Tiger, tiger, burning bright
in the forests of the night.
What immortal hand or eye,
dare frame thy fearful symmetry.” William Blake
It’s easy to see why Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s fantasy novel, Life of Pi, became a surprise success story around the world, winning four awards from eleven nominations in the Academy Awards.
It is a story both striking and unique telling of Piscine Molitor Patel, a boy growing up in Pondicherry, India, the son of a zookeeper. Piscine changes his name to “Pi”, to avoid being teased by his classmates, who pronounce his name “Pissing”.
This change of name is only the first of several fascinating changes in Pi’s experience. Some, like his name, are more or less under his control, like his pursuit of truth by simultaneously studying Christianity, Hinduism and Islam at the same time. He tries to understand God through the lens of each religion and comes to recognize benefits in each. Some, like his father’s decision to move the family and some of the animals to Canada, are not under his control, especially when the ship carrying the Patel family sinks, the rest of the family is lost, and Pi is stranded in a lifeboat for 227 days with only a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, a gentle orangutan and a 450 pound tiger named Richard Parker for company.
The bulk of this fascinating and colorful story focuses on Pi’s struggles to survive and to make sense of the dehumanizing condition in which he finds himself. The hyena first eats the zebra and then the orangutan. The tiger has found a place to hide under the tarpaulin on the lifeboat, but the tension grows as you realize it is only a matter of time before he will emerge to kill off the hyena and then Pi.
The tiger indeed kills the hyena, but then miraculously goes back under his tarpaulin, where there is an occasional growl, keeping Pi alert for constant danger. Meanwhile, Pi is developing survival skills and learns to live alone with the threat of the tiger always present. Throughout the odyssey, it becomes apparent that when Pi is angry or fearful, the tiger comes out from his lair, and Pi strugges to regain his strength and domination over the animal.
When the journey is finally over, and the little boat reaches land in Mexico, Richard Parker and the boy are weak with hunger and near death, and the skeletal tiger silently slips off into the jungle.
Several years later, Pi has settled in Canada, and is interviewed by the insurance company for the sunken ship, who are still trying to learn how and why the ship was lost. Pi tells his story, but the men do not believe that a 13 year old boy can survive with a live tiger in a lifeboat, so Pi tells them another story, this one involving the base and vicious cook from the ship, a sailor with a broken leg, and Pi’s mother, who had miraculously made it into the little boat, and the tiger, Richard Parker.
In Pi’s mind, to shroud the utter horror of his condition, the cook has become the hyena, who kills and eats the helpless zebra with his broken leg. Pi’s mother is his next victim, with Pi cowering at the end of the boat awaiting his turn. Giving a huge roar, Richard Parker emerges from beneath his tarpaulin, and quickly disposes of the hyena and returns to his den to sleep and digest his meal.
Who then, is the tiger?
There is a tiger within all of us, sleeping, but capable of taking control unless constrained. It represents our fear and our anger. This is our ultimate strength: we are endowed with the ability to choose in which path our best interest lie. Do we conquer the tiger, or learn to subdue him?