Life Of Pi: An Analytical Perspective


[Obvious warning: Might contain spoilers]

Life of Pi is a book by Yann Martel picturised in a movie by Ang Lee. I had the pleasure of seeing it one fine Sunday morning and at a superficial level, it made no 'sense'. Sure there was plenty of emotional content (carried off by some great acting), stunning visuals and a perfect 'family oriented survival story' (as expressed by Rohit Ramachandran) but the 'sense' was only apparent in Irfan Khan's final rework of the story at the very end. However, I have a personal take on it.

Why is the book titled Life Of Pi? Pi is an irrational number and might be allegorical of life in general. It could  mean that the author is implying that life in itself is irrational and no amount of planning or control can save us from the ebb and flow of its chaotic nature - much like the life of Piscine.

Piscine is showcased as a smart, sensitive boy portrayed by Suraj Sharma. He is your typical awkward teenager with the same questions and doubts as anybody else his age, but what shines through is a rich dreamy inner life (he is willing to try on multiple religions as once, has an engaging soliloquy) and a sense of individuality (he creatively changes his embarrassing name Piscine to Pi) that provides the character with a certain depth of personality. 

On a careful analysis we can see that no character other than Pi is 'fully real' in the movie. His father played by Adil Hussain symbolizes a highly polarized Logos (He was an atheist ever since his prayers to the Gods went unanswered, but was cured from his polio by western medicine. He is also shown to have a purely  rational attitude and only an implied emotional side) whereas his mother played by Tabu embodied the principle of Eros (She had close ties with her religious roots as a means of holding onto her family from who she was estranged as they believed she had married beneath  her - to a zookeeper. She is also shown to have an emotional side and only an implied rational side). At the start of the movie, Pi is closer to his mother and rather a bit intimidated by his father indicative that Pi was tending towards a more feeling orientated way of life - but he was in for a shock. This dreamy boy's friendly curiosity towards Richard Parker (the tiger) was broken when his father demonstrated to Pi Richard Parker's real nature when he fed a live goat to the tiger and the tiger's ferocity shocked a young Pi. His father instructed him that what he saw in the tiger's eyes was just his own emotions being reflected back at him. 

As is the case with many such rude encounters with reality, when one's developing function is shockingly proved to be 'wrong' or 'useless', the ego pushes this function back into the unconscious from where it came. This is evident from the statement that Pi entered a sense of meaningless existence where school and even swimming became empty and he simply went through the motions of the day. His intuition was still functioning though as he continued exploring religion but with a lack of feeling as all his endeavours lacked any value, nor was his psyche vast or experienced enough to bring out the thinking function - to make him similar to his father. What could have been his saving grace then was the dancer who had caught his fancy. There again we see his intuition hard at work when he is able to understand what the dancer's steps symbolizes, he   approaches her using the only functional orientation he knows - intuition (he asks her what a particular mudra meant, doesn't bring her flowers-sensation, write her a poem-feeling or create an elaborate plan to woo her-thinking). Again, typical of adolescent love, it didn't last long as Pi was to move to Canada with his family.

The story progresses with his ship sinking in the sea and the (supposed) death of every human other than himself. He finally finds himself on a lifeboat with 5 animals - a zebra, a monkey, a hyena, a tiger and a rat. In Pi's altered version of the story the zebra was a sailor, the monkey his mother, the hyena a cook and finally the tiger was himself. Two clues that tell us that the animals are  anthropomorphic representations of humans is when the Japanese investigator points out that 'Bananas don't float' and other being the fact that the tiger stayed hidden under the tarpaulin of the boat, sharing the same space as the hyena for far too long than naturally possible. Of course this does add merit to Pi's final version 'real' version of the story, but lets just assume that there is more.

First to reach the boat is the Zebra, a dull, harmless, herbivorous animal. The zebra represents the state in which Pi is while initially facing this challenge. Like the zebra he too is gentle, does no harm and is more or less a dullard. The black and white stripes on the zebra represent his confused state with regard to spirituality (and his sexuality to some extent) and also the black and white mentality of someone who's cognitive strengths are still archaic and undeveloped.

Second on the boat is the orange monkey representative of Pi's Eros picked up from his mother. As pointed out by the Japanese investigator the monkey floated onto the lifeboat, on bananas. In popular cultural bananas symbolize the male phallus and like all things dead, dead phalluses float. It is interesting that the monkey should be called 'orange' juice with orange being the colour of the Swadhisthana chakra - the chakra of emotion and/or the mother. Another pointer is in the scene just before the ship sinking when Pi's father sedates the animals. During that scene Pi is seen talking to orange juice and innocently and asks his father why the animals need to be sedated to which his father replies that sea-sickness is bad and that he doesn't want to clean up after the journey. It again emphasizes his fathers (the principle of Logo's) distaste for everything 'emotional' comparing it to vomit, another blow to Pi's psyche, the balance to which can only be restored by a major upheaval, liking the sinking of his ship that could connect him back to his feeling function.

The third animal on the boat is the hyena and is a stereotypical symbol of cunning. On looking at cunning we can see that it is analogous of crooked thinking. It isn't like the self aggrandizing idealistic thinking of a hero or a knight nor is it strategically superior like that of a general in a war zone. Cunning is selfish thinking and focuses only on the survival of the individual at all costs. Here we see that the hyena first kills the zebra, symbolic of the death of his innocence and secondly the monkey, his realization that he can't depend on his mother to magically save him (she had done so before a couple of times before in the movie) anymore and is on his own with his cleverness. It also portrays the fumbling start to his thinking function which he desperately needs in order to survive alone. However, much more than mere cleverness is needed to survive the hardships of the dark blue ocean.

Finally, in a sudden fit of hunger the tiger (Richard Parker) jumps out from under the tarpaulin and kills the hyena - the birth of something new - his inner warrior! An interesting part about the tiger is that it was initially called Thirsty but later gets humanized to Richard Parker (in modern city life a man's true warrior spirit is largely repressed and never let out in the raw from that nature intended it to be, leading a variety of neurosis - from aggression to rape) something that Pi laughed about. Also, even before the zebra, Pi initially sees Richard Parker try to get onto the boat (symbolic that he initially rejects his warrior) but hits him with his oar to push him away but Richard Parker gets on the boat anyway (probably while Pi was asleep sometime). By now its pretty certain that the tarpaulin represents all that is unconscious in him and the exposed part of the boat everything that he knows. 

As the story progresses, we see Pi getting closer to the tiger and finding out that living FOR the tiger is what kept him alive i.e. his drive to keep alive the warrior archetype in him. We then see that the final animal to die in the face of his warrior is the rat. The rat almost always symbolizes wisdom since it is the mammal closest to the earth. If the lion is the king of the jungle then the elephant is always the priest of the jungle (in both African and Indian lore) but the only animal that an elephant is afraid off is the rat (and the snake, but that is a whole different story in itself - technically because elephants can't see little things well) symbolized in Indian mythology as Ganesha's (he has the head of an elephant) vehicle after being 'tamed' by him. In the movie, the death of the rat symbolizes Pi's total surrender to his warrior (he henceforth does what it takes, eats non-veg and goes against everything his religions have taught him (his ego defenses still being active though - when he thanks Lord Vishnu for appearing as a fish than bereave himself for eating non-vegetarian food)) when he personally throws the rat into the tiger's mouth. What then proceeds as a typical survival movie, but with a couple of stopovers.

There is one surreal scene where the ocean is extraordinarily and unrealistically calm and the surface is filled with jellyfish and a majestic whale makes a leap out of water. Visual stunning, this scene is a stereotypical archetypal dream. Water and the ocean have always represented the unconscious and the stillness of it implies a closeness to the unconscious that the ego has achieved than never before (nothing like being isolated on a boat in the middle of nowhere to get 'in touch' with oneself). Creatures like fishes and jellyfishes also represent content that are half inside-half outside - psychological content that the dreamer is 'almost' aware of - in the case of Pi his merger with his warrior. The whale is also symbolic of a 'big dream' and always shows itself when the unconscious is going to show one the wisdom of the ages (the rat being wisdom of the current time - a collective wisdom specific to one's culture) and of mankind in general - of intuition and creativity. If you remember closely, Richard Parker barely reacts to these beings almost as if he knows and accepts them but it is us the viewer and Pi himself who is amazed by them!

Following the calm, there is always the storm. Again a salute to the visual effects which captures in every detail the fury that mother nature can unleash - and it is here that Pi and Richard Parker are truly one, where their physical states are shown to be fully synchronized. The most interesting aspect of the movie however occurs after the storm.

Richard Parker and Pi find themselves on a strange island. The island is a paradise with no natural predators but having an overabundance of a curious animal - meerkats! Meerkats in dreams and active imagination usually imply 'watchful wisdom'. Being close to the rodent family, they again symbolize wisdom - but with a catch. As the movie then shows us, the island itself is carnivorous and devours its inhabitants at night while providing them life giving nourishment by day. Pi also finds a fruit on a tree, inside which he finds a tooth which he thinks is of a sailor who was trapped there before. Curiously however the tooth is a wisdom tooth, judging from its size and sturdiness. We also see that Richard Parker has an instinct about the island and runs away at night. Pi later explains that nobody else has seen this island nor is it on any map. What might this numinous island represent?

The clue in answering the question is in the final long-shot of the island where it is shown to be shaped like a human being - I'd conclude that it is the archetype of The Self. Characteristic of the self, the island provides the ego eternal rest. Jung points out that an ego that has assimilated the Self knows no past of future but exists simply in the everythingness of its totality. It is the prized archetype that all religions aim to reach and THE archetype from which all other archetypes are branched out from. But the catch with the assimilation of the Self is stagnation in all forms - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual - leading to one's death. The ego can completely and truly absolve itself into the Self when it has no further desires to be in this world and enter into complete samadhi - something that Pi has no idea about. Thus we see that the island nourishes, but at the same time devours everyone that it encounters, symbolic of dying while being alive - something that only saints aspire to be. Furthermore Richard Parker is extremely apprehensive of the dark side of the Self as the warrior is an archetype that connects one completely and totally to LIFE!

Finally as Pi and Richard Parker's journey reaches an end and they land on the Mexican shore, Richard Parker is shown to run away into the jungle without looking back. On reaching the shore we again see Pi's feeling function erupt as he longs for a final goodbye from Richard Parker but the warrior is not one to do so.  Jung famously stated that "Sentimentality is the superstructure erected upon brutality" here Pi's ego being sentimental but his archetypal opposite - the warrior continuing its brutality, without looking back and braving forwards by living free in the jungle. The best way to say goodbye to the warrior is not to say goodbye at all... 

Personal Notes
1) Just like all such interpretations, it could just be an over interpretation. As with all art it could be meaningful expression of something the artist wishes to convey to the world, or that which grips the artist and has to be expressed as a communication from the unconscious or a big fat lying joke
2) Yann Martel spent significant time in India and studied philosophy, so some of the observations in this interpretation might be justified
3) This is based purely from the movie, I have read only about 10 pages of the book
4) I really really miss using this word from my childhood, pissing. Its all 'restroom', 'men's room' or the 'laterine' now. PISSSING! There I said it out loud, now say it out loud again, for me. Pissing!!
5) I've seen the movie only once and there might be factual errors. Please do point them out if any!
6) The dream interpretation of the animals are based on my understanding of various schools and hence may not match with any particular school of dreams. Personally however I am closest to the Jungian school.