It's easy to forget the circumstances surrounding the Patel family's departure from Pondicherry, India. Once we're on the ocean with Pi and Richard Parker, the rest of the novel seems like backstory. And it is. But it's very important backstory. The Pondicherry zoo, religious diversity in India, and Indira Gandhi's abuses of power all inform the rest of the novel.
India in mid-1970s was a tumultuous place. Following corruption charges and criticism from opposition parties, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency. Curfews, censorship, the whole nine yards. The protests against Gandhi were disrupting everyday life in India. Gandhi's authoritarian measures were a little like saying to the opposing baseball (or cricket) team, "Eh, you have to go home. I'm a little nervous you might win." In the novel, Gandhi's measures invade Pi's home state of Tamil Nadu (where Pondicherry is located). Gandhi severely disappoints Pi's father, who had hoped for a tolerant, new India: "The camel at the zoo was unfazed, but that straw broke Father's back" (1.29.4). After Gandhi overthrows the Tamil Nadu government, the family decides to move to Canada.
We get to know the lifeboat pretty well. The solar stills, benches, the tarpaulin, the sea anchor, the locker, the gaffs, and Pi's raft made of oars and life jackets. It might seem like a bad move to limit the novel to such a confined space. (You're going to spend 150 pages on a lifeboat with one character?) Even though Pi suffers terribly on the lifeboat, he does come to terms with his suffering. The confinement actually seems to do him some spiritual good. We at Shmoop are reminded of an earlier musing of Pi's two favorite topics: religion and animals. At one point Pi says,
I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both. (1.4.14)
The setting narrows further and further. Life of Pi began in the wide-open spaces of childhood – in Pi's heady exploration of science and religion. We hear more and more about Indira Gandhi and the worsening of the political situation in India. India seems totalitarian, confining. The family leaves. Finally, after the shipwreck, Pi ends up in a lifeboat with a man-killing beast. You can't get any more claustrophobic than that. But Pi also dedicates himself to religious rituals on the boat. He cares for a creature who'd like nothing more than to eat him. He has a few spiritual insights and experiences wonder. Everything Pi learned as a boy about zoos and religion comes together in the practice of survival. And the relationship most would consider dangerous, possibly bloody, turns out to be one of true friendship. You might be able to say Pi experiences something like freedom on a twenty-six foot long boat.
Martel doesn't spend much time describing Mexico or Canada. The two Japanese investigators interview Pi during his convalescence in Mexico; and the conversations between the author and an older Pi Patel take place in Toronto. These settings serve more as points of departure. Memory and storytelling, which are also vehicles of freedom, take care of the rest.