Piscine Patel, better known as Pi, is the much-loved son of a zoo-keeping family in India. Pi wants nothing else but good social standing at school and to love God. Under the tutelage of wise people he encounters, Pi practices Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam fervently. Although Pi is a bit too precocious for his parents’ taste, he has intelligence beyond his years.
Pi’s father is a dedicated zookeeper who teaches Pi about all the animals and their habits. Pi vehemently defends zoos, because animals in the wild are just as caged by their survival needs and territories as animals in zoo enclosures. The difference is that zoo animals trade their bigger territories for smaller ones in exchange for food, medical care, and safety from predators, thus ensuring an even greater freedom. The zoo animals are not to be considered any tamer than wild animals, however. In order to demonstrate that the animals are not pets, Pi’s father orders the Bengal tiger not to be fed for three days. Then, a goat is lowered into the enclosure. The tiger rips it to shreds, terrifying Pi and his brother. The tiger feeding turns out to be a valuable life lesson, though, as Pi’s real adventure begins.
Under Indira Gandhi’s rule, the Patel family is forced to seek a better life elsewhere. The animals are sold to zoos abroad, and the Patel family boards a cargo ship to take them and several of the animals to Canada. One night on the ship, not long into their journey, Pi awakens to a terrible explosion. The ship is sinking quickly, and before Pi knows what is happening, he is on a life raft with an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra with a badly broken leg, and a Bengal tiger.
Survival of the fittest comes to life aboard the raft as the hyena finishes off the zebra and the orangutan, and the tiger hunts and kills the hyena.
This part of the novel is especially gruesome, as the zebra is eaten slowly over several days while still alive. Pi is terrified, because he knows that unless he does something drastic, he is the next victim.
Many days pass, and Pi and the tiger are starving to death slowly. Time is running out, so Pi uses his zoo-keeping knowledge in a dangerous and drastic move. Pi decides that he must tame the tiger in the same way circus performers teach tigers to do tricks. To assert himself as the alpha male of the life raft, Pi uses an emergency whistle, the tiger’s seasickness, and his newly acquired fishing abilities. The tiger, now dependent on Pi for food, has no choice but to obey.
The situation is still precarious, and by the time Pi and the tiger land on the coast of Mexico more than 200 days after the cargo ship sank, they are half dead. Upon landing, the tiger leaps over Pi’s head and runs into the jungle, never to be seen again. Pi realizes that if it hadn’t been for the tiger, he probably would have lost the will to live.
Pi is put in the hospital for medical treatment, and two men investigating the disappearance of the cargo ship pay him a visit. Pi is the only survivor, so they have only Pi’s fantastic account of his survival to go on. When the men protest the plausibility of the story, Pi tells them another in which he is on the life raft with humans who pick each other off one by one. He asks the men to decide which story they prefer, and Pi is