When the Tsimtsum--the Japanese freighter that was intended to transport the Patels' animals to their new zoo in North America--sinks in the horrific storm, Pi Patel must cope with more than the loss of his loved ones and worldly possessions.
Pi is suddenly tossed into a state of complete isolation from the human world. Thrust out into the clutches of nature, Pi loses his original sense of self, his connection to other human beings and to his home (both his past home in India and the one meant to be his future home in Canada), his casual understanding of God and religion, and his sense of uncertainty about the world.
However, Pi also gains a new sense of self, an understanding of adversity and the tools to overcome it, a spiritual connection to the interdependence of all life forms, a reverence for the natural world, and many important personal qualities (resilience, ingenuity, patience, etc.).
Quite simply, Pi also loses his way of life. Before the sinking of the Tsimtsum, Pi is struggling with typical coming-of-age ideas, especially religion. He is misunderstood by his family, but is handling life just fine. When his father decides to move the family business (the zoo) out of the area, this is when Pi's life changes. The Tsimtsum sinks, and Pi is forced to move from a life where he struggles with "normal" problems to the problem of survival.
Piscine Molitor Patel (who creates the nickname of "Pi" in order to prevent being called "pissing" and in order to exhibit his smarts) switches from the normal life of a young man into a teen fighting for survival on the ocean when the Tsimtsum sinks. Most of this survival (after the other animals are killed in different ways) involves his dealings with Richard Parker, the over four hundred pound Bengal tiger that is also adrift on the small dingy. Why does Pi befriend the tiger? Mostly to combat fear:
I must say a word about fear. It is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy.
One of the ways Pi defeats fear is by vowing to keep Richard Parker alive. The two create a bond between a thinking, living being and an animal that runs on instinct. It is when his small dingy lands that Pi loses something else: Richard Parker. And Pi loses him FOREVER. It is a heartbreaking scene, but one where Pi learns a lot:
Dare I say I miss him? I do. I miss him. I still see him in my dreams. They are nightmares mostly, but nightmares tinged with love. I still cannot understand how he could abandon me so unceremoniously, without any sort of goodbye, without looking back even once. That pain is like an axe that chops at my heart.
In conclusion, it's important to note that this is a coming-of-age story, or a bildungsroman, because Pi grows up in the process.
He lost many things, but some of the most important were not physical. He lost his sense of self, and his sense that the world was a safe and knowable place. He lost his context. He lost his easy religious affiliations. He lost physical comfort.
He eventually gained, though, some important things as well. He learned to care for himself, and he learned to apply lessons that had been abstract. He gained a much more profound religious sense…eventually, after being greatly tested.
In addition to things he has gained, I would say courage and perseverance. Getting through this trial, will make many things he encounters in the rest of his lifetime seem small and trivial in comparison.
Sometimes the hardest company to keep is our own. Even though he had Richard Parker, he needed to trust and accept himself in order to survive.