Chapter no 38

Life of Pi

I don’t understand. For days the ship had pushed on, bullishly indifferent to its surroundings. The sun shone, rain fell, winds blew, currents flowed, the sea built up hills, the sea dug up valleys—the Tsimtsum did not care. It moved with the slow, massive confidence of a continent.

I had bought a map of the world for the trip; I had set it up in our cabin against a cork billboard. Every morning I got our position from the control bridge and marked it on the map with an orange-tipped pin. We sailed from Madras across the Bay of Bengal, down through the Strait of Malacca, around Singapore and up to Manila. I loved every minute of it. It was a thrill to be on a ship. Taking care of the animals kept us very busy. Every night we fell into bed weary to our bones. We were in Manila for two days, a question of fresh feed, new cargo and, we were told, the performing of routine maintenance work on the engines. I paid attention only to the first two. The fresh feed included a ton of bananas, and the new cargo, a female Congo chimpanzee, part of Father’s wheeling and dealing. A ton of bananas bristles with a good three, four pounds of big black spiders. A chimpanzee is like a smaller, leaner gorilla, but meaner-looking, with less of the melancholy gentleness of its larger cousin. A chimpanzee shudders and grimaces when it touches a big black spider, like you and I would do, before squashing it angrily with its knuckles, not something you and I would do. I thought bananas and a chimpanzee were more interesting than a loud, filthy mechanical contraption in the dark bowels of a ship. Ravi spent his days there, watching the men work. Something was wrong with the engines, he said. Did something go wrong with the fixing of them? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone will ever know. The answer is a mystery lying at the bottom of thousands of feet of water.

We left Manila and entered the Pacific. On our fourth day out, midway to Midway, we sank. The ship vanished into a pinprick hole on my map. A mountain collapsed before my eyes and disappeared beneath my feet. All around me was the vomit of a dyspeptic ship. I felt sick to my stomach. I felt shock. I felt a great emptiness within me, which then filled with silence. My chest hurt with pain and fear for days afterwards.

I think there was an explosion. But I can’t be sure. It happened while I was sleeping. It woke me up. The ship was no luxury liner. It was a grimy, hardworking cargo ship not designed for paying passengers or for their comfort. There were all kinds of noises all the time. It was precisely because

the level of noise was so uniform that we slept like babies. It was a form of silence that nothing disturbed, not Ravi’s snoring nor my talking in my sleep. So the explosion, if there was one, was not a new noise. It was an irregular noise. I woke up with a start, as if Ravi had burst a balloon in my ears. I looked at my watch. It was just after four-thirty in the morning. I leaned over and looked down at the bunk below. Ravi was still sleeping.

I dressed and climbed down. Normally I’m a sound sleeper. Normally I would have gone back to sleep. I don’t know why I got up that night. It was more the sort of thing Ravi would do. He liked the word beckon, he would have said, “Adventure beckons,” and would have gone off to prowl around the ship. The level of noise was back to normal again, but with a different quality perhaps, muffled maybe.

I shook Ravi. I said, “Ravi! There was a funny noise. Let’s go exploring.”

He looked at me sleepily. He shook his head and turned over, pulling the sheet up to his cheek. Oh, Ravi!

I opened the cabin door.

I remember walking down the corridor. Day or night it looked the same.

But I felt the night in me. I stopped at Father and Mother’s door and considered knocking on it. I remember looking at my watch and deciding against it. Father liked his sleep. I decided I would climb to the main deck and catch the dawn. Maybe I would see a shooting star. I was thinking about that, about shooting stars, as I climbed the stairs. We were two levels below the main deck. I had already forgotten about the funny noise.

It was only when I had pushed open the heavy door leading onto the main deck that I realized what the weather was like. Did it qualify as a storm? It’s true there was rain, but it wasn’t so very hard. It certainly wasn’t a driving rain, like you see during the monsoons. And there was wind. I suppose some of the gusts would have upset umbrellas. But I walked through it without much difficulty. As for the sea, it looked rough, but to a landlubber the sea is always impressive and forbidding, beautiful and dangerous. Waves were reaching up, and their white foam, caught by the wind, was being whipped against the side of the ship. But I’d seen that on other days and the ship hadn’t sunk. A cargo ship is a huge and stable structure, a feat of engineering. It’s designed to stay afloat under the most adverse conditions. Weather like this surely wouldn’t sink a ship? Why, I only had to close a door and the storm was gone. I advanced onto the deck. I gripped the railing and faced the elements. This was adventure.

“Canada, here I come!” I shouted as I was soaked and chilled. I felt very brave. It was dark still, but there was enough light to see by. Light on pandemonium it was. Nature can put on a thrilling show. The stage is vast, the lighting is dramatic, the extras are innumerable, and the budget for special effects is absolutely unlimited. What I had before me was a spectacle oi wind and water, an earthquake of the senses, that even Hollywood couldn’t orchestrate. But the earthquake stopped at the ground beneath my feet. The ground beneath my feet was solid. I was a spectator safely ensconced in his seat.

It was when I looked up at a lifeboat on the bridge castle that I started to worry. The lifeboat wasn’t hanging straight down. It was leaning in from its davits. I turned and looked at my hands. My knuckles were white. The thing was, I wasn’t holding on so tightly because of the weather, but because otherwise I would fall in towards the ship. The ship was listing to port, to the other side. It wasn’t a severe list, but enough to surprise me. When I looked overboard the drop wasn’t sheer any more. I could see the ship’s great black side.

A shiver of cold went through me. I decided it was a storm after all. Time to return to safety. I let go, hotfooted it to the wall, moved over and pulled open the door.

Inside the ship, there were noises. Deep structural groans. I stumbled and fell. No harm done. I got up. With the help of the handrails I went down the stairwell four steps at a time. I had gone down just one level when I saw water. Lots of water. It was blocking my way. It was surging from below like a riotous crowd, raging, frothing and boiling. Stairs vanished into watery darkness. I couldn’t believe my eyes. What was this water doing here? Where had it come from? I stood nailed to the spot, frightened and incredulous and ignorant of what I should do next. Down there was where my family was.

I ran up the stairs. I got to the main deck. The weather wasn’t entertaining any more. I was very afraid. Now it was plain and obvious: the ship was listing badly. And it wasn’t level the other way either. There was a noticeable incline going from bow to stern. I looked overboard. The water didn’t look to be eighty feet away. The ship was sinking. My mind could hardly conceive it. It was as unbelievable as the moon catching fire.

Where were the officers and the crew? What were they doing? Towards the bow I saw some men running in the gloom. I thought I saw some animals too, but I dismissed the sight as illusion crafted by rain and shadow. We had

the hatch covers over their bay pulled open when the weather was good, but at all times the animals were kept confined to their cages. These were dangerous wild animals we were transporting, not farm livestock. Above me, on the bridge, I thought I heard some men shouting.

The ship shook and there was that sound, the monstrous metallic burp. What was it? Was it the collective scream of humans and animals protesting their oncoming death? Was it the ship itself giving up the ghost? I fell over. I got to my feet. I looked overboard again. The sea was rising. The waves were getting closer. We were sinking fast.

I clearly heard monkeys shrieking. Something was shaking the deck. A gaur—an Indian wild ox—exploded out of the rain and thundered by me, terrified, out of control, berserk. I looked at it, dumbstruck and amazed. Who in God’s name had let it out?

I ran for the stairs to the bridge. Up there was where the officers were, the only people on the ship who spoke English, the masters of our destiny here, the ones who would right this wrong. They would explain everything. They would take care of my family and me. I climbed to the middle bridge. There was no one on the starboard side. I ran to the port side. I saw three men, crew members. I fell. I got up. They were looking overboard. I shouted. They turned. They looked at me and at each other. They spoke a few words. They came towards me quickly. I felt gratitude and relief welling up in me. I said, “Thank God I’ve found you. What is happening? I am very scared. There is water at the bottom of the ship. I am worried about my family. I can’t get to the level where our cabins are. Is this normal? Do you think—”

One of the men interrupted me by thrusting a life jacket into my arms and shouting something in Chinese. I noticed an orange whistle dangling from the life jacket. The men were nodding vigorously at me. When they took hold of me and lifted me in their strong arms, I thought nothing of it. I thought they were helping me. I was so full of trust in them that I felt grateful as they carried me in the air. Only when they threw me overboard did I begin to have doubts.

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