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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 57)

2006-08-22 21:28

  CHAPTER   57

  It was Richard Parker who calmed me down. It is the irony of this story that the one who scared me witless to start with was the very same who brought me peace, purpose, I dare say even wholeness.

  He was looking at me intently. After a time I recognized the gaze. I had grown up with it. It was the gaze of a contented animal looking out from its cage or pit the way you or I would look out from a restaurant table after a good meal, when the time has come for conversation and people-watching. Clearly, Richard Parker had eaten his fill of hyena and drunk all the rainwater he wanted. No lips were rising and falling, no teeth were showing, no growling or snarling was coming from him. He was simply taking me in, observing me, in a manner that was sober but not menacing. He kept twitching his ears and varying the sideways turn of his head. It was all so, well, catlike. He looked like a nice, big, fat domestic cat, a 450-pound tabby.

  He made a sound, a snort from his nostrils. I pricked up my ears. He did it a second time. I was astonished. Prusten?

  Tigers make a variety of sounds. They include a number of roars and growls, the loudest of these being most likely the full-throated aaonh, usually made during the mating season by males and oestrous females. It's a cry that travels far and wide, and is absolutely petrifying when heard close up. Tigers go woof when they are caught unawares, a short, sharp detonation of fury that would instantly make your legs jump up and run away if they weren't frozen to the spot. When they charge, tigers put out throaty, coughing roars. The growl they use for purposes of threatening has yet another guttural quality. And tigers hiss and snarl, which, depending on the emotion behind it, sounds either like autumn leaves rustling on the ground, but a little more resonant, or, when it's an infuriated snarl, like a giant door with rusty hinges slowly opening-in both cases, utterly spine-chilling. Tigers make other sounds too. They grunt and they moan. They purr, though not as melodiously or as frequently as small cats, and only as they breathe out. (Only small cats purr breathing both ways. It is one of the characteristics that distinguishes big cats from small cats. Another is that only big cats can roar. A good thing that is. I'm afraid the popularity of the domestic cat would drop very quickly if little kitty could roar its displeasure.) Tigers even go meow, with an inflection similar to that of domestic cats, but louder and in a deeper range, not as encouraging to one to bend down and pick them up. And tigers can be utterly, majestically silent, that too.

  I had heard all these sounds growing up. Except for prusten. If I knew of it, it was because Father had told me about it. He had read descriptions of it in the literature. But he had heard it only once, while on a working visit to the Mysore Zoo, in their animal hospital, from a young male being treated for pneumonia. Prusten is the quietest of tiger calls, a puff through the nose to express friendliness and harmless intentions.

  Richard Parker did it again, this time with a rolling of the head. He looked exactly as if he were asking me a question.

  I looked at him, full of fearful wonder. There being no immediate threat, my breath slowed down, my heart stopped knocking about in my chest, and I began to regain my senses.

  I had to tame him. It was at that moment that I realized this necessity. It was not a question of him or me, but of him and me. We were, literally and figuratively, in the same boat. We would live-or we would die-together. He might be killed in an accident, or he could die shortly of natural causes, but it would be foolish to count on such an eventuality. More likely the worst would happen: the simple passage of time, in which his animal toughness would easily outlast my human frailty. Only if I tamed him could I possibly trick him into dying first, if we had to come to that sorry business.

  But there's more to it. I will come clean. I will tell you a secret: a part of me was glad about Richard Parker. A part of me did not want Richard Parker to die at all, because if he died I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger. If I still had the will to live, 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.

  I looked around at the horizon. Didn't I have here a perfect circus ring, inescapably round, without a single corner for him to hide in? I looked down at the sea. Wasn't this an ideal source of treats with which to condition him to obey? I noticed a whistle hanging from one of the life jackets. Wouldn't this make a good whip with which to keep him in line? What was missing here to tame Richard Parker? Time? It might be weeks before a ship sighted me. I had all the time in the world. Resolve? There's nothing like extreme need to give you resolve. Knowledge? Was I not a zookeeper's son? Reward? Was there any reward greater than life? Any punishment worse than death? I looked at Richard Parker. My panic was gone. My fear was dominated. Survival was at hand.

  Let the trumpets blare. Let the drums roll. Let the show begin. I rose to my feet. Richard Parker noticed. The balance was not easy. I took a deep breath and shouted, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, hurry to your seats! Hurry, hurry. You don't want to be late. Sit down, open your eyes, open your hearts and prepare to be amazed. Here it is, for your enjoyment and instruction, for your gratification and edification, the show you've been waiting for all your life, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH! Are you ready for the miracle of it? Yes? Well then: they are amazingly adaptable. You've seen them in freezing, snow-covered temperate forests. You've seen them in dense, tropical monsoon jungles. You've seen them in sparse, semi-arid scrublands. You've seen them in brackish mangrove swamps. Truly, they would fit anywhere. But you've never seen them where you are about to see them now! Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, without further ado, it is my pleasure and honour to present to you: THE PI PATEL, INDO-CANADIAN, TRANS-PACIFIC, FLOATING CIRCUUUUUSSSSSSSSSSSS!!! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE!”

  I had an effect on Richard Parker. At the very first blow of the whistle he cringed and he snarled. Ha! Let him jump into the water if he wanted to! Let him try!

  “TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE!”

  He roared and he clawed the air. But he did not jump. He might not be afraid of the sea when he was driven mad by hunger and thirst, but for the time being it was a fear I could rely on.

  “TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE! TREEEEEE!”

  He backed off and dropped to the bottom of the boat. The first training session was over. It was a resounding success. I stopped whistling and sat down heavily on the raft, out of breath and exhausted.

  And so it came to be:

  Plan Number Seven: Keep Him Alive.

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