If we don't eat, we die. It's an unalienable fact of life, but one that is easy to forget in a society where even the poorest echelon can count on soup kitchens, food stamps and the kindness of wealthier strangers to fill their bellies. From the very first line of Life of Pi, however, Yann Martel refuses to let this conventiently forgotten reality slip the reader's mind. In an act of tremendous foreshadowing, the character of the author begins 'his' novel by stating, "This book was born as I was hungry" (1). This acute awareness of food and the need for it looms throughout the story, allowing us to come to a greater understanding of Pi's relationship to religion, to others and finally, and most importantly, to himself.
It is through food that Pi is introduced to the two faiths he adopts and incorporates into his native Hinduism. His induction into Christianity is conducted by a priest who Pi remembers, "... served me tea and biscuits in a tea set that tinkled and rattled at every touch" (58). His religious education is staged alongside that everpresent tea set, as "teacup rattled against saucer" and "spoon tinkled against edge of cup" (62) every time he returned to the church to ask questions. He stumbles across Islam by way of a snack as well when he encounters a Muslim baker who offers him some bread and then shows him how it is made, explaining, "... how the bread is baked on these heated pebbles when the nasal call of the muezzin [wafts] through the air from the mosque" (67). His initial confusion about these two systems of belief is expressed in food-related absurdity. When he tries to imagine his own father sending him as a sacrifice much as God sent Jesus to be crucified for humanity's transgressions, he pictures him saying, "Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas... Something must be done. I have decided that the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed you to them" (58). When he attempts to overcome his bewilderment with Islam, "... the image of this callisthenic communion with God in the middle of bags of flour [keeps] coming to my mind" (66). Later on, the disastrous "interfaith dialogue" between Pi's religious mentors is resolved when his father ventures an, " 'Ice cream, anyone?' " (77). The purchase and consumption of three ice cream sandwiches symbolizes, rather innocently, Pi's assimilation of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam into a delicious harmony.
While it is through food that Pi comes into contact with the people who aid him along his spiritually explorative journey, many of his social interactions involve meals in a secular sense. He expresses hospitality towards the novelist who will go on to document his tale by taking him to a diner upon their first encounter and then during every following meeting, "... he prepares a South Indian vegetarian feast" (46) that the man dutifully eats despite the fact that its spices make his head feel "like a house on fire" (47). This friendly offer of nourishment crops up again when he is visited by the Japanese insurance investigators as he repeatedly, obsessively poses them the question, " 'Would you like a cookie?' " (334). Richard Parker's hunger forces him into a dynamic with the tiger, too, when he issues himself the warning, "... don't you think that before he submits to eating puffy, putrified zebra he'll try the fresh, juicy Indian boy just a short dip away?" (198) and overcomes his discomfort with killing to bludgeon a fish, blowing his whistle several times while the beast is devouring it, "... to remind Richard Parker of who had so graciously provided him with fresh food" (206). Social exchanges involving food are used to underline a cultural divide as well, such as a tense moment with a Canadian waiter who remarks, " 'Fresh off the boat, are you?' " when Pi commits the faux pas of eating with his hands.
The context in which hunger rears its…