‘Cruel, only to be kind’


The 2012 Oscar-winning film “Life of Pi” is based on Yann Martel’s bestselling novel of the same name.  Both the movie’s director, Ang Lee, and the screenwriter, David Magee, had fallen in love with the 2001 book. But, initially, they felt it would be impossible to translate it into a movie since so much of the novel’s energy comes from the Canadian author’s portrayal of the expansive inner life of Pi, the story’s young hero.  

While they could not reproduce on the big screen Martel’s chronicling of the intimate details of Pi’s deepest thoughts, feelings and yearnings, they managed, after years of creative collaboration, to offer at least some suggestion of Pi’s interiority through cinematic techniques of breathtaking and, at times, terrifying beauty – overpowering, I am told, in the film’s 3-D format.

A key scene in “Life of Pi” occurs in the first few minutes of the movie. Pi Patel, a 12-year-old boy, lives in Pondicherry, a city on the Bay of Bengal in French-occupied India. Pi senses that he has a special gift for entering into friendships with the animals living in his parents’ small zoo. In particular, he has a unique relationship with the zoo’s male Royal Bengal tiger – named Richard Parker owing to a comedy of errors.

We see the young Pi, clutching a piece of fresh meat in his small right hand, thrusting his skinny arm between the bars of the tiger’s cage, waiting for the arrival of Richard Parker. 

Within moments, the 450-pound cat is slowly treading, huge paw after huge paw, toward the boy’s outstretched arm. 

Pi reads in the tiger’s eyes a human-like understanding as the animal continues to close the physical gap between them.  The audience senses a bloody consequence of the boy’s naiveté. 

Just before disaster strikes, Pi’s father rushes to his son and yanks him away from the tiger’s maw. The father screams at his son, shouting, “You think the tiger is your friend.  He is an animal, not a playmate!”

“Animals don’t think like we do; people who forget that get themselves killed. That tiger is not your friend. When you look into his eyes, you are seeing your own emotions reflected back at you – nothing else.”

With that, Pi’s father proceeds to teach him a most painful lesson, ordering a zoo worker to fetch a young goat – cute as can be – and chain it to the bars inside the tiger’s cage Never anything other than a wild, carnivorous beast, Richard Parker jumps on the goat, tears it to pieces, and eats it right in front of Pi’s crying eyes. 

“That tiger is not your friend.”

My initial reaction to this scene was that Pi’s father is acting in an unnecessarily cruel manner. After all, his son is only 12 years old; why subject him to such brutal reality at his tender age? 

However, as the narrative unfolded, I came to see that Pi’s father was being “cruel, only to be kind” – to borrow a phrase that entered the English language about 400 years ago when Hamlet tried to explain himself to his mother, Gertrude.

“Life of Pi,” in both its written and cinematic forms, works on many levels as it grapples with an abundance of interconnected themes. It seems to me that one of the most significant of these themes is the role of parenting.

Throughout most of the story, Pi is a 16-year-old, orphaned as a result of a catastrophic shipwreck that leaves him stuck in the Pacific for 227 days on a small lifeboat along with Richard Parker. During this time, his mother and father seem to remain with him as living presences. 

Pi’s mother’s undying love inspires him to “keep on keepin’ on” against all odds, and his father’s cruel-to-be-kind lesson has stayed with him, giving him the wisdom and the know-how to keep the tiger at bay. 

The question of when to be “cruel, only to be kind” challenges our parenting instincts. Sometimes our “cruelty” is a mere pinprick, but there are times when we parents must risk being as cruel to our children as Pi’s father was to his son when he ordered the goat chained to the bars in the tiger’s cage. It is then that we walk on the razor’s edge – uncertain as to whether a kinder future will outweigh the pain and trauma of the here and now. 

Do we tell our daughter that she lacks the skills and temperament to pursue the career of her dreams? Do we suggest to our son that the woman he thinks he loves is profoundly flawed? Do we dare to remain silent? Do we dare to speak?  And what if we are wrong? What if our well-intentioned cruelty is unredeemed by a compensating kindness?            

Four years elapsed before Pi’s father’s cruelty turned out to be kind. When we parents choose to be cruel to our children in order to be kind, we are gambling with our future and the future of our children. But sometimes it is a gamble we are duty-bound to take.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemertitus@templehabonim.org.