Michael Ondaatje: A Complex Network of Affiliations
Dr. Md. Rakibul Islam, Assistant Professor of English, AMU, West Bengal
Michael Ondaatje, a Sri Lankan-born Canadian writer, is better known for his Booker Prize winning fiction The English Patient. Michael Ondaatje left his homeland for England at the age of eleven and later moved to Canada in 1962. Ondaatje has a complicated family lineage which raises questions about his ethnic as well as national belongingness because he is at home neither in Sri Lanka nor in Canada. Ondaatje is transformed by the influences of these others’ surroundings, language and culture which have brought a dramatic change in his personal as well as cultural life. Ondaatje, like present generation South Asian diaspora writers—V. S. Naipaul, Hanif Kureishi, Gita Mehta, Rohinton Mistry and Salman Rushdie, was also born into ‘eastern culture’ and as raised in ‘western ways’ challenging the normative colonial concepts of race and nation. He no longer fully fulfills the cultural stereotype of any fixed nation as his ancestors belong to Sinhalese, Tamil, Indian, Dutch, Portuguese, and British lineages. Here, “the dichotomy between self and other is hence not possible anymore in this case and clearly identifiable centre can no longer be located” (Lehmann 314), but Ondaatje always fights to get back his long lost family history and fixed identity through his narratives.
Key Words: Ondaatje, eastern ways, western ways, belongingness, nation, mixed cultural identity, ex-centric.
Philip Michael Ondaatje, a man of robin’s egg eyes and “the roguish mane of greying hair” (Illyes Kusnetz 2001), was born on 12 September, 1943 in Colombo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). Philip Michael Ondaatje, better known as Michael Ondaatje, left his homeland Sri Lanka for England with his mother in 1954. After long eight years in England, he finally immigrated to Canada in 1962, and became a Canadian citizen in 1965 like his elder brother Christopher Ondaatje who is well-known as a multi-millionaire philanthropist initially struggled a lot due to his financial crisis in Toronto city, Canada. First, Ondaatje got married to an artist named Kim Jones in 1964 having two children named Quinin and Griffin. Later his marriage came under strain in 1982, and then he married a television journalist and producer, Linda Spalding but he again got separated from her also. Ondaatje’s complicated family lineage as well as his “history of migration raises questions about [his] ethnic and national belonging because he is at home neither in Canada nor in Sri Lanka” (Saul 43).
Michael Ondaatje, a Sri Lankan-born Canadian writer, is better known for his Booker Prize winning fiction The English Patient. Ondaatje has read a lot about W. B. Yeats and William Carlos Williams, while Gabrial Garcia Marquez was “a little delight, more of recognition” (Kate 1992) for him. The influences of these versatile writers have brought diversity in his thoughts and feelings which are revealed through his writings. His poetry named Tin Roof (1982) and Secular Love (1984) deal with the themes of love and pain, separation and loss, and this was time while Ondaatje was “wrestling ... with [the] sense of where he belonged was becoming more and more urgent” (Jewinski 112). Ondaatje’s ‘filiation’ and ‘affiliation’, two distinct types of ‘belongingness’ given by Edward Said in his book The World, the Text, and the Critic, are strenuous to explain in context of understanding his ethnic and national belongingness. Here, ‘Filiation’ means “direct genealogical descent” (Said 18) while ‘affiliation’ stands for “social and political conviction, economic and historical circumstances, voluntary effort and willed deliberation” (Said 25).
Ondaatje, like other present generation South Asia diaspora writers—V. S. Naipaul, Hanif Kureishi, Gita Mehta, Rohinton Mistry and Salman Rushdie, was “born into the eastern culture and as raised in western ways, bringing with [him] a hybridity and a crisis in identity and survival. [He] fight[s] for acceptance in [his] own homeland as [a] diaspora/expatriate [...] who live[s] outside [his] native domain” (Das 1271). “The hybridity of experience and expression of the diaspora writers [like Ondaatje] makes [him] outsider [...] to the reality of Sri Lankans residing inside the country” (Das 1578). ‘Hybridity’, a significant theme in the field of postcolonial literature, is a central preoccupation in Ondaatje’s works. Home K. Bhabha, one of the most important theorists in contemporary post-colonial studies, has defined such cultural hybridity as a process of mixedness of different cultural fragments subverting the notion of pure cultural identity. “....[A] postcolonial by birth and nationalization, a male from privileged Sri Lankan Burgher background, a migrant, a Toronto writer working in the academy, Ondaatje has a complex network of affiliations” (Saul 43).
Ondaatje who mainly remains a figure of double perspective— a colonizer (partially European) and a colonized (partially Asian) has spent his eleven years of childhood in Sri Lanka and eight years of childhood in England, and then moved to Canada to spend his rest-life as a Canadian citizen, but he neither feels much of England nor of Canada or Sri Lanka in him: “I do feel I have been allowed the migrant’s double perspective” (Bolland 10). Ondaatje, closely associated with the pattern of transformation, is transformed by the influences of others’ surroundings, language and culture, which have brought a dramatic change in his personal as well as cultural life. Ondaatje “was born in Ceylon and lived there for part of his childhood, it is the West that shaped his view of his past life now as an adult. Therefore, he looks back at Ceylon from a double perspective, which is mostly western” (Carvalho 15).
Ondaatje writes from a double perspective: he may act as a colonial subject to create a fictional image of his country as if he were a foreigner, visiting and discovering the island’s beauty and miseries, or as a victim of colonization who uses writing to try to articulate his identity and to reclaim a past he misses. (Carvalho 37)
According to Ajay Heble, “[w]e own the country we grow up in, or we are aliens and invaders’… [Ondaatje] grew up in the country, and nevertheless is also a stranger in it upon his return and consequently a colonizer” (Lehmann 314). Due to such ‘in-betweenness’, Ondaatje has always suffered for the mark of fixed family origin and identity:
The double vision present in the migrant writer’s way of seeing his own story and that of his country results in stories told from a double perspective — both as outsider and as insider — and marked by their fragmentary and incomplete character, as they rely on pieces of stories and scraps of memories. (Carvalho 9)
Ondaatje himself accepted such issue of ‘in-betweeness’ or ‘hybridity’ in his ‘magnum opus’ The English Patient: “born in one place and choosing to live elsewhere. Fighting to get back or to get away from our homelands all our lives” (Ondaatje 176). If we go through the bloodline of Ondaatje’s family lineage, we can easily see that his family has more than one blood line. Ondaatje who inherits multi-racial, ethnic and socio-cultural hybridity belongs to Sri Lankan Burgher community having Portuguese, Dutch, English, and Sinhalese and Tamil family lineages. His name itself is a combination of two different ethnic words: ‘Michael’, a Hebrew word and ‘Ondaatje’, a Dutch word, but it is better to say that Ondaatje’s blood belongs to ‘unfixed Eurasian group’. In a broad sense, he is “...vaguely related [...to] Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burgher blood [...] going back many generations” (Ondaatje 31). So, his ancestors’ blood line as well as mixed cultural influence, he accepts or rejects, does not permit him to eliminate his multiple perspectives.
According to the Oxford Advanced Learner Dictionary (7th edition) the word ‘burgher’ stands for “a citizen of a particular town” (199) having ‘brown skin’ or ‘light skin’. The Burghers are a Eurasian ethnic group in the island of Sri Lanka having the descents of European origins. Before the advent of British Empire in 1796, the land was basically controlled by two major ethnic groups like Portuguese and Dutch. With the advent of British colonialism, they quickly abandoned their own language, culture and food habits in fovour of English life style, language and culture in their daily lives. In the 18th century, the intermarriage between Dutch and Sinhalese, Sinhalese and Portuguese, Portuguese and Dutch reached in its peak position. ‘Portuguese Burgher’, a Eurasian ethnic group in Sri Lanka, is the people of mixed Portuguese and Sri Lankan descent while the ‘Dutch Burgher’, another mixed ethnic group in Sri Lanka, has either a paternal descent of Dutch blood and a maternal descent of Sri Lankan blood or has a Sri Lankan mother of Dutch descent and a paternal descent of Sri Lankan blood. After the end of British regime in 1948, the fortune of the Burghers started changing with the conversion of Sri Lanka from dependent to an independent country. Later, the Burghers started immigrating to different countries like England, Canada, and Australia etc. with the declaration of Sinhalese as an official language of Sri Lanka in 1961 as Ondaatje moved to England 1954. So, the Burghers who played important role during the colonial periods now have become very few in numbers having approximately 1% of total Sri Lankan population. In short, Ondaatje has a complex family lineage which comes out from the study of these complex ethnic groups.
Michael Ondaatje’s identity, according to a non-essentialist view, is constructed as a continuous process. Ondaatje who really envies his family root is juxtaposed as a Sri Lankan as well as a foreigner or he is a man of no-where else. Ondaatje cannot find any specific liaison to any ethnic group which is dubious and blurred; rather he is a product of complex ethnic affiliations. His complex shifting identity challenges the normative colonial concepts of race and nation as he has no longer fully fulfilled the cultural stereotype of any fixed nation. Ajay Heble assumes Ondaatje as an ‘ex-centric’ figure having no ‘fixed’ origin. Ondaatje, an ‘ex-centric’ in several ways, cannot return to a fixed sense of belongingness because his past was never stable to begin with rather subject to different influences and affluences. Most of the time he has contradicted his own identity: “I am the foreigner. I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner” (Ondaatje 78).
Ondaatje who can hardly remember his past family members of Sri Lanka can only remember the death of his maternal grandmother, a Dutch Burgher woman, died of a natural cause — flood. In Running in the Family, his search for ancestors and its stories would bring back his own long lost and forgotten identity. His first ancestor probably a doctor, arrived in 1600 century around, “cured the residing governor’s daughter with strange herb and was rewarded with land, a foreign wife, and a new name which was a Dutch spelling of his own. Ondaatje” (Ondaatje 60). After the death of his Dutch wife, the first ancestor married “a Sinhalese woman, having nine children, and remaining” (Ondaatje 60). With the passage of time his family ancestors got married into different racial and ethnic communities as a result his ancestry became more and more complicated. This finds his connection to the family chain which he had left behind without being conscious of the loss. He is in a way, joining himself to the lost ancestors of the past generations. He has good visionary and sensory perceptions as he sees his “own straining body which stands shaped like a star and realize gradually [that he is a] part of a human pyramid. Below me are other bodies that I am standing on and above me are several more, though I am quite near top” (Ondaatje 13).
In his novel Running in the Family, Ondaatje further comes to know that Natalia Asarrapa was the first wife of Philip Jurgen Ondaatje, grandparent of Ondaatje, “before he [married] Jacoba de Melho. Probably another branch of the family” (Ondaatje 62). Ondaatje discovers another family lineage from a local church about Reverend Jurgen Ondaatje who was “a translator and eventual chaplain in Colombo from 1835 until 1847” (Ondaatje 63). After Jurgen Ondaatje’s death, his son Simon took his place as a last Tamil Colonial Chaplain of Ceylon, while Dr. William Charles Ondaatje was a Ceylonese Director of the Botanical Gardens. During his journey back to Sri Lanka, Ondaatje spends his valuable time with his sister and Aunt Phyllis who help Ondaatje a lot to pluck different unknown stories about his lost family history.
Mervyn Ondaatje, father of Michael Ondaatje, died of excessive alcoholism had “continued with his technique of trying to solve one problem by creating another” (Ondaatje 19). First, Ondaatje’s father Mervyn Ondaatje, a Tamil, got engaged to a Russian woman but broke up the bond and got engaged to another foreign woman named Kaye Roseleap, close friend of his sister Stephy, belonged to a different ethnic group. Mervyn Ondaatje again followed the same footstep as he rejected Kaye Roseleap also. The incident stilled most of his family members who became fury against him. Finally, he got married to another woman named Doris Gratiaen, mother of Michal Ondaatje and sister of his best friend Noel Gratiaen. The inter-ethnic marriage ceremony was arranged in Hindu style as “two marriage chairs decorated in a Hindu style” (Ondaatje 124). However, such multi-ethnic harmony, instead of tension, is also followed by Lalla’s sister Dickie who got married to many men of different ethnic backgrounds. After the death of her first husband David Grenier, Dickie got married to De Vos, then Wombeck and finally to an Englishman. Lalla also decided that Vera, Ondaatje’s relative, should marry a priest’s daughter having Catholic background.
“The formal and generic complexities of [his] text[s] are responses to these challenges” (Saul 43). Buddy Bolden from Coming through Slaughter, Kip and Almasy from The English Patient, and Anil from Anil’s Ghost stand for Ondaatje himself as their way of depictions and characterizations find some kind of similarity to Ondaatje’s complex network of affiliations. In In the Skin of a Lion, Patrick Lewis feels isolated and displaced despite being a part of dominant race like Ondaatje who finds himself as a foreigner. On the other hand, the main quest of English patient’s identity remains unexposed as a spy because his identity never becomes conclusive like Ondaatje’s identity till the end of The English Patient. In the novel, all the inhabitants of the Villa de Girolamo remain as displaced figures who started shedding off their skins of earlier selves in search of new identity in the African desert as well as in the Villa. In the novel The English Patient, the English patient’s “burned beyond recognition” symbolically derecognized his own national identity like Ondaatje’s slippery identity. Ondaatje who cannot be confined under any fixed boundary becomes a ‘floating signifier’ or an ‘ex-centric’ figure. Ondaatje, an ambivalent character like Almasy, “ha[d] become a signifier without signified” (Zepetnek 42). Ondaatje’s fixed national identity is permanently erased under the effect of different cultural affects like the English patient’s burned body which became a site of resistance. Ondaatje, through the character like Almasy, wanted to reveal his own decentric identity as he remains a “nameless, without rank or battalion or squadron” (Ondaatje 102-103). “The character of [Ondaatje] occupies a ‘dis-located’ position, in terms of [his] name, [his] nationality and [his] family” (Cook 3). In Running in the Family and Anil’s Ghost, Ondaatje has accepted such complex affiliations to different ethnic origins: “I was part Sinhalese, part Tamil, and this other mixture” (Kate 1992). Ondaatje is “... a mongrel of place. Of race. Of cultures. Of many genres.” (McCrum “Michael Ondaatje: The divided man”). “A dichotomy between self and other is hence not possible anymore in this case and clearly identifiable centre can no longer be located. Ondaatje’s self-understanding is troubled by this because he does not know to which of these and how can he connect to them” (Lehmann 314).
At the end, we can say that it’s hardly possible to draw Ondaatje’s fixed genealogical as well as cultural identity but it is clear that he has mixed family lineage as well as mixed cultural identity. Therefore, Ondaatje as an ‘ex-centric’ figure has always tried to get back his long lost family history and fixed identity through his narratives.
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