Show Notes - Episode 98
Based on the novel by Yann Martel
Don't let the stories and pretty lights fool you. Religion is darkness. And if that doesn't encapsulate the overlying theme of this show, I don't know what does. I'm Spider...
...and tonight we are looking at the movie Life of Pi scene by scene, moment by moment, instance of theistic drivel by instance of theistic drivel. This movie screams its point and whispers its counterpoint, but, to be honest, it was also one of the things I believe kept me in Wicca for as long as I stayed and I'll get into the reasons why later. For right now...
No CBB this week
Stories, pretty lights, nice smells, nice music, bonfires, pantheons galore... so many things that keep us tethered to religion. I don't know if Pi realizes how pagan his belief system actually was. But the “better story” aspect of belief is very real whether you're choosing a pantheon to follow or just following your favorite flavor of Christianity, it's all rather personal. And Pi made faith something that was ultra-personal to the point of absurdity. So we're going to tell this story as it plays out in the movie. There are differences between the movie and the book because there always are, but if the Cliff's Notes are any indicator, the differences are minor.
We open to... animals! Animals everywhere. It's a gorgeous setting and a quick establishing shot later we find out that this is a zoo. A very nice, well-maintained zoo. Seriously, this place is beautiful and I don't really like zoos. I have certain ethical problems with them. The scene is set in the late 60s or early 70s. The meat of the story happens in July of 1977.
And now, apparently there's an interview going on and we're hearing about the interviewee's birth...
He tells the story about his birth and how fortunate happenstance brought the help his mother needed during labor.
“Born and raised in Pondicherry, in what was the French part of India. My father owned the zoo, and I was delivered on short notice by a herpetologist who was there to check on the Bengal Monitor Lizard.”
“The way of Karma, the way of god” - aka “everything happens for a reason and there's something out there doling out judgment and reward.” Yeah... no. Sorry.
We find out that this person was named, not after a Math term like the interviewer thinks, but after a swimming pool – his “honorary” uncle's (or Mamji's) favorite swimming pool: a public pool in Paris called the Piscine Molitor. Apparently the description of it was enough to convince Pi's parents to land him with this name that was practically under obligation to cause him problems later. (A Boy Named Sue, anyone?)
Mamji (Francis) was also the one who taught Pi to swim, something that would save Pi's life later.
Before I was born, he said to my
father, "If you want your son to
have a clean soul, you must take
him one day to swim in the Piscine
Molitor." I never understood why my
father took this so much to
And that led to this:
With one word my name went from an
elegant French swimming pool to a
stinking Indian latrine. I was
So this goes on for an entire school year. The ribbing, the bullying... but when he goes back to school the following year he introduces his new persona: Pi. But some of the die-hards weren't having it. He pitched his new moniker in every class trying to get away from the whole “pissing” thing. But it was his math class that won over the crowd. He stood at the board and kept calculating Pi out to who knows how many digits in his head and the louder they cheered, the faster he came up with the next digit/decimal place...
So this is where we learn that the interviewer is a writer. He was trying to write a second book but it kept falling flat. “Lots of ideas, no good ones...” He finally gave up on it and trashed it. Two years worth of work in the circular file. But then a stranger at a cafe points him in the direction of a certain french indian with a story that would definitely give him some good inspiration.
“So... a Canadian who's come to
French India in search of a story.
Well, my friend, I know an Indian
in French Canada who has the most
incredible story to tell. It must
be fate that the two of you should
And this part kinda irritated me...
Pi asks the writer what Mamaji had told him and, apparently, all he was told was that he knew of a French Canadian with a story that would make him believe in god. I'd like to think this wasn't the point of the movie, but it started to feel that way not too much further in.
Now we learn about where Pi comes from and how the zoo came to be (botanical garden, his parents meet, etc.)
When the French handed Pondicherry
back to us in 1954, the town decided
that some sort of commemoration was
My father, who was a clever
businessman, came up with one.
He ran a hotel, and he got the idea
to open a zoo in the local
Botanical Gardens instead.
As it also happened, my mother was
a botanist in the Gardens. They
met, married, and a year later my
brother Ravi was born. I came two
years after that.
And then we start learning about Pi's spiritual journey...
“None of us knows god unless someone introduces us...”
Yep. There's the setup. Ugh...
He tells the author that he was first introduced to God as a Hindu. “There are 330 million gods in the Hindu religion - how can I not come to know a few of them?”
Now we learn about all the gods that Pi has met and, apparently, believes in... we flash back to his mother telling him the story of Krishna and Pi is obviously fascinated. TBH, it is a cool story but most myths are. The Gospel is boring by comparison.
“The gods were my superheroes...”
Pi was enthralled with the mythologies, particularly the Hindu gods, but his father knew what was what. “Don't let the stories and pretty lights fool you... religion is darkness.”
Appa wound up with polio as a child and that was the end of his faith. Even Pi said “God didn't save him, western medicine did.”
His mother was estranged from her family because they didn't like Pi's father. They thought he was beneath her. It's not said outright but Santosh is an atheist. Pi says that his mother's religion “was all she had of her past.” Gita (Amma) married him knowing she was choosing him over her entire family and she did so of her own free will. That must be one high-quality guy to give up all of that to be with. And my thought would prove to be correct. I really liked Appa. He and I would have very much seen eye-to-eye.
So there's the point-counterpoint that probably went on at this dinner table a lot. The theist and the atheist in love, always disagreeing but keeping up the dialog. Love like this is rare. And adding to that thought, I love the dynamic between Pi's parents. A lot of Indian women aren't this outspoken but this one knew she had a good man on her hands – one who valued her as a person. Santosh was very reasonable and you could tell he was very loving and very driven to do right by his family. In this house, anyway, everyone was allowed an opinion. And Santosh (Appa) did with his family what I always say we should be doing when confronted with theist ideas: he listens, he presents his counterpoint, then shuts up.
I so wish this character had a bigger role in this story because... yeah. I wish I had a little more of this messaging making its way between my ears at the point in my life when I first saw this movie.
Pi then tells how he “met christ in the mountains” while visiting relatives. His brother Ravi tells him that he will give Pi two rupees if he goes into the church and drinks the holy water. So he does. And again starts letting the pretty lights fool him. He becomes enthralled with the stations of the cross and lingers long enough for the parish priest, who apparently saw everything, to bring Pi a glass of water.
“You must be thirsty. I brought you this.”
And now we get the priest's take on the nature of God and Pi is kind of appalled by it. “Why would God sacrifice his son?” He gets the standard blathering of catholic rhetoric... we can't understand god but we can understand Jesus...
If God is so perfect and we're not,
why would He want to create all
this? Why does He need us at all?
All you have to know is that He
loves us. “God so loved the world
that He gave His only Son.” This
Son taught us to love one
MT 10:35-38 (NIV)
“For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
I personally would never tell someone I love they weren't worthy of me...
The more I listened to the priest,
the more I came to like this Son of
No, the more you came to like the priest kid.
Then we see just what kind of a tossed salad this kid's mind was about spirituality.
“Thank you Vishnu for introducing me to Christ...”
Then he discovered Islam (and more pretty lights and fanfare). He is clearly enthralled by the aesthetics of religion...because that's all any of them have to offer.
Appa is a very practical thinker. He sees Pi praying at a mosque earlier in the day and makes this fun little observation:
You only need to convert to three
more religions, Piscine, and you
will spend your life on holiday.
Then, in a more serious tone...
“Believing in everything at the same time is the same as not believing in anything at all.”
“Instead of leaping from one religion to the next, why not start with reason?”
But mom has to interject... “science can tell us what's going on out there, but not in here” obviously referring to the human heart,AKA our emotions, feelings, and individuality. The problem is, it can. It's called psychology and it's something I wish I understood more.
Appa basically says that he'd prefer Pi choose a single path over this mish-mosh of beliefs he's trying to live at the same time.
“I'd rather you believe in something that I disagree with than to accept everything blindly, and that begins with thinking rationally.”
Then Pi says he wants to get baptized. Poor Appa. He tried.
Then, adult Pi comes out with this gem:
“Doubt is useful. It keeps faith a living thing. After all, you can't know the strength of your faith until it's been tested.”
Oh where to begin... If doubt does more to bolster your faith than kill it, you're doing it wrong. You're not letting your intellect have the floor. You're thinking with your emotions and emotions and good judgment don't always go hand in hand. Reason and good judgment usually do. And yeah, I'll agree with the next part but my question here (and the reason for it will become apparent as we go) is simple: where was god in any of what Pi was about to go through?
Now we get to meet Richard Parker. The Tiger. And Pi kinda needs to develop a more healthy appreciation of wild animals. He tries to HAND FEED the tiger and he and Ravi are found literally in the nick of time by Appa. Dad again inserts a little logic, trying to get him to understand what the consequences could have been, but Pi just comes back with “Tigers have souls. I can see it in their eyes.”
So because YOU think it has a soul it won't bite your arm off if you try to HAND FEED IT? Kid, come on...
Appa responds with what I think, is another warning about religion and religious thinking.
That tiger is
not your friend. When you look into
his eyes, you are seeing your own
emotions reflected back at you -
And if that doesn't encapsulate what religion is at its core, I don't know what does.
Mom is just a little too motherly but I get it. Moms are about protecting their young. Dads are all about teaching lessons. Not a hard and fast rule, but we see it more often than not.
Then Appa decides to show Pi what kind of power a tiger possesses and... legit feeds it. A live goat. And it goes the way you think.
Time jump... Pi is now in his teens filling in on drums for a dance class and he becomes a little... distracted. By a girl, of course and well, distraction kind of turns to obsession and he sorta kinda starts stalking her. Anandi notices and calls him out. He covers it by asking her questions about the dance and points out a difference in how she ended hers in comparison to the other dancers. She says the last move was a lotus flower. Pi asks: “Why would a lotus flower hide in the forest?” He's a smooth operator. It works.
He then takes her to meet Richard Parker. From a very safe distance.
Another time jump... Pi looks to be about 19 now. And apparently there have been a few cash flow issues with the zoo and it's reached a point where the family can't sustain it anymore. Appa has a plan in motion that no one is going to like. The plan is to take a freighter to Canada and sell the animals to zoos and refuges in North America where they're actually worth something. He has work lined up in Winnepeg and that plus the proceeds from the sale of the animals will assure their ability to start a new life abroad.
So here we are on board a ship and Pi's parents are arguing with Gérard Depardieu over vegetarian meals.
“I cook for sailors, not curry-eaters.” Lovely guy. Appa actually grabs him and shakes him for insulting his wife but it de-escalates quickly.
We learn a little bit about perception from a “happy buddhist” - “on the ship, the gravy isn't meat, it's taste.” He's actually one of the sailors and I think he has the right attitude.
Appa is feeding (and sedating) the animals... with all the skill of a true... businessman.
So now we get to hear about when shit turned sour on the trip. Because it did. Very, very sour.
There's big storm and the ship is being tossed about way more than one would think by how easily people are moving about below decks... Pi decides he wants to go out on the deck and watch the storm.
Ravi: don't tempt a storm, Pi...
...so he does. He summons the god of storms to send “More rain! More rain!”
And he gets what he asks for. Things are turning bad. The ship is taking on a lot of water. Alarms are blaring, his family's quarters are completely underwater and he can't find anyone. The animals are all escaping their cages.
Oxen and deer are visible on the far side of the deck,
backlit by emergency lights; Pi hears monkeys screeching, the
clatter of hoofs pounding. In the distance, Sailors shout
orders in panicked voices.
Pi comes onto the lower deck, where he sees three men - the
Buddhist (Taiwanese Sailor) from the dining hall; the
JAPANESE CAPTAIN, and [a sailor] - arguing with the French
cook, who has climbed into the stern of one of the lifeboats
that hangs off the side of the ship. Pi runs to the Captain.
Pi begs the captain to save his family but the captain already knows just how bad things are. He tells Pi not to be scared and gives him a life jacket. Pi doesn't want to leave without his family and he knows Appa can't swim.
They guide Pi to the side, where a section of the ship's
railing has been removed to give access to the lifeboat. They
push Pi over the edge; Pi falls onto the lifeboat, bouncing
on the protective tarp that is still stretched taut across
the bow. He grabs at the rope holding the bow, trying not to
slip off. The sailors are shouting at the French cook, who
stands at the stern.
So Pi is clinging to the side of the boat and eventually gets in. They're lowering it into the water when a zebra jumps overboard into the boat. This causes the pulleys to give way and the boat drops and hits the water with an awful thud. Pi and the zebra are now adrift on these very unfriendly seas. The cook falls out of the boat and we don't see him again.
Pi and friends are drifting further and further from the sinking ship and he is blowing on a whistle somehow thinking that anyone on that ship can do anything to save him, but, it's a determined Richard Parker that follows the whistle. Pi tries to hold him off with an oar but a big wave literally washes him into the boat. This is a problem. Pi jumps out of the boat. This is another problem. These waves are not being kind to him. He's underwater for an amount of time I can't fathom. He sees the boat just sinking around him and is somehow not being sucked down with it. Physics in this movie are a little iffy. While he's down there, he sees a lot of things but his attention quickly goes to an approaching shark... who ignores him and makes a b-line for the struggling animals at the surface.
Pi resurfaces and struggles his way back onto the boat. He's crying out for his parents, but he knows. He keeps screaming I'm sorry because, of course, he thinks he's made all this happen by tempting the the storm.
Now it's morning and Pi is still clinging to the oar that he has fashioned at the bow of the boat. He in hanging onto the oar trying to maintain distance between him and the animals in the boat. Now, he has inspected the boat and has found no sign of Richard Parker. He climbs back in the boat and starts bailing water. We find out that there's a hyena named Hari and the badly injured zebra but so far no sign of Richard. We do get orange juice the ourang utan hitching a ride and Pi refers to the situation as Pi's ark. We also learn that Orange Juice was a momma and that her baby didn't make it.
Pi is trying to stay positive while he staves off an increasingly agitated hyena who is getting hungry. That's a wrap for the zebra.
Pi discovers a store of food and quickly works on a way to protect it. The hyena decides he wants a little orange juice with his breakfast. Pi is done....
All of a sudden, we find out that there's another passenger. Richard Parker has been laying low. So of course now Pi has to abandon ship. He waits until things seem settled and comes back for more supplies. Richard Parker is getting a little restless. Pi manages to stall him for a second but there just isn't anyplace to go on this boat. He's kinda forced to hang out on the tiny raft he's built because there's no way he's going to be safe on a boat with an increasingly hungry tiger.
Finally, the sun is out and the seas are calm. Pi decides to do the message in a bottle thing because doing something is better than doing nothing.
Of course with nothing left to do, he prays. “Whatever comes, I want to know. Show me.” Still not sure what he means by this.
Apparently there's a handbook on board the lifeboat and the advice in it is about as useful as having a tiger on board. “Above all, don't lose hope” is the most useful bit of advice we've heard so far.
And I'm not sure if he is reading all of this or if it's all tongue in cheek but he goes through all the steps in “the manual” about surviving in a lifeboat with a large carnivore. Pi jumps back on the boat and starts yelling like a lunatic at Richard Parker. He pees to establish territory. Richard Parker reciprocates. (“bitch, please...”)
Pi decides to learn how to fish to feed Richard Parker and let's just say Richard gets a little impatient. He dives off the boat to chase fish but, of course, the predator is not faster than the prey in this environment. So... when chasing fish fails, he attempts to pay Pi a visit. Pi quickly jumps back on the boat and pulls in the raft. Richard Parker is swimming but quickly tiring. Richard is hanging on the side of the boat trying to claw his way on but can't get a foothold. Pi picks up an axe and threatens Richard with it but Richard literally has nothing left to do but hang on. Pi doesn't have the heart to hurt him. Now, this whole thing goes on for hours because now it's night and Richard is still clinging to the side of the boat.
Pi launches the raft again and uses a piece of the floorboard to make... a ladder, basically, for Richard to grab and get back in the boat. He deploys the ladder, jumps overboard and Richard finally has firm enough footing to climb back in.
Pi is making an inventory of all his supplies, AND he's getting better at fishing. Sort of. He catches this huge fish and since it's really, really hard to hold onto, he does something very temperate and humane: he wails on it until it's dead. Of course he then feels bad and starts crying over it. Pi decides to deal with his emotions by apologizing to the fish and praying to Vishnu, thanking Vishnu for coming to them in the form of a fish and saving their lives.
Now things start getting trippy. It's night and the waters are lit up with these very luminescent jellyfish which Pi can't seem to just leave alone. A humpback whale shows up to polish one of them off and that knocks Pi off the raft. This also causes Pi to lose literally all the food he had because, for some reason, he has taken everything and stacked it neatly on the raft with nothing to secure it. He brought it all on the raft for safe-keeping and now... welp... looks like it's gonna be fish for two for the foreseeable future. And that's OK because all of a sudden there are scores of fish literally flying into the boat. I thought they were sea birds at first but nope. It's raining fish, hallelujah it's raining fish. Pi again attempts to establish his territory and with a LOT of food to contend with, Richard Parker kinda whatevers him and gets down to munchin'.
So in an effort to peacefully coexist, Pi decides to try “training” Richard Parker. I mean, it works better than I would have imagined but this is always going to be a wild animal, pure and simple. But... it kinda works. Richard now has his part of the boat, Pi has his.
Pi has kind of expanded the raft and is writing his memoirs with a pencil that is slowly wearing down to the eraser. A school of dolphins speed by and then all of a sudden, he sees it. There's a ship in the distance. Pi sends up flares but the ship doesn't come about. It's clearly moving away from them.
Day and night come and go. This whole thing goes on for quite a while. Pi is starting to have weird dreams/visions/hallucinations/etc. He is seeing images in the water. First the animals they lost, then his mother, then the ship that was supposed to bring them to a better place in their lives laid to rest at the bottom of the ocean. He even says he's having a problem differentiating between dreams and reality at this point.
And here we are again... another storm... I love how as Pi is praying and calls god “the compassionate and the merciful” and it's at that moment that a huge wave comes up and engulfs him. Pi is losing it. “Come out and see God, Richard Parker!” Did he not learn his lesson last time with this?
So Pi is now kinda scream-praying into the storm... “I've lost my family, I've lost everything. I surrender. What more do you want??” I had a Job kind of moment with this one, maybe Jonah, too. IDK...
The storm clears and somehow Pi and Richard Parker are both below decks and one is not becoming the other's dinner. I'm sure Pi is looking at this as being God's protection at this point.
In reality, Richard Parker is exhausted and probably very dehydrated from swallowing seawater. Pi attempts to give him some potable water and the mighty tiger only has the strength to lay there and half-heartedly drink. Pi is losing hope. “We're dying, Richard Parker. I'm sorry.”
Pi calls out to his family and says he's happy he's going to see them soon. He is holding Richard Parker's head in his lap trying to console him.
And now we get the “Joe Vs. the Volcano” prayer – which occurs under the same circumstances. Pi says he's ready to die and goes to sleep. “Thank you for my life. I'm ready now.”
He wakes up having run aground on a floating island that is largely covered with some weird vegetation (I immediately thought of gillyweed) and meerkats. Many, many, many meerkats. It is a beautiful day. Not a cloud in the sky. Pi is seeing a ray of hope. In the middle of this island is a magnificent fresh water pool. Pi dives in and drinks deeply several times, basking in the comfort and tranquility of the setting. Richard Parker is enjoying the meerkat buffet. So everything seems to be going great until...
The meerkats are scattering. They are clearly running away from something. They seem to be looking for higher ground because Pi has basically made a hammock in the trees and the meerkats are all trying to find space around him. Pi falls asleep and when he wakes up it is still night and he looks directly down into the pool below. Literally everything in it is dead. There is a gentle breeze and Richard Parker is back on the boat watching from a safe distance.
Pi finds what looks to be some sort of pod and starts peeling back its layers. In the middle he finds something strange: a human tooth. He then goes on to describe the entire island as being carnivorous.
That pool turned to acid at night and basically digested everything in it.
So he grabs as many supplies as he can, mostly seaweed for himself and meerkats to feed Richard Parker.
And here we get another cringe-worthy assessment of the situation:
“Even when God seemed to have abandoned me, he was watching. When he seemed indifferent to my suffering, he was watching... When I was beyond all hope of saving he gave me rest...”
My question is: why was that good enough?
Not much later, they find legit land. Pi pulls the boat aground on a sandy beach. The backdrop of the island is a lush jungle. Richard Parker jumps off the boat, sizes up the jungle ahead and disappears. Pi is found and the people who find him tend to him while he literally grieves Richard Parker.
You know, my father was right.
Richard Parker never saw me as his
friend. After all we'd been
through, he didn't even look back.
Ah, light dawns on marble head! (great line from “Cocktail” that I use often in moments like this). But alas...
But I have to believe that there
was more in his eyes than my own
reflection staring back at me. I
know I felt it - even if I can't
Oh come on.... Appa covered this one well, dude.
Then we get Pi's retrospective on the whole experience. He says:
You know, I've left so much behind.
My family, the zoo, Anandi, India -
I suppose in the end the whole of
life becomes an act of letting go.
But what always hurts the most is
not taking the moment to say
goodbye. I was never able to thank
my father for all I learned from
him, to tell him that without his
lessons I would never have
Give Mamji a call, kid... It'll be cathartic.
What I want to know is, if you believe in the afterlife, why look at it this way. TBH, I think Appa's messaging was in there and Pi wrestled with it like he did with his faith.
“I was never able to thank my father...” but what did you learn? Appa was SMART. He tried to get you think critically and you never got there.
So now we get to see Pi in hospital being questioned by Japanese insurance adjusters. They are trying to figure out why the ship sank. Pi tells them the story as he remembers it and they basically tell him, “Look, we can't base a report on carnivorous islands, tigers, and floating bananas. Give us something more believable.”
So now we find ourselves wondering... are we about to hear what really happened?
Here is the story he tells them:
The cook and the sailor were onboard the lifeboat. The sailor had fallen in and was injured. Pi was adrift. They threw him a life ring and pulled him into the boat. His mother was holding onto some bananas and somehow made it into the boat. The cook was “a disgusting man.” He tried to play the rugged survivalist and even though they had provisions aboard he decided it would be a good idea to amp up the shock value and eat a rat. He killed it, dried it in the sun, and ate it. Ew...
Pi describes him as a brute, but also resourceful. The raft was his idea and the entire purpose of it was to catch fish. The sailor was also the happy buddhist. He didn't say much but he was, as Pi put it, “suffering.” He had broken his leg in several places and apparently the injury was pretty extensive. They tried to set the leg but it became infected. The cook told them they had to do something or he would die. The implication is that they either tried to amputate the leg or lance the wounds. In either event it didn't work. The sailor died, probably went into shock from the pain or maybe blood loss.
The next day the cook caught a dorado which, a quick google search taught me was the weird-ass fish we saw Pi bludgeon earlier. But what did he use for bait? Yeah, you guessed it. Do I really need to say it? Pi's mother was furious and accused the cook of letting the sailor die so they would have bait. The cook was furious and started for Pi's mother who smacked him hard across the face. For whatever reason, he didn't try to kill her... Pi then describes some of the cook's other behavior and... yeah. He softened the messaging a little by saying that the sailor “went the same way the rat went.” Good lord... keep in mind there was PLENTY OF FOOD onboard.
A week after the whole bait incident, things came to a head between the cook and Gita. They were trying to reel in a turtle and it slipped out of Pi's hands. The Cook punched him on the side of his head and made him see stars. Well, that wasn't going to fly with Amma. Oh no... she started wailing on the cook and yelled for Pi to get to the raft. But as he was swimming away he looked back just in time to see the knife come out. We also know what's happening here.
The cook threw Gita's lifeless body overboard and sharks quickly showed up to... yeah. And Pi was watching it happen...
The book is more graphic. I'll just leave it at that. Yeeeeesssshh!!!
The next day I killed him. He
didn't even fight back. He knew he
had gone too far, even by his
standards. He'd left the knife out
on the bench. And I did to him what
he did to the sailor. He was such
an evil man, but worse still, he
brought the evil out in me.
I have to live with that. I was
alone in a lifeboat, drifting
across the Pacific Ocean. And I
And THAT at least satisfied the insurance adjusters enough to leave him alone.
The author pieces it all together:
So… the stories… Both the zebra
and the sailor broke their leg. And
the hyena killed the zebra and the
orangutan. So … the hyena is the
cook. And the sailor is the zebra,
mother is the orangutan… and
you're… the tiger.
So here's the question: were either of these stories true? We are never told. Pi says:
I've told you two stories about
what happened out on the ocean.
Neither explains what caused the
sinking of the ship, and no one can
prove which story is true and which
is not. In both stories, the ship
sinks, my family dies, and I
So which story do you prefer?
The story with the tiger. That's
the better story.
Thank you. And so it goes with God.
“So your story has a happy ending.”
“That's up to you. The story is yours now.”
At the very end we discover that Pi's happily ever after involves a wife, and a cat, and two children. He has achieved normalcy. We also find out that the adjusters chose their “better story” too. Because sometimes reality is just a bit too much to bear... and, in my mind anyway, so it is with god.
One of the key lessons I learned from this movie is that we look to religion not to enhance our reality, but to find a means of escape from it. Reality is dark. It's uncomfortable. It lacks luster. Tigers, carnivorous floating islands and harrowing tales of survival in the face of certain death is far more exciting. Just ask any Japanese insurance adjuster. The likely truth of Pi's experience was more believable but far more disturbing. In the end, the adjusters chose the story that makes them look like fools over having to reiterate a far more grisly tale of murder and cannibalism.
In much the same way, religion purports to provide the “better story” in the lives of believers. We trade uncomfortable details like mortality for tales of eternal life. We trade being mundane, average humans for the ability to speak in tongues, prophesy, and heal. We trade being on our own riding on a mote of dust in a sunbeam occupying a tiny fragment of a huge, indifferent universe we will likely never fully understand to having a grandfatherly celestial being watching over us, answering prayers, answering life's questions, and making our lives better just by existing.
I do appreciate how the movie doesn't downplay Appa's atheistic messaging; just lays it out there for consumption along with the rest, but there is no “equal time” here. We know what the filmmakers and author of the book wanted us to know. Mamji thought that Pi could make the author believe in God. Did he at the end? Who knows? I feel like he wasn't really swayed, but he didn't go to Pi looking for spiritual truth. He went looking for an idea he could use for a new book. Pi also wasn't really playing the role of the evangelist. He also just laid out what he believed and let the author draw his own conclusions.
When it came to religion, Pi took the best parts of every religions' stories and adopted them all cumulatively. Pi had a very universalist way of looking at god, but whether he realized it or not, he demonstrated that Appa was right. By believing in everything he really did opt to believe in nothing whether he realized it or not. It was when I adopted polytheism that I made a giant leap toward atheism because it didn't take long to figure out that all the gods I believed in were constructs. They existed in my mind and nowhere outside of it. I chose the ones that had the best stories; ones that complimented who I thought I was and where I was in my life at the time. I subsequently went from believing in everything to believing in nothing, and it didn't take long.
Also, it wasn't the gods that had an impact on Pi. It was the people who taught him about the gods that impacted him, along with the emotional responses he had to things like Krishna's story and the stations of the cross. And whether it's Vishnu, Krishna, Allah, or Christ, no matter how we see god, we're only seeing ourselves. God's will will always match our preferences and his opinions will always match our own. We're looking into the tiger's eyes and only seeing our own emotions reflected back at us. If the tiger, in this instance, is god, god certainly is not our friend.
Let's forget about the details of the two stories for a minute. What is the real better story in any given situation – the one that entertains us more or the one that contains the truth? The truth isn't always exciting or happy (and let's face it – it can be downright disturbing) but regardless of how we respond or react to it, the truth is very empowering. When Jesus said you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free (John 8:32), I don't think he framed it in the right context. Because the truth might not be the definition of the “better story” in terms of how it makes us feel, but it is the better story in how it makes us think, how we view ourselves, and how we perceive the lives we live.
So let me ask you: what's the better story when it comes to our lives and how we live them? The one that robs you of a life lived on your terms, forcing you to conform to a set of stringent rules and a lifestyle of self-denial so you can get a prize after you die, or the one that encourages you to live life to the fullest because you only get one and it will eventually end? One keeps you shackled to an imaginary deity, a laundry list of man-made rules, and an arbitrary moral code that leaves no room for individual thought or opinion. The other lets you think for yourself, make your own choices (within societally acceptable parameters), and acknowledges your ability to make good ones without the influence of a deity. Now I ask you: which of those options is the one that makes the most sense? The one that leaves you shackled or the one that liberates your mind of the burden of belief and leads to getting and staying unbound?
Don't let the stories and pretty lights fool you... we'll see ya again next week!