Symbolism of Meerkat Island in the Life of PI

Banyan Tree

by Jayaram V

The Life of Pi is a complex story. It is a story within a story, couched in symbolism. It brings to light the power of myth and its significance in shaping our lives and civilization. The ultimate message of the movie or the story, as I understood, is that people do not appreciate straight-line stories. They believe more in myths and legends than in reality. They love the drama that evokes their passion and imagination. No one remembers a man who is stranded in an ocean, but if you add some drama, perhaps some people will. Pi learned this truth very early in age. Knowing that his name sounded rather humiliating, he reinvented it by changing it to Pi and creating an aura around it by making himself a legend in the school.

At the very end of the story, Pi speaks again about this truth regarding human nature. He hints that people respect myths more than reality, and religion or God is based on a similar concept. For people to believe in God, or religion you need myths and legends. It all depends upon how you frame an experience and describe it.

If history would have simply recorded that Krishna was a cowherd who played with his flute while herding the cows, probably no one would have remembered him. Or if it was said that Jesus was a poor Jewish peasant who was crucified for his religious beliefs and revolutionary ideas there would have been no Christianity. The appeal of his character lies in the pathos associated with his crucifixion and the incredible legend of his resurrection and return to the heaven. Add to that the legend associated with his virgin birth and his being the son of God.

That, in my opinion, what put him above all and sealed the victory of Christianity in the western world. Human nature is such that the incredulous is more appealing than the credulous. Reason has no chance against the power of myth. We love to hear more about supermen rather than mere men. We glorify the heaven and the gods but we are not so generous about earth and ourselves.

From an early age, Pi was torn between the belief system of his mother and the rationalism of his father. In the end, he understood the difference between the two with mathematical precision. He realized that myth would prevail despite our ability to reason and despite contrary evidence because we not only reason but also rationalize and reinvent our own memories.

A lot of symbolism associated with the movie PI has already been analyzed by others. It is said that each of the animals in the story, represents a particular character associated with the life of PI. The French cook who was rude to his parents in the ship was the hyena. The orangutan was his mother. The tiger himself was the cruel animal hidden in the nature of PI. Or perhaps it was his own ego.

In this discussion, I would like to focus mainly upon two themes of the movie, the ocean and the meerkat island, which PI visits before he reaches the Mexican Shore. In my opinion, the ocean represents the waters of life, and the island the phenomenal existence, samsara, an idea which is common to Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. It is not a coincidence that in the literature associated with these three religions, the world in which we live is compared to a phenomenon, characterized by births and deaths, karma and impermanence.

It is in the ocean of life we all sail, like PI himself, on a raft or a boat we call our bodies, in the company of other beings, who are either good or bad, friendly or hostile and with whom we strike a relationship of submission or dominance for our survival.

There is nothing certain about this journey. Each moment, you have to battle against myriad forces, that try to destroy you or compete against you for food and survival. You can never be sure of what you have, and what you may lose or gain.

In this epic journey, it is your beliefs, your hope, courage and ingenuity which comes to your rescue. A lot depends upon your actions, choices and their consequences, in short your karma.

During the journey, PI chances upon an island which is filled with hundreds and thousands of meerkats, and a Banyan tree with its roots and branches everywhere. From a long distance the island appears like a reclining Vishnu or the Buddha sleeping or rather dreaming on a bed in the ocean. The island represent mortal existence or Samsara in the waters of life. In Hindu and Buddhist literature, it is called Jambudvipa, the island in the midst of seven concentric oceans.

The tree itself is the tree of life or the tree of creation, often compared to a Banyan tree and described in Hindu literature as the Asvattha Tree, with its roots in heaven and branches spread everywhere. The day in the island represents life, and the night death. Existence is characterized by the cycle of creation and destruction.

Just as many dualities of life, they are cyclical and unending. Creation is followed by destruction, and destruction is followed by creation, which are represented in the story as day and night. In the relative time of Brahma, which lasts for billions of years, the day represents creation and the night destruction.

The meerkats are innocent and defenseless against an unrelenting and cruel Nature. Their lives are filled with suffering, ignorance and bondage and they are forever caught in the cycle of creation and destruction or day and night.

The island thus represents both existence and impermanence. You cannot live there forever with peace of mind. When PI realizes it, like all the true yogis and monks who become aware of the true nature of our existence, he decides not to stay there since it guarantees neither peace nor stability. To live forever or lead a stable life, one has to cross the ocean of mortal life and reach the other shore.

In the island, the thread which PI unties from his wrist and ties to the tree represents the bonds, which we form with the world and which hold us in chains. The water well in the island, which is surrounded by the ocean, represents the limited opportunities we have in this world to satisfy our desires and our thirst for things.

The flower which he opens in the night, while trying to sleep in the branches of the tree, represents consciousness. The tooth he finds in the flower represents the latent impressions (samskaras) in our minds or the relics of our past which are responsible for our next birth and continuity in the samsara. Finally, the meerkats are the individual souls who are caught in the island (Jambudvipa) in the cycle of life and death.

The scene, where Pi finally parts with the tiger, also has a symbolic significance. The tiger disappears into the forest, weak and emaciated, without even saying goodbye, which rankles Pi to no end. He feels very disappointed that the tiger just disappeared without showing any sign of affection. The tiger represents his past and his former Self. In the story, it disappeared, never to return. When we reach the other side of life, our physical Self drops away, without a trace.

In his journey, PI lost everything, his parents, his brother, old friends and associations. His past became a distant memory shrouded in myths, while he recovered from the loss and renewed his life with his wife and children. Through hardships, he learned to deal with the transience of life. This is another aspect of our lives. Our relationships are temporary. During our existence, or in the journey of our lives, we may become attached to things and beings, over which we have no control and with which we cannot stay forever. They may disappear from our lives, just like our dreams. You may form an attachment with them, but they may not form an attachment with you. You may keep thinking about them, but they may be gone forever.

The movie PI ends with a great twist. Most people do not even realize it when it happens. In truth, I felt bored for a moment when Pi described the alternate version of the story to the Japanese officials. The viewers become so caught up with the myth and legend narrated by PI based upon his real life events, that they mostly miss the real story hidden behind the myth, when he narrates it in the hospital to the two officials.

Finally, the story contains an important truth concerning our lives. It is that legends, dreams and myths, however farfetched they may be, are important and form an integral aspect of our lives. They help us cope with our suffering or distract ourselves from it by entering into an imaginary world or alternate reality.

People create their own illusions to cope with the greatest illusion called life. Whether it is good or bad for them, neither reason nor faith can explain. However, it gives them enough reasons to persevere in the inexplicable mystery called life and existence. Myths help us  overlook suffering. They are the beautiful celluloid movies which we create in our minds to endure the contradictions, complexity and confusion of life.

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