw; a zebra stabbed with a sword; and other assaults on other animals, with walking sticks, umbrellas, hairpins, knitting needles, scissors and whatnot, often with an aim to taking an eye out or to injuring sexual parts. Animals are also poisoned. And there are indecencies even more bizarre: onanists breaking a sweat on monkeys, ponies, birds; a religious freak who cut a snake's head off; a deranged man who took to urinating in an elk's mouth.

  At Pondicherry we were relatively fortunate. We were spared the sadists who plied European and American zoos. Nonetheless, our golden agouti vanished, stolen by someone who ate it, Father suspected. Various birds-pheasants, peacocks, macaws-lost feathers to people greedy for their beauty. We caught a man with a knife climbing into the pen for mouse deer; he said he was going to punish evil Ravana (who in the Ramayana took the form of a deer when he kidnapped Sita, Rama's consort)。 Another man was nabbed in the process of stealing a cobra. He was a snake charmer whose own snake had died. Both were saved: the cobra from a life of servitude and bad music, and the man from a possible death bite. We had to deal on occasion with stone throwers, who found the animals too placid and wanted a reaction. And we had the lady whose sari was caught by a lion. She spun like a yo-yo, choosing mortal embarrassment over mortal end. The thing was, it wasn't even an accident. She had leaned over, thrust her hand in the cage and waved the end of her sari in the lion's face, with what intent we never figured out. She was not injured; there were many fascinated men who came to her assistance. Her flustered explanation to Father was, “Whoever heard of a lion eating a cotton sari? I thought lions were carnivores.” Our worst troublemakers were the visitors who gave food to the animals. Despite our vigilance, Dr. Atal, the zoo veterinarian, could tell by the number of animals with digestive disturbances which had been the busy days at the zoo. He called “tidbit-itis” the cases of enteritis or gastritis due to too many carbohydrates, especially sugar. Sometimes we wished people had stuck to sweets. People have a notion that animals can eat anything without the least consequence to their health. Not so. One of our sloth bears became seriously ill with severe hemorrhagic enteritis after being given fish that had gone putrid by a man who was convinced he was doing a good deed.

  Just beyond the ticket booth Father had painted on a wall in bright red letters the question: DO YOU KNOW WHICH IS THE MOST DANGEROUS ANIMAL IN THE ZOO? An arrow pointed to a small curtain. There were so many eager, curious hands that pulled at the curtain that we had to replace it regularly. Behind it was a mirror.

  But I learned at my expense that Father believed there was another animal even more dangerous than us, and one that was extremely common, too, found on every continent, in every habitat: the redoubtable species Animalus anthropomorphicus, the animal as seen through human eyes. We've all met one, perhaps even owned one. It is an animal that is “cute”, “friendly”, “loving”, “devoted”, “merry”, “understanding”。 These animals lie in ambush in every toy store and children's zoo. Countless stories are told of them. They are the pendants of those “vicious”, “bloodthirsty”, “depraved” animals that inflame the ire of the maniacs I have just mentioned, who vent their spite on them with walking sticks and umbrellas. In both cases we look at an animal and see a mirror. The obsession with putting ourselves at the centre of everything is the bane not only of theologians but also of zoologists.

  I learned the lesson that an animal is an animal, essentially and practically removed from us, twice: once with Father and once with Richard Parker.

  It was on a Sunday morning. I was quietly playing on my own. Father called out.

  “Children, come here.”

  Something was wrong. His tone of voice set off a small alarm bell in my head. I quickly reviewed my conscience. It was clear. Ravi must be in trouble again. I wondered what he had done this time. I walked into the living room. Mother was there. That was unusual. The disciplining of children, like the tending of animals, was generally left to Father. Ravi walked in last, guilt written all over his criminal face.

  “Ravi, Piscine, I have a very important lesson for you today.”

  “Oh really, is this necessary?” interrupted Mother. Her face was flushed.

  I swallowed. If Mother, normally so unruffled, so calm, was worried, even upset, it meant we were in serious trouble. I exchanged glances with Ravi.

  “Yes, it is,” said Father, annoyed. “It may very well save their lives.”

  Save our lives! It was no longer a small alarm bell that was ringing in my head-they were big bells now, like the ones we heard from Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, not far from the zoo.

  “But Piscine? He's only eight,” Mother insisted.

  “He's the one who worries me the most.”

  “I'm innocent!” I burst out. “It's Ravi's fault, whatever it is. He did it!”

  “What?” said Ravi. “I haven't done anything wrong.” He gave me the evil eye.

  “Shush!” said Father, raising his hand. He was looking at Mother. “Gita, you've seen Piscine. He's at that age when boys run around and poke their noses everywhere.”

  Me? A run-arounder? An everywhere-nose-poker? Not so, not so! Defend me, Mother, defend me, I implored in my heart. But she only sighed and nodded, a signal that the terrible business could proceed.

  “Come with me,” said Father.

  We set out like prisoners off to their execution.

  We left the house, went through the gate, entered the zoo. It was early and the zoo hadn't opened yet to the public. Animal keepers and groundskeepers were going about their work. I noticed Sitaram, who oversaw the orang-utans, my favourite keeper. He paused to watch us go by. We passed birds, bears, apes, monkeys, ungulates, the terrarium house, the rhinos, the elephants, the giraffes.

  We came to the big cats, our tigers, lions and leopards. Babu, their keeper, was waiting for us. We went round and down the path, and he unlocked the door to the cat house, which was at the centre of a moated island. We entered. It was a vast and dim cement cavern, circular in shape, warm and humid, and smelling of cat urine. All around were great big cages divided up by thick, green, iron bars. A yellowish light filtered down from the skylights. Through the cage exits we could see the vegetation of the surrounding island, flooded with sunlight. The cages were empty-save one: Mahisha, our Bengal tiger patriarch, a lanky, hulking beast of 550 pounds, had been detained. As soon as we stepped in, he loped up to the bars of his cage and set off a full-throated snarl, ears flat against his skull and round eyes fixed on Babu. The sound was so loud and fierce it seemed to shake the whole cat house. My knees started quaking. I got close to Mother. She was trembling, too. Even Father seemed to pause and steady himself. Only Babu was indifferent to the outburst and to the searing stare that bored into him like a drill. He had a tested trust in iron bars. Mahisha started pacing to and fro against the limits of his cage.

  Father turned to us. “What animal is this?” he bellowed above Mahisha's snarling.

  “It's a tiger,” Ravi and I answered in unison, obediently pointing out the blindingly obvious.

  “Are tigers dangerous?”

  “Yes, Father, tigers are dangerous.”

  “Tigers are very dangerous,” Father shouted. “I want you to understand that you are never-under any circumstances-to touch a tiger, to pet a tiger, to put your hands through the bars of a cage, even to get close to a cage. Is that clear? Ravi?”

  Ravi nodded vigorously.

  “Piscine?”

  I nodded even more vigorously.

  He kept his eyes on me.

  I nodded so hard I'm surprised my neck didn't snap and my head fall to the floor.

  I would like to say in my own defence that though I may have anthropomorphized the animals till they spoke fluent English, the pheasants complaining in uppity British accents of their tea being cold and the baboons planning their bank robbery getaway in the flat, menacing tones of American gangsters, the fancy was always conscious. I quite deliberately dressed wild animals in tame costumes of my imagination. But I never deluded myself as to the real nature of my playmates. My poking nose had more sense than that. I don't know where Father got the idea that his youngest son was itching to step into a cage with a ferocious carnivore. But wherever the strange worry came from-and Father was a worrier-he was clearly determined to rid himself of it that very morning.

  “I'm going to show you how dangerous tigers are,” he continued. “I want you to remember this lesson for the rest of your lives.”

  He turned to Babu and nodded. Babu left. Malahisha's eyes followed him and did not move from the door he disappeared through. He returned a few seconds later carrying a goat with its legs tied. Mother gripped me from behind. Mahihisha's snarl turned into a growl deep in the throat.

  Babu unlocked, opened, entered, closed and locked a cage next to the tiger's cage. Bars and a trapdoor separated the two. Immediately Mahisha was up against the dividing bars, pawing them. To his growling he now added explosive, arrested woofs. Babu placed the goat on the floor; its flanks were heaving violently, its tongue hung from its mouth, and its eyes were spinning orbs. He untied its legs. The goat got to its feet. Babu exited the cage in the same careful way he had entered it. The cage had two floors, one level with us, the other at the back, higher by about three feet, that led outside to the island. The goat scrambled to this second level. Mahisha, now unconcerned with Babu, paralleled the move in his cage in a fluid, effortless motion. He crouched and lay still, his slowly moving tail the only sign of tension.

  Babu stepped up to the trapdoor between the cages and started pulling it open. In anticipation of satisfaction, Mahisha fell silent. I heard two things at that moment: Father saying “Never forget this lesson” as he looked on grimly; and the bleating of the goat. It must have been bleating all along, only we couldn't hear it before.

  I could feel Mother's hand pressed against my pounding heart.

  The trapdoor resisted with sharp cries. Mahisha was beside himself-he looked as if he were about to burst through the bars. He seemed to hesitate between staying where he was, at the place where his prey was closest but most certainly out of reach, and moving to the ground level, further away but where the trapdoor was located. He raised himself and started snarling again.

  The goat started to jump. It jumped to amazing heights. I had no idea a goat could jump so high. But the back of the cage was a high and smooth cement wall.

  With sudden ease the trapdoor slid open. Silence fell again, except for bleating and the click-click of the goat's hooves against the floor.

  A streak of black and orange flowed from one cage to the next.

  Normally the big cats were not given food one day a week, to simulate conditions in the wild. We found out later that Father had ordered that Mahisha not be fed for three days.

  I don't know if I saw blood before turning into Mother's arms or if I daubed it on later, in my memory, with a big brush. But I heard. It was enoiugh to scare the living vegetarian daylights out of me. Mother bundled us out. We were in hysterics. She was incensed.

  “How could you, Santosh? They're children! They'll be scarred for the rest of their lives.”

  Her voice was hot and tremulous. I could see she had tears in her eyes. I felt better.

  “Gita, my bird, it's for their sake. What if Piscine had stuck his hand through the bars of the cage one day to touch the pretty orange fur? Better a goat than him, no?”

  His voice was soft, nearly a whisper. He looked contrite. He never called her “my bird” in front of us.

  We were huddled around her. He joined us. But the lesson was not over, though it was gentler after that.

  Father led us to the lions and leopards.

  “Once there was a madman in Australia who was a black belt in karate. He wanted to prove himself against the lions. He lost. Badly. The keepers found only half his body in the morning.”

  “Yes, Father.”

  The Himalayan bears and the sloth bears.

  “One strike of the claws from these cuddly creatures and your innards will be scooped out and splattered all over the ground.”

  “Yes, Father.”

  The hippos.

  “With those soft, flabby mouths of theirs they'll crush your body to a bloody pulp. On land they can outrun you.”

  “Yes, Father.”

  The hyenas.

  “The strongest jaws in nature. Don't think that they're cowardly or that they only eat carrion. They're not and they don't! They'll start eating you while you're still alive.”

  “Yes, Father.”

  The orang-utans.

  “As strong as ten men. They'll break your bones as if they were twigs. I know some of them were once pets and you played with them when they were small. But now they're grown-up and wild and unpredictable.”

  “Yes, Father.”

  The ostrich.

  “Looks flustered and silly, doesn't it? Listen up: it's one of the most dangerous animals in a zoo. Just one kick and your back is broken or your torso is crushed.”

  “Yes, Father.”

  The spotted deer.

  “So pretty, aren't they? If the male feels he has to, he'll charge you and those short little antlers will pierce you like daggers.”

  “Yes, Father.”

  The Arabian camel.

  “One slobbering bite and you've lost a chunk of flesh.”

  “Yes, Father.”

  The black swans.

  “With their beaks they'll crack your skull. With their wings they'll break your arms.”

  “Yes, Father.”

  The smaller birds.

  “They'll cut through your fingers with their beaks as if they were butter.”

  “Yes, Father.”

  The elephants.

  “The most dangerous animal of all. More keepers and visitors are killed by elephants than by any other animal in a zoo. A young elephant will most likely dismember you and trample your body parts flat. That's what happened to one poor lost soul in a European zoo who got into the elephant house through a window. An older, more patient animal will squeeze you against a wall or sit on you. Sounds funny-but think about it!”

  “Yes, Father.”

  “There are animals we haven't stopped by. Don't think they're harmless. Life will defend itself no matter how small it is. Every animal is ferocious and dangerous. It may not kill you, but it will certainly injure you. It will scratch you and bite you, and you can look forward to a swollen, pus-filled infection, a high fever and a ten-day stay in the hospital.”

  “Yes, Father.”

  We came to the guinea pigs, the only other animals besides Mahisha to have been starved at Father's orders, having been denied their previous evening's meal. Father unlocked the cage. He brought out a bag of feed from his pocket and emptied it on the floor.

  “You see these guinea pigs?”

  “Yes, Father.”

  The creatures were trembling with weakness as they frantically nibbled their kernels of corn.

  “Well……” He leaned down and scooped one up. “They're not dangerous.” The other guinea pigs scattered instantly.

  Father laughed. He handed me the squealing guinea pig. He meant ito end on a light note.

  The guinea pig rested in my arms tensely. It was a young one. I went to the cage and carefully lowered it to the floor. It rushed to its mother's side. The only reason these guinea pigs weren't dangerous-didn't draw blood with their teeth and claws-was that they were practically domesticated. Otherwise, to grab a wild guinea pig with your bare hands would be like taking hold of a knife by the blade.

  The lesson was over. Ravi and I sulked and gave Father the cold shoulder for a week. Mother ignored him too. When I went by the rhinoceros pit I fancied the rhinos' heads were hung low with sadness over the loss of one of their dear companions.

  But what can you do when you love your father? Life goes on and you don't touch tigers. Except that now, for having accused Ravi of an unspecified crime he hadn't committed, I was as good as dead. In years subsequent, when he was in the mood to terrorize me, he would whisper to me, “Just wait till we're alone. You're the next goat!”

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