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Life of Pi (part 1 chapter 51)

2006-08-22 21:08

  CHAPTER   51

  But that first time I had a good look at the lifeboat I did not see the detail I wanted. The surface of the stern and side benches was continuous and unbroken, as were the sides of the buoyancy tanks. The floor lay flat against the hull; there could be no cache beneath it. It was certain: there was no locker or box or any other sort of container anywhere. Only smooth, uninterrupted orange surfaces.

  My estimation of captains and ship chandlers wavered. My hopes for survival flickered. My thirst remained.

  And what if the supplies were at the bow, beneath the tarpaulin? I turned and crawled back. I felt like a dried-out lizard. I pushed down on the tarpaulin. It was tautly stretched. If I unrolled it, I would give myself access to what supplies might be stored below. But that meant creating an opening onto Richard Parker's den.

  There was no question. Thirst pushed me on. I eased the oar from under the tarpaulin. I placed the lifebuoy around my waist. I laid the oar across the bow. I leaned over the gunnel and with my thumbs pushed from under one of the hooks the rope that held down the tarpaulin. I had a difficult time of it. But after the first hook, it was easier with the second and the third. I did the same on the other side of the stem. The tarpaulin became slack beneath my elbows. I was lying flat on it, my legs pointed towards the stern.

  I unrolled it a little. Immediately I was rewarded. The bow was like the stern; it had an end bench. And upon it, just a few inches from the stem, a hasp glittered like a diamond. There was the outline of a lid. My heart began to pound. I unrolled the tarpaulin further. I peeked under. The lid was shaped like a rounded-out triangle, three feet wide and two feet deep. At that moment I perceived an orange mass. I jerked my head back. But the orange wasn't moving and didn't look right. I looked again. It wasn't a tiger. It was a life jacket. There were a number of life jackets at the back of Richard Parker's den.

  A shiver went through my body. Between the life jackets, partially, as if through some leaves, I had my first, unambiguous, clear-headed glimpse of Richard Parker. It was his haunches I could see, and part of his back. Tawny and striped and simply enormous. He was facing the stern, lying flat on his stomach. He was still except for the breathing motion of his sides. I blinked in disbelief at how close he was. He was right there, two feet beneath me. Stretching, I could have pinched his bottom. And between us there was nothing but a thin tarpaulin, easily got round.

  “God preserve me!” No supplication was ever more passionate yet more gently carried by the breath. I lay absolutely motionless.

  I had to have water. I brought my hand down and quietly undid the hasp. I pulled on the lid. It opened onto a locker.

  I have just mentioned the notion of details that become lifesavers. Here was one: the lid was hinged an inch or so from the edge of the bow bench-which meant that as the lid opened, it became a barrier that closed off the twelve inches of open space between tarpaulin and bench through which Richard Parker could get to me after pushing aside the life jackets. I opened the lid till it fell against the crosswise oar and the edge of the tarpaulin. I moved onto the stem, facing the boat, one foot on the edge of the open locker, the other against the lid. If Richard Parker decided to attack me from below, he would have to push on the lid. Such a push would both warn me and help me fall backwards into the water with the lifebuoy. If he came the other way, climbing atop the tarpaulin from astern, I was in the best position to see him early and, again, take to the water. I looked about the lifeboat. I couldn't see any sharks.

  I looked down between my legs. I thought I would faint for joy. The open locker glistened with shiny new things. Oh, the delight of the manufactured good, the man-made device, the created thing! That moment of material revelation brought an intensity of pleasure-a heady mix of hope, surprise, disbelief, thrill, gratitude, all crushed into one-unequalled in my life by any Christmas, birthday, wedding, Diwali or other gift-giving occasion. I was positively giddy with happiness.

  My eyes immediately fell upon what I was looking for. Whether in a bottle, a tin can or a carton, water is unmistakably packaged. On this lifeboat, the wine of life was served in pale golden cans that fit nicely in the hand. Drinking Water said the vintage label in black letters. HP Foods Ltd. were the vintners. 500 ml were the contents. There were stacks of these cans, too many to count at a glance.

  With a shaking hand I reached down and picked one up. It was cool to the touch and heavy. I shook it. The bubble of air inside made a dull glub glub glub sound. I was about to be delivered from my hellish thirst. My pulse raced at the thought. I only had to open the can.

  I paused. How would I do that?

  I had a can-surely I had a can opener? I looked in the locker. There was a great quantity of things. I rummaged about. I was losing patience. Aching expectation had run its fruitful course. I had to drink now-or I would die. I could not find the desired instrument. But there was no time for useless distress. Action was needed. Could I prise it open with my fingernails? I tried. I couldn't. My teeth? It wasn't worth trying. I looked over the gunnel. The tarpaulin hooks. Short, blunt, solid. I kneeled on the bench and leaned over. Holding the can with both my hands, I sharply brought it up against a hook. A good dint. I did it again. Another dint next to the first. By dint of dinting, I managed the trick. A pearl of water appeared. I licked it off. I turned the can and banged the opposite side of the top against the hook to make another hole. I worked like a fiend. I made a larger hole. I sat back on the gunnel. I held the can up to my face. I opened my mouth. I tilted the can.

  My feelings can perhaps be imagined, but they can hardly be described. To the gurgling beat of my greedy throat, pure, delicious, beautiful, crystalline water flowed into my system. Liquid life, it was. I drained that golden cup to the very last drop, sucking at the hole to catch any remaining moisture. I went, “Ahhhhhh!”, tossed the can overboard and got another one. I opened it the way I had the first and its contents vanished just as quickly. That can sailed overboard too, and I opened the next one. Which, shortly, also ended up in the ocean. Another can was dispatched. I drank four cans, two litres of that most exquisite of nectars, before I stopped. You might think such a rapid intake of water after prolonged thirst might upset my system. Nonsense! I never felt better in my life. Why, feel my brow! My forehead was wet with fresh, clean, refreshing perspiration. Everything in me, right down to the pores of my skin, was expressing joy.

  A sense of well-being quickly overcame me. My mouth became moist and soft. I forgot about the back of my throat. My skin relaxed. My joints moved with greater ease. My heart began to beat like a merry drum and blood started flowing through my veins like cars from a wedding party honking their way through town. Strength and suppleness came back to my muscles. My head became clearer. Truly, I was coming back to life from the dead. It was glorious, it was glorious. I tell you, to be drunk on alcohol is disgraceful, but to be drunk on water is noble and ecstatic. I basked in bliss and plenitude for several minutes.

  A certain emptiness made itself felt. I touched my belly. It was a hard and hollow cavity. Food would be nice now. A masala dosai with a coconut chutney-hmmmmm! Even better: oothappam! HMMMMM! Oh! I brought my hands to my mouth-IDLI! The mere thought of the word provoked a shot of pain behind my jaws and a deluge of saliva in my mouth. My right hand started twitching. It reached and nearly touched the delicious flattened balls of parboiled rice in my imagination. It sank its fingers into their steaming hot flesh…… It formed a ball soaked with sauce…… It brought it to my mouth…… I chewed…… Oh, it was exquisitely painful!

  I looked into the locker for food. I found cartons of Seven Oceans Standard Emergency Ration, from faraway, exotic Bergen,   Norway. The breakfast that was to make up for nine missed meals, not to mention odd tiffins that Mother had brought along, came in a half-kilo block, dense, solid and vacuum-packed in silver-coloured plastic that was covered with instructions in twelve languages. In English it said the ration consisted of eighteen fortified biscuits of baked wheat, animal fat and glucose, and that no more than six should be eaten in a twenty-four-hour period. Pity about the fat, but given the exceptional circumstances the vegetarian part of me would simply pinch its nose and bear it.

  At the top of the block were the words Tear here to open and a black arrow pointing to the edge of the plastic. The edge gave way under my fingers. Nine wax-paper-wrapped rectangular bars tumbled out. I unwrapped one. It naturally broke into two. Two nearly square biscuits, pale in colour and fragrant in smell. I bit into one. Lord, who would have thought? I never suspected. It was a secret held from me: Norwegian cuisine was the best in the world! These biscuits were amazingly good. They were savoury and delicate to the palate, neither too sweet nor too salty. They broke up under the teeth with a delightful crunching sound. Mixed with saliva, they made a granular paste that was enchantment to the tongue and mouth. And when I swallowed, my stomach had only one thing to say: Hallelujah!

  The whole package disappeared in a few minutes, wrapping paper flying away in the wind. I considered opening another carton, but I thought better. No harm in exercising a little restraint. Actually, with half a kilo of emergency ration in my stomach, I felt quite heavy.

  I decided I should find out what exactly was in the treasure chest before me. It was a large locker, larger than its opening. The space extended right down to the hull and ran some little ways into the side benches. I lowered my feet into the locker and sat on its edge, my back against the stem. I counted the cartons of Seven Ocean. I had eaten one; there were thirty-one left. According to the instructions, each 500-gram carton was supposed to last one survivor three days. That meant I had food rations to last me?1 X 3?3 days! The instructions also suggested survivors restrict themselves to half a litre of water every twenty-four hours. I counted the cans of water. There were 124. Each contained half a litre. So I had water rations to last me 124 days. Never had simple arithmetic brought such a smile to my face.

  What else did I have? I plunged my arm eagerly into the locker and brought up one marvellous object after another. Each one, no matter what it was, soothed me. I was so sorely in need of company and comfort that the attention brought to making each one of these mass-produced goods felt like a special attention paid to me. I repeatedly mumbled, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

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