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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 90)

2006-08-22 21:28

  CHAPTER   90

  I said, “Richard Parker, is something wrong? Have you gone blind?” as I waved my hand in his face.

  For a day or two he had been rubbing his eyes and meowing disconsolately, but I thought nothing of it. Aches and pains were the only part of our diet that was abundant. I caught a dorado. We hadn't eaten anything in three days. A turtle had come up to the lifeboat the day before, but I had been too weak to pull it aboard. I cut the fish in two halves. Richard Parker was looking my way. I threw him his share. I expected him to catch it in his mouth smartly. It crashed into his blank face. He bent down. After sniffing left and right, he found the fish and began eating it. We were slow eaters now.

  I peered into his eyes. They looked no different from any other day. Perhaps there was a little more discharge in the inner corners, but it was nothing dramatic, certainly not as dramatic as his overall appearance. The ordeal had reduced us to skin and bones.

  I realized that I had my answer in the very act of looking. I was stairing into his eyes as if I were an eye doctor, while he was looking back vacantly. Only a blind wild cat would fail to react to such a stare.

  I felt pity for Richard Parker. Our end was approaching.

  The next day I started feeling a stinging in my eyes. I rubbed and rubbed, but the itch wouldn't go away. The very opposite: it got worse, and unlike Richard Parker, my eyes started to ooze pus. Then darkness came, blink as I might. At first it was right in front of me, a black spot at the centre of everything. It spread into a blotch that reached to the edges of my vision. All I saw of the sun the next morning was a crack of light at the top of my left eye, like a small window too high up. By noon, everything was pitch-black.

  I clung to life. I was weakly frantic. The heat was infernal. I had so little strength I could no longer stand. My lips were hard and cracked. My mouth was dry and pasty, coated with a glutinous saliva as foul to taste as it was to smell. My skin was burnt. My shrivelled muscles ached. My limbs, especially my feet, were swollen and a constant source of pain. I was hungry and once again there was no food. As for water, Richard Parker was taking so much that I was down to five spoonfuls a day. But this physical suffering was nothing compared to the moral torture I was about to endure. I would rate the day I went blind as the day my extreme suffering began. I could not tell you when exactly in the journey it happened. Time, as I said before, became irrelevant. It must have been sometime between the hundredth and the two-hundredth day. I was certain I would not last another one.

  By the next morning I had lost all fear of death, and I resolved to die.

  I came to the sad conclusion that I could no longer take care of Richard Parker. I had failed as a zookeeper. I was more affected by his imminent demise than I was by my own. But truly, broken down and wasted away as I was, I could do no more for him.

  Nature was sinking fast. I could feel a fatal weakness creeping up on me. I would be dead by the afternoon. To make my going more comfortable I decided to put off a little the intolerable thirst I had been living with for so long. I gulped down as much water as I could take. If only I could have had a last bite to eat. But it seemed that was not to be. I set myself against the rolled-up edge of the tarpaulin in the middle of the boat. I closed my eyes and waited for my breath to leave my body. I muttered, “Goodbye, Richard Parker. I'm sorry for having failed you. I did my best. Farewell. Dear Father, dear Mother, dear Ravi, greetings. Your loving son and brother is coming to meet you. Not an hour has gone by that I haven't thought of you. The moment I see you will be the happiest of my life. And now I leave matters in the hands of God, who is love and whom I love.”

  I heard the words, “Is someone there?”

  It's astonishing what you hear when you're alone in the blackness of your dying mind. A sound without shape or colour sounds strange. To be blind is to hear otherwise.

  The words came again, “Is someone there?”

  I concluded that I had gone mad. Sad but true. Misery loves company, and madness calls it forth.

  “Is someone there?” came the voice again, insistent.

  The clarity of my insanity was astonishing. The voice had its very own timbre, with a heavy, weary rasp. I decided to play along.

  “Of course someone's there,” I replied. “There's always some one there. Who would be asking the question otherwise?”

  “I was hoping there would be someone else.”

  “What do you mean, someone else? Do you realize where you are? If you're not happy with this figment of your fancy, pick another one. There are plenty of fancies to pick from.”

  Hmmm. Figment. Fig-ment. Wouldn't a fig be good?

  “So there's no one, is there?”

  “Shush……I'm dreaming of figs.”

  “Figs! Do you have a fig? Please can I have a piece? I beg you. Only a little piece. I'm starving.”

  “I don't have just one fig. I have a whole figment.”

  “A whole figment of figs! Oh please, can I have some? I……”

  The voice, or whatever effect of wind and waves it was, faded.

  “They're plump and heavy and fragrant,” I continued. “The branches of the tree are bent over, they are so weighed down with figs. There must be over three hundred figs in that tree.”


  The voice came back again. “Let's talk about food……”

  “What a good idea.”

  “What would you have to eat if you could have anything you wanted?”

  “Excellent question. I would have a magnificent buffet. I would start with rice and sambar. There would be black gram dhal rice and curd rice and?

  “I would have?

  “I'm not finished. And with my rice I would have spicy tamarind sambar and small onion sambar and?

  “Anything else?”

  “I'm getting there. I'd also have mixed vegetable sagu and vegetable korma and potato masala and cabbage vadai and masala dosai and spicy lentil rasam and?

  “I see.”

  “Wait. And stuffed eggplant poriyal and coconut yam kootu and rice idli and curd vadai and vegetable bajji and?

  “It sounds very?

  “Have I mentioned the chutneys yet? Coconut chutney and mint chutney and green chilli pickle and gooseberry pickle, all served with the usual nans, popadoms, parathas and puris, of course.”


  “The salads! Mango curd salad and okra curd salad and plain fresh cucumber salad. And for dessert, almond payasam and milk payasam and jaggery pancake and peanut toffee and coconut burfi and vanilla ice cream with hot, thick chocolate sauce.”

  “Is that it?”

  “I'd finish this snack with a ten-litre glass of fresh, clean, cool, chilled water and a coffee.”

  “It sounds very good.”

  “It does.”

  “Tell me, what is coconut yam kootu?”

  “Nothing short of heaven, that's what. To make it you need yams, grated coconut, green plantains, chilli powder, ground black pepper, ground turmeric, cumin seeds, brown mustard seeds and some coconut oil. You saute the coconut until it's golden brown?

  “May I make a suggestion?”


  “Instead of coconut yam kootu, why not boiled beef tongue with a mustard sauce?”

  “That sounds non-veg.”

  “It is. And then tripe.”

  “Tripe? You've eaten the poor animal's tongue and now you want to eat its stomach?”

  “Yes! I dream of tripes a la mode de Caen-warm-with sweetbread.”

  “Sweetbread? That sounds better. What is sweetbread?”

  “Sweetbread is made from the pancreas of a calf.”

  “The pancreas!”

  “Braised and with a mushroom sauce, it's simply delicious.”

  Where were these disgusting, sacrilegious recipes coming from? Was I so far gone that I was contemplating setting upon a cow and her young? What horrible crosswind was I caught in? Had the lifeboat drifted back into that floating trash?

  “What will be the next affront?”

  “Calf's brains in a brown butter sauce!”

  “Back to the head, are we?”

  “Brain souffle!”

  “I'm feeling sick. Is there anything you won't eat?”

  “What I would give for oxtail soup. For roast suckling pig stuffed with rice, sausages, apricots and raisins. For veal kidney in a butter, mustard and parsley sauce. For a marinated rabbit stewed in red wine. For chicken liver sausages. For pork and liver pate with veal. For frogs. Ah, give me frogs, give me frogs!”

  “I'm barely holding on.”

  The voice faded. I was trembling with nausea. Madness in the mind was one thing, but it was not fair that it should go to the stomach.

  Understanding suddenly dawned on me.

  “Would you eat bleeding raw beef?” I asked.

  “Of course! I love tartar steak.”

  “Would you eat the congealed blood of a dead pig?”

  “Every day, with apple sauce!”

  “Would you eat anything from an animal, the last remains?”

  “Scrapple and sausage! I'd have a heaping plate!”

  “How about a carrot? Would you eat a plain, raw carrot?”

  There was no answer.

  “Did you not hear me? Would you eat a carrot?”

  “I heard you. To be honest, if I had the choice, I wouldn't. I don't have much of a stomach for that kind of food. I find it quite distasteful.”

  I laughed. I knew it. I wasn't hearing voices. I hadn't gone mad. It was Richard Parker who was speaking to me! The carnivorous rascal. All this time together and he had chosen an hour before we were to die to pipe up. I was elated to be on speaking terms with a tiger. Immediately I was filled with a vulgar curiosity, the sort that movie stars suffer from at the hands of their fans.

  “I'm curious, tell me-have you ever killed a man?”

  I doubted it. Man-eaters among animals are as rare as murderers among men, and Richard Parker was caught while still a cub. But who's to say that his mother, before she was nabbed by Thirsty, hadn't caught a human being?

  “What a question,” replied Richard Parker.

  “Seems reasonable.”

  “It does?”



  “You have the reputation that you have.”

  “I do?”

  “Of course. Are you blind to that fact?”

  “I am.”

  “Well, let me make clear what you evidently can't see: you have that reputation. So, have you ever killed a man?”


  “Well? Answer me.”


  “Oh! It sends shivers down my spine. How many?”


  “You've killed two men?”

  “No. A man and a woman.”

  “At the same time?”

  “No. The man first, the woman second.”

  “You monster! I bet you thought it was great fun. You must have found their cries and their struggles quite entertaining.”

  “Not really.”

  “Were they good?”

  “Were they good?”

  “Yes. Don't be so obtuse. Did they taste good?”

  “No, they didn't taste good.”

  “I thought so. I've heard it's an acquired taste in animals. So why did you kill them?”


  “The need of a monster. Any regrets?”

  “It was them or me.”

  “That is need expressed in all its amoral simplicity. But any regrets now?”

  “It was the doing of a moment. It was circumstance.”

  “Instinct, it's called instinct. Still, answer thte question, any regrets now?”

  “I don't think about it.”

  “The very definition of an animal. That's all you are.”

  “And what are you?”

  “A human being,, I'll have you know.”

  “What boastful pride.”

  “It's the plain truth.”

  “So, you would throw the first stone, would you?”

  “Have you ever had oothappam?”

  “No, I haven't. But tell me about it. What is oothappam?”

  “It is so good.”

  “Sounds delicious. Tell me more.”

  “Oothappam is often made with leftover batter, but rarely has a culinary afterthought been so memorable.”

  “I can already taste it.”

  I fell asleep. Or, rather, into a state of dying delirium.

  But something was niggling at me. I couldn't say what. Whatever it was, it was disturbing my dying.

  I came to. I knew what it was that was bothering me.

  “Excuse me?”

  “Yes?” came Richard Parker's voice faintly.

  “Why do you have an accent?”

  “I don't. It is you who has an accent.”

  “No, I don't. You pronounce the 'ze'.”

  “I pronounce ze 'ze', as it should be. You speak with warm marbles in your mouth. You have an Indian accent.”

  “You speak as if your tongue were a saw and English words were made of wood. You have a French accent.”

  It was utterly incongruous. Richard Parker was born in Bangladesh and raised in Tamil Nadu, so why should he have a French accent? Granted, Pondicherry was once a French colony, but no one would have me believe that some of the zoo animals had frequented the Alliance Francaise on rue Dumas.

  It was very perplexing. I fell into a fog again.

  I woke up with a gasp. Someone was there! This voice coming to my ears was neither a wind with an accent nor an animal speaking up. It was someone else! My heart beat fiercely, making one last go at pushing some blood through my worn-out system. My mind made a final attempt at being lucid.

  “Only an echo, I fear,” I heard, barely audibly.

  “Wait, I'm here!” I shouted.

  “An echo at sea……”

  “No, it's me!”

  “That this would end!”

  “My friend!”

  “I'm wasting away……”

  “Stay, stay!”

  I could barely hear him.

  I shrieked.

  He shrieked back.

  It was too much. I would go mad.

  I had an idea.

  “MY NAME,” I roared to the elements with my last breath, “IS PISCINE MOLITOR PATEL.” How could an echo create a name? “Do you hear me? I am Piscine Molitor Patel, known to all as Pi Patel!”

  “What? Is someone there?”

  “Yes, someone's there!”

  “What! Can it be true? Please, do you have any food? Anything at all. I have no food left. I haven't eaten anything in days. I must have something. I'll be grateful for whatever you can spare. I beg you.”

  “But I have no food either,” I answered, dismayed. “I haven't eaten anything in days myself. I was hoping you would have food. Do you have water? My supplies are very low.”

  “No, I don't. You have no food at all? Nothing?”

  “No, nothing.”

  There was silence, a heavy silence.

  “Where are you?” I asked.

  “I'm here,” he replied wearily.

  “But where is that? I can't see you.”

  “Why can't you see me?”

  “I've gone blind.”

  “What?” he exclaimed.

  “I've gone blind. My eyes see nothing but darkness. I blink for nothing. These last two days, if my skin can be trusted to measure time. It only can tell me if it's day or night.”

  I heard a terrible wail.

  “What? What is it, my friend?” I asked.

  He kept wailing.

  “Please answer me. What is it? I'm blind and we have no food and water, but we have each other. That is something. Something precious. So what is it, my dear brother?”

  “I too am blind!”


  “I too blink for nothing, as you say.”

  He wailed again. I was struck dumb. I had met another blind man on another lifeboat in the Pacific!

  “But how could you be blind?” I mumbled.

  “Probably for the same reason you are. The result of poor hygiene on a starving body at the end of its tether.”

  We both broke down. He wailed and I sobbed. It was too much, truly it was too much.

  “I have a story,” I said, after a while.

  “A story?”


  “Of what use is a story? I'm hungry.”

  “It's a story about food.”

  “Words have no calories.”

  “Seek food where food is to be found.”

  “That's an idea.”

  Silence. A famishing silence.

  “Where are you?” he asked.

  “Here. And you?”


  I heard a splashing sound as an oar dipped into water. I reached for one of the oars I had salvaged from the wrecked raft. It was so heavy. I felt with my hands and found the closest oarlock. I dropped the oar in it. I pulled on the handle. I had no strength. But I rowed as best I could.

  “Let's hear your story,” he said, panting.

  “Once upon a time there was a banana and it grew. It grew until it was large, firm, yellow and fragrant. Then it fell to the ground and someone came upon it and ate it.”

  He stopped rowing. “What a beautiful story!”

  “Thank you.”

  “I have tears in my eyes.”

  “I have another element,” I said.

  “What is it?”

  “The banana fell to the ground and someone came upon it and ate it-and afterwards that person felt better.”

  “It takes the breath away!” he exclaimed.

  “Thank you.”

  A pause.

  “But you don't have any bananas?”

  “No. An orang-utan distracted me.”

  “A what?”

  “It's a long story.”

  “Any toothpaste?”


  “Delicious on fish. Any cigarettes?”

  “I ate them already.”

  “You ate them?”

  “I still have the filters. You can have them if you like.”

  “The filters? What would I do with cigarette filters without the tobacco? How could you eat cigarettes?”

  “What should I have done with them? I don't smoke.”

  “You should have kept them for trading.”

  “Trading? With whom?”

  “With me!”

  “My brother, when I ate them I was alone in a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific.”


  “So, the chance of meeting someone in the middle of the Pacific with whom to trade my cigarettes did not strike me as an obvious prospect.”

  “You have to plan ahead, you stupid boy! Now you have nothing to trade.”

  “But even if I had something to trade, what would I trade it for? What do you have that I would want?”

  “I have a boot,” he said.

  “A boot?”

  “Yes, a fine leather boot.”

  “What would I do with a leather boot in a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific? Do you think I go for hikes in my spare time?”

  “You could eat it!”

  “Eat a boot? What an idea.”

  “You eat cigarettes-why not a boot?”

  “The idea is disgusting. Whose boot, by the way?”

  “How should I know?”

  “You're suggesting I eat a complete stranger's boot?”

  “What difference does it make?”

  “I'm flabbergasted. A boot. Putting aside the fact that I am a Hindu and we Hindus consider cows sacred, eating a leather boot conjures to my mind eating all the filth that a foot might exude in addition to all the filth it might step in while shod.”

  “So no boot for you.”

  “Let's see it first.”


  “What? Do you expect me to trade something with you sight unseen?”

  “We're both blind, may I remind you.”

  “Describe this boot to me, then! What kind of a pitiful salesman are you? No wonder you're starved for customers.”

  “That's right. I am.”

  “Well, the boot?”

  “It's a leather boot.”

  “What kind of leather boot?”

  “The regular kind.”

  “Which means?”

  “A boot with a shoelace and eyelets and a tongue. With an inner sole. The regular kind.”

  “What colour?”


  “In what condition?”

  “Worn. The leather soft and supple, lovely to the touch.”

  “And the smell?”

  “Of warm, fragrant leather.”

  “I must admit-I must admit-it sounds tempting!”

  “You can forget about it.”



  “Will you not answer, my brother?”

  “There's no boot.”

  “No boot?”


  “That makes me sad.”

  “I ate it.”

  “You ate the boot?”


  “Was it good?”

  “No. Were the cigarettes good?”

  “No. I couldn't finish them.”

  “I couldn't finish the boot.”

  “Once upon a time there was a banana and it grew. It grew until it was large, firm, yellow and fragrant. Then it fell to the

  ground and someone came upon it and ate it and afterwards that person felt better.“

  “I'm sorry. I'm sorry for all I've said and done. I'm a worthless person,” he burst out.

  “What do you mean? You are the most precious, wonderful person on earth. Come, my brother, let us be together and feast on each other's company.”


  The Pacific is no place for rowers, especially when they are weak and blind, when their lifeboats are large and unwieldy, and when the wind is not cooperating. He was close by; he was far away. He was to my left; he was to my right. He was ahead of me; he was behind me. But at last we managed it. Our boats touched with a bump evensweeter-sounding than a turtle's. He threw me a rope and I tethered his boat to mine. I opened my arms to embrace him and to be embraced by him. My eyes were brimming with tears and I was smiling. He was directly in front of me, a presence glowing through my blindness.

  “My sweet brother,” I whispered.

  “I am here,” he replied.

  I heard a faint growl.

  “Brother, there's something I forgot to mention.”

  He landed upon me heavily. We fell half onto the tarpaulin, half onto the middle bench. His hands reached for my throat.

  “Brother,” I gasped through his overeager embrace, “my heart is with you, but I must urgently suggest we repair to another part of my humble ship.”

  “You're damn right your heart is with me!” he said. “And your liver and your flesh!”

  I could feel him moving off the tarpaulin onto the middle bench and, fatally, bringing a foot down to the floor of the boat.

  “No, no, my brother! Don't! We're not?

  I tried to hold him back. Alas, it was too late. Before I could say the word alone, I was alone again. I heard the merest clicking of claws against the bottom of the boat, no more than the sound of a pair of spectacles falling to the floor, and the next moment my dear brother shrieked in my face like I've never heard a man shriek before. He let go of me.

  This was the terrible cost of Richard Parker. He gave me a life, my own, but at the expense of taking one. He ripped the flesh off the man's frame and cracked his bones. The smell of blood filled my nose. Something in me died then that has never come back to life.

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