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Chapter 53
I slept all morning. I was roused by anxiety. That tide offood, water and rest that flowed through my weakened system,bringing me a new lease on life, also brought me the strengthto see how desperate my situation was. I awoke to the realityof Richard Parker. There was a tiger in the lifeboat. I couldhardly believe it, yet I knew I had to. And I had to savemyself. I considered jumping overboard and swimming away,but my body refused to move. I was hundreds of miles fromlandfall, if not over a thousand miles. I couldn't swim such adistance, even with a lifebuoy. What would I eat? What would Idrink? How would I keep the sharks away? How would I keepwarm? How would I know which way to go? There was not ashadow of doubt about the matter: to leave the lifeboat meantcertain death. But what was staying aboard? He would come atme like a typical cat, without a sound. Before I knew it hewould seize the back of my neck or my throat and I would bepierced by fang-holes. I wouldn't be able to speak. The lifebloodwould flow out of me unmarked by a final utterance. Or hewould kill me by clubbing me with one of his great paws,breaking my neck.
"I'm going to die," I blubbered through quivering lips.
Oncoming death is terrible enough, but worse still isoncoming death with time to spare, time in which all thehappiness that was yours and all the happiness that might havebeen yours becomes clear to you. You see with utter lucidity allthat you are losing. The sight brings on an oppressive sadnessthat no car about to hit you or water about to drown you canmatch. The feeling is truly unbearable. The words Father,Mother, Ravi, India, Winnipeg struck me with searingpoignancy.
I was giving up. I would have given up – if a voice hadn'tmade itself heard in my heart. The voice said, "I will not die. Irefuse it. I will make it through this nightmare. I will beat theodds, as great as they are. I have survived so far, miraculously.
Now I will turn miracle into routine. The ‘amazing will be seenevery day. I will put in all the hard work necessary. Yes, solong as God is with me, I will not die. Amen."My face set to a grim and determined expression. I speak inall modesty as I say this, but I discovered at that moment thatI have a fierce will to live. It's not something evident, in myexperience. Some of us give up on life with only a resignedsigh. Others fight a little, then lose hope. Still others – and Iam one of those – never give up. We fight and fight and fight.
We fight no matter the cost of battle, the losses we take, theimprobability of success. We fight to the very end. It's not aquestion of courage. It's something constitutional, an inability tolet go. It may be nothing more than life-hungry stupidity.
Richard Parker started growling that very instant, as if hehad been waiting for me to become a worthy opponent. Mychest became tight with fear.
"Quick, man, quick," I wheezed. I had to organize mysurvival. Not a second to waste. I needed shelter and rightaway. I thought of the prow I had made with an oar. But nowthe tarpaulin was unrolled at the bow; there was nothing tohold the oar in place. And I had no proof that hanging at theend of an oar provided real safety from Richard< Parker. Hemight easily reach and nab me. I had to find something else.
My mind worked fast.
I built a raft. The oars, if you remember, floated. And I hadlife jackets and a sturdy lifebuoy.
With bated breath I closed the locker and reached beneaththe tarpaulin for the extra oars on the side benches. RichardParker noticed. I could see him through the life jackets. As Idragged each oar out – you can imagine how carefully – hestirred in reaction. But he did not turn. I pulled out three oars.
A fourth was already resting crosswise on the tarpaulin. Iraised the locker lid to close the opening onto Richard Parker'sden.
I had four buoyant oars. I set them on the tarpaulin aroundthe lifebuoy. The lifebuoy was now squared by the oars. Myraft looked like a game of tic-tac-toe with an O in the centreas the first move.
Now came the dangerous part. I needed the life jackets.
Richard Parker's growling was now a deep rumble that shookthe air. The hyena responded with a whine, a wavering,high-pitched whine, a sure sign that trouble was on the way.
I had no choice. I had to act. I lowered the lid again. Thelife jackets were at hand's reach. Some were right againstRichard Parker. The hyena broke into a scream.
I reached for the closest life jacket. I had difficulty graspingit, my hand was trembling so much. I pulled the jacket out.
Richard Parker did not seem to notice. I pulled another oneout. And another. I was feeling faint with fear. I was havinggreat difficulty breathing. If need be, I told myself, I couldthrow myself overboard with these life jackets. I pulled a lastone out. I had four life jackets.
Pulling the oars in one after the next, I worked themthrough the armholes of the life jackets – in one armhole, outthe other – so that the life jackets became secured to the fourcorners of the raft. I tied each one shut.
I found one of the buoyant ropes in the locker. With theknife, I cut four segments. I tightly lashed the four oars wherethey met. Ah, to have had a practical education in knots! Ateach corner I made ten knots and still I worried that the oarswould come apart. I worked feverishly, all the while cursing mystupidity. A tiger aboard and I had waited three days andthree nights to save my life!
I cut four more segments of the buoyant rope and tied thelifebuoy to each side of the square. I wove the lifebuoy's ropethrough the life jackets, around the oars, in and out of thelifebuoy – all round the raft – as yet another precautionagainst the raft breaking into pieces.
The hyena was now screaming at top pitch.
One last thing to do. "God, give me the time," I implored. Itook the rest of the buoyant line. There was a hole that wentthrough the stem of the boat, near the top. I brought thebuoyant rope through it and hitched it. I only had to hitch theother end of the rope to the raft and I might be saved.
The hyena fell silent. My heart stopped and then beat triplespeed. I turned.
"Jesus, Mary, Muhammad and Vishnu!"I saw a sight that will stay with me for the rest of my days.
Richard Parker had risen and emerged. He was not fifteen feetfrom me. Oh, the size of him! The hyena's end had come, andmine. I stood rooted to the spot, paralyzed, in thrall to theaction before my eyes. My brief experience with the relations ofunconfmed wild animals in lifeboats had made me expect greatnoise and protest when the time came for bloodshed. But ithappened practically in silence. The hyena died neither whiningnor whimpering, and Richard Parker killed without a sound.
The flame-coloured carnivore emerged from beneath thetarpaulin and made for the hyena. The hyena was leaningagainst the stern bench, behind the zebra's carcass, transfixed.
It did not put up a fight. Instead it shrank to the floor, liftinga forepaw in a futile gesture of defence. The look on its facewas of terror. A massive paw landed on its shoulders. RichardParker's jaws closed on the side of the hyena's neck. Its glazedeyes widened. There was a noise of organic crunching aswindpipe and spinal cord were crushed. The hyena shook. Itseyes went dull. It was over.
Richard Parker let go and growled. But a quiet growl, privateand half-hearted, it seemed. He was panting, his tonguehanging from his mouth. He licked his chops. He shook hishead. He sniffed the dead hyena. He raised his head high andsmelled the air. He placed his forepaws on the stern benchand lifted himself. His feet were wide apart. The rolling of theboat, though gentle, was visibly not to his liking. He lookedbeyond the gunnel at the open seas. He put out a low, meansnarl. He smelled the air again. He slowly turned his head. Itturned – turned – turned full round – till he was lookingstraight at me. I wish I could describe what happened next,not as I saw it, which I might manage, but as I felt it. Ibeheld Richard Parker from the angle that showed him off togreatest effect: from the back, half-raised, with his head turned.
The stance had something of a pose to it, as if it were anintentional, even affected, display of mighty art. And what art,what might. His presence was overwhelming, yet equally evidentwas the lithesome grace of it. He was incredibly muscular, yethis haunches were thin and his glossy coat hung loosely on hisframe. His body, bright brownish orange streaked with blackvertical stripes, was incomparably beautiful, matched with atailor's eye for harmony by his pure white chest and undersideand the black rings of his long tail. His head was large andround, displaying formidable sideburns, a stylish goatee andsome of the finest whiskers of the cat world, thick, long andwhite. Atop the head were small, expressive ears shaped likeperfect arches. His carrot orange face had a broad bridge anda pink nose, and it was made up with brazen flair. Wavy dabsof black circled the face in a pattern that was striking yetsubtle, for it brought less attention to itself than it did to th............
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