I didn’t watch Ang Lee’s film Life of Pi on the opening weekend. I honestly thought that there couldn’t be much of a story from an abstract novel I had read in 2001. So a decade later when I finally saw the film alone, in a darkened hall, Yann Martel’s novel not only came to life but Ang Lee’s film left me with a deep spiritual awakening that no amount of meditation ever did.
Many people asked me later – “what did it mean?” And I replied – “which part?” They looked at me strangely. There were parts, there were dialogues, and then there was the visual imagery, the graphics, the cinematography, and the vision of a director to take parts of a book to make into a film that would change people’s lives forever. At least that’s what it did for me.
25 Symbolisms from Life of Pi:
1. The movie begins with a story that Pi Patel tells Yann about where he got his name. From a swimming pool. Hence the basis of water forms a backdrop to his life. Many times we are named after something our parents think we can be capable of. If you go back and analyse your name you will see how true it is of your character and personality. And so it was for Piscine Patel.
2. But the allegory didn’t end there. As soon as you saw his uncle swim in that pool , it felt as if we were looking at the sky. The shot in film language felt as if it was from under the pool. Somehow it reminded me that we’re all floating in space somewhere, swimming with or against a tide, but from our angle we can never see how deep life really is or how high the sky expands to. In the vast cosmos of Life, we are just floating along trying to take it all in.
3. And then from being called Pissing Patel to Pi Patel, he had to prove who he was. He was ready he said. From an early age he needed to prove something, he worked hard to do so and was successful in the end. By the end of the day everyone was calling him Pi. And at the end of the report given by the Japanese, he was called heroic.
4. Pi wanted to find meaning in life from a very early age. He looked for it in religion. He asked questions about God and couldn’t find the correct answers. So he imbibed all religions. God was introduced to him in many ways. And yet the only way he actually understood it was when he was lost at sea.
5. Pi’s father tells him that reason and belief in science can teach us what is out there. He was told to think rationally. And yet Pi who never gave up any faith and wanted to be baptized held on to his faith and took the lesson of his father to survive.
6. When Pi had lost the “meaning for life” he found love. Which is also a meaning to life. When Pi falls in love, the typical Bollywood way of wooing a girl is to follow by singing a song and harass till she agrees to be with you. Pi went about it by trying to know what she liked, understanding her a little more and asking relevant questions pertaining to what she thought was important.
7. Pi mentions that he doesn’t remember saying goodbye to Anandhi. And later he remembers that the tiger never said goodbye to him. Closure is so important for human beings. To let go, to end a chapter, to say goodbye. Without it there seems to be hope, confusion, irrationality and fear. One feels hollow and empty. Closure gives peace.
8. At the time of the storm, the ship starts sinking but Pi manages to escape by sheer luck on a boat. And then in a moment, he lets go of the boat to drown in a pool of gushing water, thunderstorm and lightening. When he goes under the water –(again a similar shot/ imagery from the pool days of when he was named after a French pool) he sees the ship sinking, the lights fading out. In that moment he realizes that he can make a choice. He can either drown with that ship or he can swim up and live. And he chooses to live. Racked with guilt that he didn’t chose to die with his family, he sobs out loud, “I’m sorry Amma.” We cannot be apologetic for the gift of life. Only the lucky few are given the gift of choice. And we must choose wisely even if we’re racked with guilt over the loss of a loved one.
9. And then finally Pi is there on a boat with Richard Parker, a royal Bengal tiger who ate 5 kilos of meat every day, was massively strong and tremendously ferocious. Was he for real? That doesn’t matter. What he signified does. The Royal Bengal Tiger is a symbol of your own deepest darkest fear, your hidden demon, your absolute emptiness, your depressions, loneliness, failures, addictions, hatred and the most sinister parts of you.
10. Pi took many days to conquer the tiger. Like we take each day to tackle our fears, to get rid of our addictions and hollowness. He said – “Maybe the tiger couldn’t be tamed. But it could be trained.” We don’t know if our fears that are so deep rooted will ever go away. But by beginning to tackle them each day they can become less harmful.
11. One especially tumultuous day Pi claims to God - “God show me whatever you choose, I am ready. I give myself to you. I surrender.” There are so many points in our lives when we want to give up. When we believe this is the end. But surrendering never means giving up on life. It means letting go of all doubt. Letting go of all disbeliefs. Knowing that there is a God. That you need to do what you can in this life and you have to surrender the rest to a higher power. That you are ready to choose whatever is given to you. You give yourself to the Universe.
12. In the hardship of lack of food, water, getting sunburn, illness, and tackling your fears, there was beauty all around. Pi sees the amazing phenomenon of a large whale that passed them in a night full of twinkling stars and neon bright glowing jellyfish in the sea. He saw a wondrous sight of flying fish above the water and moving at rapid speeds. He saw dancing dolphins. In this hard life that we lead, trying to make ends meet, managing a family, career, battling work, stress, fears, and feeling as if the world’s problems are on us, we fail to see the beauty of life. We fail to see God’s wondrous ways all around us.
13. When Pi finally tackles the tiger and they lie alone on a night, the tiger looks down at the Pacific Ocean. Pi asks him – what do you see? Pi looks down at the ocean and suddenly his mind is sucked deep within the currents where he sees all the animals who died, the fish who move in deep waters, the wreckage of the ship that he was on and a face of his mother. The tiger, showed it to him. Sometimes when we least realize it, it is our deepest anxiety that can show us what we miss the most. What we truly cherish deep within. What we can or should have held on to.
14. Pi writes his diary on the survival manual. After many days of writing everything about his experiences, the diary flies out of his hand one stormy night. He laments the loss of it. Sometimes the proof of our lives can only remain a memory. Hard facts, evidence, photographs, journals might never exist. Memories don’t have proof. They just lie deep within you. And many times the moment that needs to be captured from our lives, never has concrete evidence. It remains etched in our hearts and our minds forever.
15. A wild storm hits Pi once again. Just when he thought that he had tackled his life, it feels as if it’s going to spin over and push him over the edge. And that’s when he screams up to the heavens – “I surrender. What more do you want?” It’s only in the storm that fears get shaken. That your strength is tested and maybe even new fears emerge. But a storm or something that you feel is drastically going wrong with your life is just a way of the Universe saying the worst is never over. Hardships don’t end. That’s life. It doesn’t mean you don’t go on. It means that you’ve been given the powers to test your spirit, your intelligence and use all you can to battle it and emerge a better human being. Someone who can fight the wrongs. Someone who can teach through experience now. Only a storm can do that.
16. The next morning Pi finds his boat docked on a floating island. He jumps off and finds happiness. He eats till his heart’s content and swims in a pool of clear water that was good enough to drink till his dying day. He finds the strangest of small creatures – in a multitude, looking the same and behaving exactly alike. Then Pi makes a hammock on a tree and goes to sleep while the little creatures make themselves comfortable on his body and all around. Pi wakes up to see a luminous neon light emanating from the pool below. The fish dying and floating to the top, one by one. The floating island is the island of complacency. When we’ve faced so many hardships in life we really want to just take a God dam break and relax. But when we start relaxing, we see that our lives can get very comfortable. We can all lie back and do nothing more with our lives because we’re enveloped with security. Complacency can come from anywhere – a fabulous job that pays us well enough for years, a housewife who’s chosen to marry and watch tv the whole day, a rich son who needs to just spend an inheritance the way he likes, a person content to be where he is for the rest of his life. It can be anything.
17. And the creatures are the sea of humanity, multiplying like crazy, accommodating each other and at ease in each other’s space. After a point if we do the same thing, we mirror each other, we follow the same patterns, we live and die on that island of complacency. We are the same. Humanity. One word. One island. One people.
18. Pi sees that pool of clear water turning putrid and he says “the island was carnivorous.” A living creature that eats other creatures. The pool of our desires, our ambitions, our hopes, dreams, intelligence, dies when we live on an island of daily comfort. Our grey cells die everyday in that island (a comfortable space). The pool eats up all that we wanted to be when we were young. It is the pool that is acid and at night when we sleep, our dreams show us what we could have been, the little fires that were deep within us once upon a time. Pi wakes up and sees that desire in him still alive. While he may have wanted comfort for a bit. He didn’t want it forever. He took a whole day to prove that he was Pi Patel. He would take a lifetime to prove his ambition would not rot.
19. Pi find a fruit with a tooth in it. He says to Yann, “Some person must have come and stayed and died on the island.” People do stay. There are so many of us who pass from this earth unnoticed, unremarkable, and unremembered. If we choose to stay in a space of comfort for the rest of our life, there will remain no representation of us except for the bones that are interred with our body.
20. Pi has more ambition. He decides that no matter what happens out on a stormy ocean that he knows is dangerous, he would rather persevere in his life than languish on that island. “All along God was watching,” Pi says to Yann. God gives us a choice. God gives us whatever we need. And with it, He also gives us a choice. And that choice is something that only you know how to make. And no one will judge you for it.
21. After 227 days Pi and Richard Parker’s boat hit land. A journey of self discovery probably takes that long. it could actually be years or lifetimes but actual days of growth could be that long. It was for Pi. If we sit and wonder, it could be for us.
22. The Royal Bengal Tiger that was once majestic, powerful, superior, is now reduced to a shadow of his old self. Skin and bones sagging as he jumps off the boat to dry land. Pi hoped that he would look back and acknowledge him one last time to say “Thank you” but Richard Parker simply left him. Our fears don’t take a moment of realization to know they’re over. It takes a lifetime. And when you realize they’re gone, they had already left. The tiger didn’t look back because as one’s deepest terrors are tackled, they remain a skeleton that simply walks away. And even though we want desperately to hold on to them because that’s who we know we were, a past that we could see clearly, we have to let go and find closure. “The whole of life is an act of letting go” Pi says. And that he did not just with his inner demons, but with doubts, dogma and delusions about life.
23. The story ends and Pi sits with Yann in his drawing room. Yann asks about the report about the Japanese people who came to question him. When Pi tells them the truth, they refuse to believe him. In life there will always be people who will not understand your depth of belief, your spiritual nature and your wisdom from experience. It hardly matters if you preach to them and try to change their opinion. They will not change. Each person needs their own path of self discovery. It is pointless in hoping they will get you. It doesn’t mean you stop who you are and your path to your goal. It just means you don’t need to talk about it with your boss, colleagues, family or others who are spiritually different from you. And so Pi tells a story that had no surprises, nothing unusual, something everyone could believe in. A story that was not magical. Life as it is.
24. Pi ends his session by asking Yann – “Which story did you believe?” Yann takes a moment to reply, “The one with the tiger. That’s the more amazing story.” And Pi smiles and says, “And so it goes with God.” We cannot see God, we cannot hear him, feel him, touch him or know him. But if we have faith, we will always believe in Him.
25. Pi’s meaning for life ends in a full circle. He is happily married with two children. His attempt at a rushed Yann who asked early on “..and make me believe in God” comes to a conclusion when Pi delivers his promise, “We’ll get to that.”