I finally got around to watching Life of Pi over the weekend. I knew that it was a visual masterpiece, but what I wasn’t prepared for was how it made me think about the combat veterans of today (and the past).
For those that are not aware, the movie features a young boy who spends many days on a lifeboat adrift in the ocean. In the movie he retells the story of his adventures (so it’s obvious he survives the ordeal). Also on the boat with him are a number of animals that were cargo aboard the ship. A zebra with a broken leg, a wild hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger. During the over 200 days at sea, the hyena kills the zebra and the orangutan, before itself being killed and eaten by the tiger. This left only Pi and the tiger (named Richard Parker) on board forcing them to learn to live with each other. They survived by eating fish and birds before finally washing up on a Mexican beach, at which time Richard Parker departs into the jungle, never to be seen again.
At the end of the movie Pi explains that he had also told his story to the Japanese media after it happened, but they found it too hard to believe. He says that he then told them another story, this time however there were no animals on the boat, but real people instead. The zebra and orangutan were not zoo animals killed by the hyena, but instead were a crew member and Pi’s mother, who were both killed by the ships cook. Richard Parker was not a Bengal tiger who ultimately killed the hyena, but instead was the animalstic, survival mode of Pi’s brain and that Pi had killed the cook. The question at the end is which version does the listener choose to believe.
This story does a tremendous job of demonstrating the struggle for identity of someone forced to do things both unimaginable and against their nature in order to survive which is why I found it very easy to draw parallels to those who experience combat.
Although in neither of my two tours to Afghanistan was I ever called upon to fire a weapon, my job as the Leading Chief of an Aid Station for an infantry unit put me in direct dealings with those young men that did. I know that these men needed their Richard Parker as much as Pi did. Even in the movie, after Richard Parker falls out of the boat and is about to drown, it is Pi that helps him back in. This he does because he realizes that without him, he will die as well. It was a risk he had to take.
In the story Pi spends some time off his boat and on a makeshift smaller raft, giving him some separation from Richard Parker, but at other times he goes back onto the boat to share the little food he has with the tiger to keep it nourished. He also finds ways to train Richard Parker in order for them to live together. This delicate balance is maintained until they reach land and Richard Parker leaves for good, off into the jungle.
Just as Richard Parker departed to allow Pi to move on with his life, combat veterans need to let their Richard Parker escape as well. The same force that was required to keep them alive is incompatible with life on the “dry land” of society.
This is a timeless tale and has meaning for more than just those of this time. My grandfather fought in World War II and those in his generation rarely talked about what happened. It was probably good that there was not as much media presence in places like Tarawa and Okinawa. Just reading some of the first hand accounts shows that those involved in those conflicts did things they weren’t proud of and certainly did things they weren’t ready to come home and talk about.
There is a little Richard Parker in all of us, and many combat vets were forced to coexist with their Richard Parker in order to survive. It was tough but necessary. They may have had to even help their Richard Parker on board and find their own way to sustain it, just as Pi did.
Pi also had a foundation of family and faith which, though tested, helped him overcome some unspeakable events. It may have also helped him to let the tiger go and move on when the time came to do so. Perhaps this story can help others move on as well.
** There is a ton more symbolism in this movie and I encourage people to watch it. I’m in the process of reading the book as well. I’ve seen many other takes on this story and how it relates to the search for God, as well as other things. It’s definitely a discussion starter.