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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 31)

2006-08-22 21:08

  CHAPTER   31

  They met once, Mr. and Mr. Kumar, the baker and the teacher. The first Mr. Kumar had expressed the wish to see the zoo. “All these years and I've never seen it. It's so close by, too. Will you show it to me?” he asked.

  “Yes, of course,” I replied. “It would be an honour.”

  We agreed to meet at the main gate the next day after school.

  I worried all that day. I scolded myself, “You fool! Why did you say the main gate? At any time there will be a crowd of people there. Have you forgotten how plain he looks? You'll never recognize him!” If I walked by him without seeing him he would be hurt. He would think I had changed my mind and didn't want to be seen with a poor Muslim baker. He would leave without saying a word. He wouldn't be angry-he would accept my claims that it was the sun in my eyes-but he wouldn't want to come to the zoo any more. I could see it happening that way. I had to recognize him. I would hide and wait until I was certain it was him, that's what I would do. But I had noticed before that it was when I tried my hardest to recognize him that I was least able to pick him out. The very effort seemed to blind me.

  At the appointed hour I stood squarely before the main gate of the zoo and started rubbing my eyes with both hands.

  “What are you doing?”

  It was Raj, a friend.

  “I'm busy.”

  “You're busy rubbing your eyes?”

  “Go away.”

  “Let's go to Beach Road.”

  “I'm waiting for someone.”

  “Well, you'll miss him if you keep rubbing your eyes like that.”

  “Thank you for the information. Have fun on Beach Road.”

  “How about Government Park?”

  “I can't, I tell you.”

  “Come on.”

  “Please, Raj, move on!”

  He left. I went back to rubbing my eyes.

  “Will you help me with my math homework, Pi?”

  It was Ajith, another friend.

  “Later. Go away.”

  “Hello, Piscine.”

  It was Mrs. Radhakrishna, a friend of Mother's. In a few more words I eased her on her way.

  “Excuse me. Where's Laporte Street?”

  A stranger.

  “That way.”

  “How much is admission to the zoo?”

  Another stranger.

  “Five rupees. The ticket booth is right there.”

  “Has the chlorine got to your eyes?”

  It was Mamaji.

  “Hello, Mamaji. No, it hasn't.”

  “Is your father around?”

  “I think so.”

  “See you tomorrow morning.”

  “Yes, Mamaji.”

  “I am here, Piscine.”

  My hands froze over my eyes. That voice. Strange in a familiar way, familiar in a strange way. I felt a smile welling up in me.

  “Salaam alaykum, Mr. Kumar! How good to see you.”

  “Wa alaykum as-salaam. Is something wrong with your eyes?”

  “No, nothing. Just a bit of dust.”

  “They look quite red.”

  “It's nothing.”

  He headed for the ticket booth but I called him back.

  “No, no. Not for you, master.”

  It was with pride that I waved the ticket collector's hand away and showed Mr. Kumar into the zoo.

  He marvelled at everything, at how to tall trees came tall giraffes, how carnivores were supplied with herbivores and herbivores with grass, how some creatures crowded the day and others the night, how some that needed sharp beaks had sharp beaks and others that needed limber limbs had limber limbs. It made me happy that he was so impressed.

  He quoted from the Holy Qur'an: “In all this there are messages indeed for a people who use their reason.”

  We came to the zebras. Mr. Kumar had never heard of such creatures, let alone seen one. He was dumbfounded.

  “They're called zebras,” I said.

  “Have they been painted with a brush?”

  “No, no. They look like that naturally.”

  “What happens when it rains?”

  “Nothing.”

  “The stripes don't melt?”

  “No.”

  I had brought some carrots. There was one left, a large and sturdy specimen. I took it out of the bag. At that moment I heard a slight scraping of gravel to my right. It was Mr. Kumar, coming up to the railing in his usual limping and rolling gait.

  “Hello, sir.”

  “Hello, Pi.”

  The baker, a shy but dignified man, nodded at the teacher, who nodded back.

  An alert zebra had noticed my carrot and had come up to the low fence. It twitched its ears and stamped the ground softly. I broke the carrot in two and gave one half to Mr. Kumar and one half to Mr. Kumar. “Thank you, Piscine,” said one; “Thank you, Pi,” said the other. Mr. Kumar went first, dipping his hand over the fence. The zebra's thick, strong, black lips grasped the carrot eagerly. Mr. Kumar wouldn't let go. The zebra sank its teeth into the carrot and snapped it in two. It crunched loudly on the treat for a few seconds, then reached for the remaining piece, lips flowing over Mr. Kumar's fingertips. He released the carrot and touched the zebra's soft nose.

  It was Mr. Kumar's turn. He wasn't so demanding of the zebra. Once it had his half of the carrot between its lips, he let go. The lips hurriedly moved the carrot into the mouth.

  Mr. and Mr. Kumar looked delighted. “A zebra, you say?” said Mr. Kumar.

  “That's right,” I replied. “It belongs to the same family as the ass and the horse.”

  “The Rolls-Royce of equids,” said Mr. Kumar.

  “What a wondrous creature,” said Mr. Kumar.

  “This one's a Grant's zebra,” I said.

  Mr. Kumar said, “Equus burchelli boehmi.”

  Mr. Kumar said, “Allahu akbar.”

  I said, “It's very pretty.”

  We looked on.

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