‘Life of Pi’ : Navigating on the stormy seas of religion

Would you get on a Japanese ship named TsimTsum?

Tsimtsum is the name of the Japanese freighter that an Asian Indian family boards on their way to a new life in Canada in “Life of Pi.”

Everything must mean something and you’d expect that the Taiwanese-born Ang Lee would be sensitive to Asian culture. Lee was born in 1954; his parents moved to Taiwan after the Civil War in 1949 left the Communist in power.  Many people of his parents’ age who were native Taiwanese had survived Japanese imperialism which included curriculum in Japanese. So you wouldn’t think that Ang Lee was being careless about the name of such a ship, no matter what the novel might say.

You also quickly understand from the beginning of the movie that the author of the novel “Life of Pi” addresses all religions with great respect. Yann Martel was born in Spain, the son of a Canadian diplomat. He would live in Costa Rica, France, Mexico and Canada and as an adult he traveled to Iran, Turkey and India. That match up between Yann Martel and Ang Lee make this interpretation exceptional.

The titular character of the movie “Life of Pi” was named Piscine Molitor Patel after a swimming pool in France. The Piscine Molitor is a real place in Paris, France, inaugurated by Olympic swimmers Aileen Riggin and Johnny Weissmuller in 1929. It has fallen into disrepair although being declared a Monument Historique. Yet in the movie, this is of little significance to Pi as his name becomes a taunt of “Pissing Patel” when he’s in school. Pi reinvents himself one day by beginning each class introducing himself as Pi, a mathematical term. In his last class, he solidifies this by writing out pi several hundred digits out.

Raised Hindu by a mother who is religious but a father who doesn’t believe in God because it was science and not faith that saved him from suffering, Pi begins to explore other religions. He embraces Catholicism and Islam alongside Hinduism for he recognizes aspects of God in all three. This subjects him to the loving criticism from both his father and older brother, Ravi.

Pi’s father owns a zoo on the land rented from the city–that is he owns the animals only. The family and animals live in the largest of the four enclaves of former French India, Pondicherry. The city’s name literally means “New Town” in Tamil.  The pride of the zoo is a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (four real tigers and liberal CGI). Richard Parker is a beautiful, striking animal with fur you suspect is soft and plush. When Pi ventures too close to the tiger, Pi’s father shows him that in great beauty can also be great danger. If a sweet little goat is left lifeless after a close encounter with Richard Parker, then one imagines a human wouldn’t fare much better. The actual attack and death of the goat is left to our imagination. We see the reflected horror of the young Pi who had just minutes before thought to feed the tiger by hand and then the carcass of the goat being dragged away by Richard Parker.

When the political situation changes, Pi’s father (Adil Hussain as Santosh Patel) decides to sell his zoo and immigrate to Canada. This forces Pi (Suraj Sharma) to leave a girl he has fallen in love with, but he swears to her he will return. One imagines his family all made similar commitments, but sometimes things do not go as planned. The family board the ship, caring for some of the animals who are destined for zoos in North America.

On the ship Tsimtsum, Pi’s mother (Tabu as Gita Patel), a vegetarian, is insulted by the French cook (Gérard Depardieu). The slop he serves is white rice, gravy, sausage and other meat. The French cook obviously takes no national pride in his country’s reputation. He is worse than a gourmand or incompetent. He simply doesn’t care and takes no pride in his work or the satisfaction of the crew and passengers.

A Buddhist sailor (Bo-Chieh Wang) offers the family his simple solution and it is the only kindly interaction we witness on the ship. Below deck, there is food such as bananas for the many animals. Pi’s father drugs the animals to prevent motion sickness and to calm them. The animals are least aware when they perhaps most need it. The chemically induced false calm might have doomed them.

At night, Pi hears something and although he attempts to wake up his brother (Vibish Sivakumar as the 18-year-old Ravi) and parents, only he goes outside to investigate. His frighteningly innocent joy at the storm and lightening quickly turns to horror as he sees a seasoned sailor swept overboard by the waves. He attempts to run back to warn his parents, but he cannot make his way back. In the end, despite his protests, he’s put on a lifeboat that goes crashing down before it has been properly filled with people. You can’t help but remember the “Titanic” at this point.

After the ship sinks, Pi finds himself on the lifeboat, but with only four companions: a lame zebra, an older orangutan, a spotted hyena and the Bengal tiger, Richard Parker.  The zebra is panicked and takes the bow of the boat. The orangutan sits to one side. The hyena hides under a tarp where the tiger also takes refuge. Noah required divine intervention to keep all those animals from fighting on the legendary ark, but for Pi and the other survivors, there’s no such luck. The natural order becomes established and it will be the survival of the fittest.

With a name such as Pi for the main character and the repetition of that with 227 (22/7 is also pi), you must suspect that numbers have some significance in the story. How far that is true, not having read the book, I can’t be sure. The number four is unlucky in China and Japan, but for the Hindu it represents the true name of the religion: santana dharma. Four also represents the four aims of life: righteousness, wealth, desire and salvation. There are also the four stages of life (student, householder, retirement, ascetic) and the four levels of human activity (knowledge, selfless action, selfish action and ignorance). The number five is the symbolic of the human body and the planet earth in Hinduism.

So we have four animals, five total survivors in the lifeboat meant to hold 30 people. Yet a lifeboat isn’t enough territory for the animals here: a prey animal, a predator, a scavenger and two omnivores (orangutans will on occasion eat meat).  “The Lion King” was right about hyenas; they aren’t friendly animals and this one soon attacks and kills the zebra and, soon after the orangutan. What saves Pi is Richard Parker.

Yet in time, Richard Parker is a both a threat and a motivator for Pi. As a tiger, he is also nature and the savage impulse. Richard Parker is never tamed, although the Siegfried and Roy  2003 tiger  incident indicates that even tamed tigers can be dangerous. Pi’s initial attempts to tame the tiger fail and they only achieve a respectful truce.

The doomed freighter is called Tsimtsum for a reason. At first to American ears, that might be mistakenly heard as “Simpson.” Yet those who understand Hebrew will recognize the word as not being related Jessica and her Daisy Dukes or Homer and Bart.   The concept of Tzimtzum relates to a space in the universe where both the physical world and free will exist. God has withdrawn from this space in order to begin creation. In another view, Tzimtzum is when God allows an empty space that of without his presence and can reveal a limited aspect of his light–a sliver of finite light to indicate his infinite light that is beyond our comprehension.

When God vacates a space,  it allows space of the human world and free will, but this doesn’t mean that God has left the world.

Director Ang Lee contrasts the desperation of five beings adrift with the beauty of the ocean that becomes a magical glass that melts and discloses secret wonders and then becomes a calm mirror again.

The ocean becomes another character and a metaphor. Is there a religion that hasn’t used the ocean to express some facet of humanity. Gandhi said, “Everyone has faith in God though everyone does not know it. For everyone has faith in himself and that multiplied to the nth degree is God. The sum total of all that lives is God. We may not be God, but we are of God, even as a little drop of water is of the ocean.”

Ed Viswanathan in his “Am I a Hindu: The Hinduism Primer” wrote: “All matter, including you and I, has rhythmic movement within it and our quest should be to create a proper rhythmic harmony within ourselves…you feel happy when you sit near an ocean because your vibrations try to synchronize with the frequency of the waves.”

St. Gregory of Nyssa commented, “Just as at sea, those who are carried away from the direction of the harbor bring themselves back on course by a clear sign, so Scripture may guide those adrift on the sea of life back into the harbor of the divine will.” 

Allah says that a person without faith “is like the darkness in a vast deep sea, overwhelmed with waves topped by waves, topped by dark clouds,  darkness upon darkness: if a man stretches out his hand, he can hardly see it! And he for whom Allah has not appointed light for him there is no light.) (24:40)

The ocean becomes a test of Pi’s faith and like Richard Parker can be beautiful, but dangerous and not all of the danger is from intentional attempts to harm.

We are all aboard a ship that is beyond the total control of God or gods. We have free will and we can choose to see the bad or see the good. Ang Lee has skillfully navigated the troubled waters between religions, between beauty and danger in nature. Instead of going for big names, he (or rather casting director Avy Kaufman) discovered an actor who could convey his story. The man, Suraj Sharma, was not a known actor in India, his home country.  This is his first acting job and he holds our attention even when we see the awe-inspiring scenes of great nature’s beauty and Sharma sensitively expresses the growing wisdom and maturity of a man facing certain death. Pi is also played by Gautam Belur as a five year old boy and Ayush Tandon as Pi at 11.
While Pi had no choice in how his journey began, he did have a choice in how it ended and can be interpreted. In many cases, there are choices, but forced by tradition, by peer pressure and by tragic events to make choices because we lack faith in our convictions. And one can conjecture that without God and faith, while beauty is present, nothing prevents us from falling into the savagery that Pi witnesses during his struggle to survive.
The question is no longer would you get on the ship called Tsimtsum, but on such a vessel, what will you make of it?
“Life of Pi” was filmed in India, Montreal (Quebec, Canada), Munar (Kerala, India), Pondicherry (India) and Taichung Taiwan.

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