Michael Ondaatje is an author who has intimidated me for a long time, after trying to read ‘The English Patient’ years ago. Somehow, brooding and dark is what I have always thought about him. The feeling has been reiterated after reading his ‘Anil’s Ghost’
Anil Tissare, a forensic pathologist of Sri Lankan origin comes back to her homeland after fifteen years, as a delegate of UN Human Rights commission. Sarath Diyasena, an archeaologist is assigned to help in her investigations of mass murders by the Sri Lankan government. They discover four skeletons in a government protected sanctuary and realize that one of them is just about four to five years old. The story is their search to reconstruct the person that he was. In the process, Anil and Sarath wanders in and out through their past, trying to slay the personal ghosts that haunt them.
The details of a civil strife that shatttered a once peaceful country that the author provides is truly incredible. The atrocities of man against man is described as almost an aside and you realize that would have been the reality for those that were involved in it day in and out. It made me think of how little I knew or actually was interested in knowing about things that happened in a place so near, yet so far. There would not be a single soul in that country whose life would be untouched by a war,
“where the main purpose of war had become war”
The angst of generations and the futility and sense of helplessness of it all is reflected in the words of Sarath’s brother Gamini, a doctor whose life is within the walls of a hospital, and who can find solace and sleep only on a hospital bed,
“This was a civilzed country. We had “halls for the sick” four centuries before Christ. There was a beautiful one in Mihintale….. There were dispensaries, maternity hospitals……..There were villages for the blind. There are recorded details of brain operations in the ancient texts. Ayurvedic hospitals were set up that still exist…..We were always good with illness and death. We could howl with the best. Now we carry the wounded with no anaethestic up the stairs because the elevators don’t work.”
Then there is Ananda, the ‘painter of eyes’ whose wife has disappeared ,and the eyes that he paint reflecting the peace and calm that his soul is searching for.Pailpana the eccentric and brilliant archeaologist, Linus Corea the rich doctor who ignores the war and then becomes an integral part of it, each character is so different , yet so similar to the other.
The story is as much about Anil’s ghost as it is about the ghosts that haunt a whole country, and those that people carry in their relationships – brothers, husbands and wives, lovers and friends. It also reminds us that sometimes it might be too late by the time we confront our own ghosts. Reading this is an up and down journey between calm, strife, desperation, hope and hopelessness.
Verdict – This one is not for you if you like sunny spaces and happy endings. Do read it if you love characters with all shades of colors and if you are one who can read between the lines and make a story of your own.