Life of Pi by Yann Martel tells the story of a young man named Pi Patel, whose family owns a zoo in India. They decide to move to Canada and transport their zoo, but the ship they were sailing across the Atlantic encounters a storm and sinks. Pi is the only survivor, as he finds himself on a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and Bengal tiger he names Richard Parker.
The novel begins with the author describing in an author’s note his travels to India, where he meets a man named Francis Adirubasamy in a coffeehouse in Pondicherry. His response to the author’s claim that he needs inspiration is “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” After which he refers the author to Piscine Patel in Toronto, whoimmediately begins to tell his own story, starting in Chapter 1.
As a teenager in Pondicherry, India, Pi Patel describes his family– himself, his parents, and his brother Ravi. He is constantly exploring new opportunities and learning many odd and exciting things. His father is the proprietor of the Pondicherry Zoo, where Pi learns much of the workings and raising of animals. Pi’s mother is an avid reader and introduces tohim numerous literary works from which he learns the joys of numerous schools of thought. His school is filled with amazing teachers, one of whom, Mr. Kumar is an inspiration to Pi.
Deriving his full name (Piscine) from a world famous swimming pool in France, his parents are good friends with Francis Adirubasamy (from the author’s note), a world class swimmer who often goes on about the Piscine Molitor in Paris. He goes by Pi instead because his schoolmates make a big deal out of calling him “pissing” instead as it sounds similar. They all take to the name and from that point on, his name is no long Piscine but Pi.
Pi grew up a Hindu, but discovered the Catholic faith at age 14 from a priest by the name of Father Martin. He is soon baptized. He then meets Mr. Kumar, a Muslim of some standing and converts to Islam. Therefore, he openly practices all three religions avidly. When the three religious teachers meet up with his parents at the zoo, they demand that he choose a single religion, to which he announces he cannot. Throughout this section, Pi discusses numerous religious matters as well as his thoughts on culture and zoology.
At age 16, Pi’s father decides that Mrs. Gandhi’s (the leader of India) political actions are unsavory and closes up the zoo to move to Toronto. He sells off a majority of the zoo animals to various zoos in America. The animals are loaded onto the same boat that the family will take to reach Winnipeg, Canada. On the journey to North America, the boat sinks.
As the only survivor of the shipwreck, he’s stuck in a lifeboat with a dying zebra and a hyena. Pi sees another survivor floating in the water and only after throwing them a life preserver and pulling them aboard does he realize that “Richard Parker” is actually the 400 pound tiger from his father’s zoo. He immediately jumps overboard until he realizes that there are sharks nearby.
So, upon reentering the boat, he wedges the tarpaulin up with an oar and decides he might survive if he can stay on top and keep Richard Parker beneath it. Over the next week an Orangutan arrives as well and the four animals interplay carefully, eating each other until there is only Richard Parker left.
Over the course of the next 7 months aboard the lifeboat, Pi hides on a makeshift raft behind the boat and begins the process of taming Richard Parker with a whistle and treats from the sea, as well as marking his portion of the boat. He begins to get close to the tiger, developing the kind of bond a zookeeper does with his menagerie. After a while, Pi learns to kill and eat from the sea, sharing with the tiger. The two do not eat nearly enough though and as time passes, they become quite ill.
At a certain point, the two become so hungry and ill that they lose their sight and come across another blind man amazingly floating along in the ocean as well. The two talk for a bit about food and eventually the blind man tries to board Pi’s boat, intent on eating him. However, when he boards the boat the unsuspecting man is attacked by Richard Parker and eaten. The tears from the situation eventually clear up Pi’s vision and they continue on alone in the boat.
Still floating along alone and desperate, the two come across an island made of algae. They disembark and Pi begins eating the algae, regaining his strength during the day and sleeping on the boat. Richard Parker regains his strength from eating the meerkats who live on the island, sleeping in the trees during the night. Eventually, Pi realizes that they leave at night because of an acid produced by the island during the night hours. He eventually notices a tooth among the algae, evidence of another man having died on the island. They leave quickly as the island is apparently carnivorous.
Finally, after more time spent floating along in the ocean, Pi sights land in Mexico and disembarks. Richard Parker immediately runs off into the woods and Pi is recovered by two men from the shipping company who owned the boat that sank with his family on it. He relates to them the story of his 227 days on the boat, but they do not quite believe his fantastic tale of surviving with a Bengal Tiger and meeting a blind man in the ocean.
So, Pi relays to them a second story instead of his mother, a sailor with a broken leg and a cannibalistic cook, with no animals and no magical islands this time around. The story closely parallels the first story without all of the fancy involved, and one of the men points this out. However, the two ignore the final story in favor of the better story and write it up in their report after Pi mentions that it does not matter as both lead to the same outcome.