Life of Pi is a tale about survival, belief in God and coming of age, that unfolds while the protagonist is floating in a lifeboat on the Pacific Ocean. The main character, Pi Patel, is a loveable teenager with a lifelong curiosity for animals and religion. Pi grows up as the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India. He is intensely religious and practices Hinduism, Islam and Christianity with equal zeal. When Pi is about 16 years old, his father decides to relocate the family to Canada to escape the increasingly undesirable political developments in 1970's India. Pi's father arranges for the family to accompany some of the animals bound for North America on a cargo ship named Tsimtsum. "Midway to Midway" the ship suddenly and quickly sinks. Pi is instantly orphaned and left to survive in a lifeboat with a crippled zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a tiger. The hyena dispatches the zebra and the orangutan and the tiger dispatch the hyena. Pi is left alone in the lifeboat with the tiger.
After considering how he could rid the boat of the tiger, he decides that the tiger must live and he must tame the tiger so that they can live together. Having spent his entire life around animals, Pi has a theoretical understanding of how to tame a tiger; however, he has never actually had the chance until now. The story recalls the adventures and practical matters of life at sea as a castaway. The story tells of the wonders and the intense challenges. Pi comes of age during this story by having to battle the elements, the sea and the sky, as well as testing his will to live. The tiger, named Richard Parker because of a clerical error that mistakenly recorded the captor's name for the tiger's, is both Pi's nemesis and his reason for living.
During his ordeal, Pi learns how to overcome his own fears, as well as balance on the thin line between taking control and relying on powers larger than himself. Pi has much to balance, considering his sorrow over losing his family, his hopes of rescue being raised and then dashed, his triumph over fear and his ultimate survival.
When Pi finally rescues himself by landing on a beach in Mexico, he is orphaned once again by his reason for living, Richard Parker. The tiger disappears into the Mexican jungle, while Pi is interrogated by officials seeking the "real story" of why the ship sank. Pi recalls his tale, which the officials label as preposterous, only to re-tell the tale sans animals and with Pi as a blood-thirsty cannibal. The author's twist may mystify some readers who will wonder if the latter tale is closer to the truth. The book is, after all, fiction.