Chapter no 66

Life of Pi

I fished with a variety of hooks at a variety of depths for a variety of fish, from deep-sea fishing with large hooks and many sinkers to surface fishing with smaller hooks and only one or two sinkers. Success was slow to come, and when it did, it was much appreciated, but the effort seemed out of proportion to the reward. The hours were long, the fish were small, and Richard Parker was forever hungry.

It was the gaffs that finally proved to be my most valuable fishing equipment. They came in three screw-in pieces: two tubular sections that formed the shaft—one with a moulded plastic handle at its end and a ring for securing the gaff with a rope—and a head that consisted of a hook measuring about two inches across its curve and ending in a needle-sharp, barbed point. Assembled, each gaff was about five feet long and felt as light and sturdy as a sword.

At first I fished in open water. I would sink the gaff to a depth of four feet or so, sometimes with a fish speared on the hook as bait, and I would wait. I would wait for hours, my body tense till it ached. When a fish was in just the right spot, I jerked the gaff up with all the might and speed I could muster. It was a split-second decision. Experience taught me that it was better to strike when I felt I had a good chance of success than to strike wildly, for a fish learns from experience too, and rarely falls for the same trap twice.

When I was lucky, a fish was properly snagged on the hook, impaled, and I could confidently bring it aboard. But if I gaffed a large fish in the stomach or tail, it would often get away with a twist and a forward spurt of speed.

Injured, it would be easy prey for another predator, a gift I had not meant to make. So with large fish I aimed for the ventral area beneath their gills and their lateral fins, for a fish’s instinctive reaction when struck there was to swim up, away from the hook, in the very direction I was pulling. Thus it would happen: sometimes more pricked than actually gaffed, a fish would burst out of the water in my face. I quickly lost my revulsion at touching sea life. None of this prissy fish blanket business any more. A fish jumping out of water was confronted by a famished boy with a hands-on, no-holds-barred approach to capturing it. If I felt the gaff’s hold was uncertain, I would let go of it—I had not forgotten to secure it with a rope to the raft—and I would clutch at the fish with my hands. Fingers, though blunt, were far more nimble than a hook. The struggle would be fast and furious. Those fish were slippery and desperate, and I was just plain desperate. If only I had had as many arms

as the goddess Durga—two to hold the gaffs, four to grasp the fish and two to wield the hatchets. But I had to make do with two. I stuck fingers into eyes, jammed hands into gills, crushed soft stomachs with knees, bit tails with my teeth—I did whatever was necessary to hold a fish down until I could reach for the hatchet and chop its head off.

With time and experience I became a better hunter. I grew bolder and more agile. I developed an instinct, a feel, for what to do.

My success improved greatly when I started using part of the cargo net.

As a fishing net it was useless—too stiff and heavy and with a weave that wasn’t tight enough. But it was perfect as a lure. Trailing freely in the water, it proved irresistibly attractive to fish, and even more so when seaweed started growing on it. Fish that were local in their ambit made the net their neighbourhood, and the quick ones, the ones that tended to streak by, the dorados, slowed down to visit the new development. Neither the residents nor the travellers ever suspected that a hook was hidden in the weave. There were some days—too few unfortunately—when I could have all the fish I cared to gaff. At such times I hunted far beyond the needs of my hunger or my capacity to cure; there simply wasn’t enough space on the lifeboat, or lines on the raft, to dry so many strips of dorado, flying fish, jacks, groupers and mackerels, let alone space in my stomach to eat them. I kept what I could and gave the rest to Richard Parker. During those days of plenty, I laid hands on so many fish that my body began to glitter from all the fish scales that became stuck to it. I wore these spots of shine and silver like tilaks, the marks of colour that we Hindus wear on our foreheads as symbols of the divine. If sailors had come upon me then, I’m sure they would have thought I was a fish god standing atop his kingdom and they wouldn’t have stopped. Those were the good days. They were rare.

Turtles were an easy catch indeed, as the survival manual said they were. Under the “hunting and gathering” heading, they would go under “gathering”. Solid in build though they were, like tanks, they were neither fast nor powerful swimmers; with just one hand gripped around a back flipper, it was possible to hold on to a turtle. But the survival manual failed to mention that a turtle caught was not a turtle had. It still needed to be brought aboard. And hauling a struggling 130-pound turtle aboard a lifeboat was anything but easy. It was a labour that demanded feats of strength worthy of Hanuman. I did it by bringing the victim alongside the bow of the boat, carapace against hull, and tying a rope to its neck, a front flipper and a back flipper. Then I pulled until I thought my arms would come apart and my head would explode. I ran the ropes around the tarpaulin hooks on the opposite side of the bow; every

time a rope yielded a little, I secured my gain before the rope slipped back. Inch by inch, a turtle was heaved out of the water. It took time. I remember one green sea turtle that hung from the side of the lifeboat for two days, the whole while thrashing about madly, free flippers beating in the air. Luckily, at the last stage, on the lip of the gunnel, it would often happen that a turtle would help me without meaning to. In an attempt to free its painfully twisted flippers, it would pull on them; if I pulled at the same moment, our conflicting efforts sometimes came together and suddenly it would happen, easily: in the most dramatic fashion imaginable, a turtle would surge over the gunnel and slide onto the tarpaulin. I would fall back, exhausted but jubilant.

Green sea turtles gave more meat than hawksbills, and their belly shells were thinner. But they tended to be bigger than hawksbills, often too big to lift



Turtles were an easy catch…

out of the water for the weakened castaway that I became.

Lord, to think that I’m a strict vegetarian. To think that when I was a child I always shuddered when I snapped open a banana because it sounded to me like the breaking of an animal’s neck. I descended to a level of savagery I never imagined possible.

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