What is the significance of swimming in Life of Pi?

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In the novel The Life of Pi, Pi is very close to his uncle, Mamaji, who is in reality just a close family friend but acts as an uncle and teacher to Pi. Mamaji is a champion swimmer and has swam in pools all over the world. In particular, he loves a particular French pool called the Piscine Molitar, from which Pi gets his name. Pi goes to the local pool with Mamaji frequently and learns how to swim. In doing so, he becomes a fairly skilled and strong swimmer, which will be very helpful to him later on.

When the ship he is on is wrecked and sinks, swimming saves Pi’s life. He makes it successfully to the life raft because of his strong swimming ability and is able to start figuring out how to survive the catastrophe. Living at sea, he has to swim many times to save his life and find food, so swimming quickly becomes a vital part of his existence.

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Since Pi’s name in the story is derived from a famous swimming pool in which his champion swimmer uncle practiced, it makes sense that swimming is vital to the story. Much of the early exposition in the tale revolves around Pi learning to swim from his uncle and spending vast amounts of time in the pool. He learns and becomes a very capable swimmer thanks to his uncle’s tutelage, which will eventually be vital to his survival.

Obviously, Pi is later shipwrecked with little hope of rescue and only a small life raft on which to survive. There are several times when he has to swim or tread water in order to survive his ordeal, including initially reaching the life raft. His strong swimming skills are extremely beneficial here and help him to survive the harrowing events until he finally reaches land.

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In Yann Martel's novel The Life of Pi, swimming is important to the title character because of his uncle. He wasn't his biological uncle, but a good friend of the family's. Pi grew up calling him "Mamaji," which is a combination of the word for uncle and the suffix "ji" which indicates respect and affection. 

Mamaji, whose actual name is Francis Adirubasamy, was a champion swimmer. The reason Pi was named Piscine, which is French for swimming pool, is because of Mamaji's passion for swimming.

As a child, Pi went with Mamaji to the pool three times a week. Pi was his willing apprentice as Mamaji taught him all he knew about swimming. Pi's father loved to hear Mamaji's stories, which always had to do with swimming. For Pi's father, it was a lovely escape from his everyday life. Here is the quote from the book that explains how Pi was named: 

But no swimming pool in Mamaji's eyes matched the glory of the Piscine Molitor. It was the crowning aquatic glory of Paris, indeed, the entire civilized world. "It was a pool the gods would have delighted to swim in. Molitor had the best competitive swimming club in Paris. . . .The showers gushed hot, soothing water. There was a steam room and an exercise room. The outside pool became a skating rink in winter. There was a bar, a cafeteria, a large sunning deck, even two small beaches with real sand. Every bit of tile, brass and wood gleamed. It was—it was. . ." It was the only pool that made Mamaji fall silent. That is how I got my name when I entered this world, a last, unwelcome addition to my family, three years after Ravi: Piscine Molitor Patel." 

The significance of swimming in this novel is not just about how Pi was named, but also sets the stage for how he was able to survive such a shipwreck. His swimming skills were strong, and he had been taught by the greatest swimmer in all of South India for his entire childhood.

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