Travelling through the land and pages of Sri Lanka: Michael Ondaatje’s ‘Anil’s Ghost’
There is without any doubt great truth in a sentence, which is very dear to me, from William Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Gentleman in The Parlour’
‘I am often tired of myself and I have a notion that by travel I can add to my personality and so change myself a little. I do not bring back from a journey quite the same self that I took.’
Maugham’s ‘The Gentleman in The Parlour’ is a brilliant non-fictional account of the author’s travels in Indochina, from Rangoon to Haiphong in the 1920s.
Maugham’s words took me back to my very first trip to Asia and to my amazement for the discovery of a land that – to my eyes – appeared as exotic as it could only be in my dreams: Sri Lanka. I still believe that my fascination for this place was also due to the fact that I had never experienced Asia before. But even now, after years of extensive exploration of this part of the world that ultimately became my home, Sri Lanka still holds a special place in my heart. This journey did change myself a little indeed.
The very first impressions of the island, still so lush and untamed thirty years ago, unveiled a palette made of the green tea plantation of the central region, the tea-pickers’ red turbans and yellow tops against the bluest sky. But many more unforgettable sights were awaiting me: the fifth century B.C. frescoes at Sigiriya, depicting celestial apsaras; the ancient city of Polonnaruwa with its stone carvings; the Dambulla cave temple with its majestic Buddha statues and Galle Fort, built by the Portuguese and fortified by the Dutch. In the city of Kandy, I visited the temple of the Sacred Buddha’s Tooth, right when a religious ceremony was taking place, and the Royal Botanical Garden, an extensive park with more than 4,000 species of plants.
Not all my memories of the country are still as vivid though: I have no digital pictures to reawaken my lost reminiscences and the photographs I took during the trip are cluttered in some drawers of my Italian home.
But there is something I still remember very well: the incessant rain on the second week of my journey, when I was supposed to spend part of my time relaxing at the beach, in Bentota. The stubborn cloudy sky would not give me any respite from the rain but I refused to let the weather control my day. I took my beach towel and sat under the thatched umbrella and immersed myself in reading and occasionally in the rough ocean, where I swam under a ticklish drizzle. The wet sand was dark and solid, and some creeper plants were travelling from the nearby forest to the middle of the beach. An elephant made its regular appearance wagging its tail, guided by a mahout, a young man with the same broad smile typical of all the Sri Lankans I had the chance to acquaint during my trip (including a boy who became my pen-friend). I felt like being part of the same dream that accompanied my nights before I left home to reach the island.
Unfortunately, dreams do not last and sometimes we wake up to harsh reality. Not long after my trip, Sri Lanka was at war, a bloody civil conflict that lasted more than 25 years. The Temple of the Sacred Buddha’s Tooth I had stepped in years before was bombed in 1998 by the Tamil separatist. Thankfully, it was then fully restored.
I read Michael Ondaatje ‘Anil’s Ghost’ only recently and I could not find much of the Sri Lanka I had preserved in my mind for over 30 years. This reading was totally another journey.
Michael Ondaatje is known for the Booker Prize-winning novel ‘The English Patient’, which follows four characters brought together at an Italian villa during the Italian North African Campaign of World War II. This book was successfully adapted into a film.
Ondaatje, born in Colombo of Burgher ancestry, does not see this ‘teardrop of India’ as an idyllic place even in his other work ‘Running in The Family’, written in a style that mixes memoir account with prose and poetry. In this work, the return to his native island is an occasion for the author to explore different topics through a recollection of fictionalized memories – in particular related to some eccentric family members – and to fulfil the wish to rediscover his father, a dipsomaniac.
In ‘Anil’s Ghost’, Ondaatje explores completely different themes. Anil Tessera, the main protagonist of the novel, is raised in Sri Lanka but educated in England and USA and works as a forensic anthropologist on different projects around the world. In her first visit to her country in many years, she will have to investigate violations by the Sri Lankan Government against its citizens, during the civil war. Anil works on this task with Sarath, an archaeologist employed by the Government whom she will never completely trust because of his connection with the authorities. Together, they discover different grave sites and focus their work, in particular, on a skeleton that they name ‘Sailor’. Anil’s main task during the development of the novel is to determine the identity of the skeleton and to present it to the Government officials as a crushing evidence of the brutal violence that stands to witness the involvement of the Government in the war. But Anil’s plans go awry.
Ondaatje explores a war that is not only a conflict between Sinhalese and Tamil, as its brutality affects everyone and becomes a ghost hanging over people’s conscience, the scariest ghost in Anil’s life. The author deals with themes like war, identity and religion through symbolic references that make of this work an outstanding novel. War acquires universal meaning: in Sri Lanka, like in any other conflict area, it is a tragedy whose real motivations cannot be deciphered. Everyone becomes guilty, the perpetrators and the powerless witnesses. Identity is Anil’s main struggle: she is not only torn between the East and the West, but still tries to find her own self after deciding, as a teenager, to bear her brother’s name and refuse her own. Finally, not even faith can save the world, but Buddha acknowledges the conflict and stoutly stands as a guidance to man. Ananda, a skilled craftsman, reconstructs the eyes of a Buddha’s damaged statue, in a highly symbolic passage of the book.
This novel does not develop in a linear way and occasionally I felt puzzled, due to the sudden change of time and settings and the appearance of seemingly unrelated stories, flashbacks, allusions and religious references. But all clues ultimately lead to a clearer progression of the story that shows the precise logic behind Ondaatje’s narration.
Ondaatje is also a poet, and this is quite visible in some of his very lyrical descriptions.
In this extract from the closing passage, my favourite one, the craftsman Ananda – after the completion of his work on the Buddha’s statue – oversees the pain and the sorrow that each man carries within himself. The war is still ravaging the country, but hope should never be abandoned.
‘And now with human sight he was seeing all the fibres of natural history around him. He could witness the smallest approach of a bird, every flick of its wings, or a hundred mile storm coming down off the mountain near Gonagola and skirting the plains. He could feel each current of wind, every lattice-like green shadow created by cloud. There was a girl moving in the forest. The rain miles away rolling like blue dust towards him. Grasses being burned, bamboo, the smell of petrol and grenade. The crack of noise as a layer of rock on his arm exfoliated in heat. The face open-eyed in the great rainstorms of May and June. The weather formed in the temperate forests and sea, in the thorn scrub behind him in the southeast, in the deciduous hills, and moving towards the burning savanna near Badulla, and then the coast of mangroves, lagoons and river deltas. The great churning of weather above the earth…He felt the boy’s concerned hand on his. This sweet touch from the world.’
Reality and symbolism find in ‘Anil’s Ghost’ their highest expression and took me on a second, very different and ultimate journey through beautiful and multifaceted Sri Lanka. I can only agree with Maugham: travelling across this island, and Ondaatje’s pages, allowed me to bring back quite a different self.