February 28, 2020
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A Prayer For The Dying

A country at war with itself regurgitates its skeletons - both actual and invisible

A Prayer For The Dying
Anil'S Ghost
By Michael Ondaatje
Picador India Rs 440, Pages: 307
Michael Ondaatje's new novel is not simply about the helpless tragedy of Sri Lanka. Instead, through a story about the civil war that rages under the gaze of ancient stone Bodhisattvas, Ondaatje draws a philosophical pattern. That a country might be a woman torn between two brothers. That an insurgency might be the revenge of a woman whose lover is married. Anil's Ghost rises out of deep reservoirs of power and wisdom. It shows how private woes can feed into a common violent fate. For, if lovers can think of killing each other because of lost desire, then what of those who are not even in love?

Here is the celebrated author of The English Patient as enormously learned and as elementally poetic as always. His prose is rich with "jackfruit" and "breadfruit", with "tombs submerged in water", he speaks of "water that fills an alphabet cut in stone" and "the black shift of the sea", of the philosopher's cerebral dominions decorated with the sacred forests and the fluffy rain of his once-peaceful land. Thank god the Sri Lankan novel is not the monster of affectation that the Indian novel has become. Ondaatje's tender pen is a healing salve to his native land.

Dr Anil Tissera (far too furious and intelligent to be burdened with womanhood, who chooses, instead, to be known by her brother's middle name) returns to her country after decades. She is a forensic scientist and part of an international human rights programme to investigate the increasing numbers of "missing persons". The government is fighting on two fronts: Tamil rebels in the north, Sinhala insurgents in the south: two bloodied brothers tearing at a burning land. Anil excavates skeletons in partnership with Sarath, a local archaeologist who will pay a heavy price for rescuing her, as she, the earnest "foreigner", becomes over-anxious to stand up for a futile 'truth' with all the virulence of the exiled. Sarath suffers, Anil escapes: but Ondaatje's treatment of her remains affectionate.

Sarath's brother Gamini, the alcoholic drug-addicted doctor who saves lives, sews on legs, punctures hearts and mends stomachs every day all the time, is Sarath's opposite number. Gamini is the neurotic shadow of Sarath's amiable easy dominance. A parallel here perhaps of the relationship between the Tamil and the Sinhala.

Anil's Ghost is a study of the lives of these two brothers, their relationship with their country, the war and Anil's return. It also tells of the passing of the old Sri Lanka, through the masterly portrayal of an ageing, blind archaeologist, brilliant in youth, but consigned in times of war to monk-like exile in a forest grove. And of the master sculptor Ananda (appropriately named after the Buddhist monk), drunken, bereaved and brutalised; yet the ultimate redeemer of the spirit of the island.

Ondaatje's formidable archaeological and scientific research allows him to map the human stamp upon the earth. On the rocks, leaves and rooms that will continue to contain the human spirit long after death. He unravels the invisible threads that link people to their emotional histories, long after death. And so, he suggests, the dead will not disappear. They will be raised into rain clouds or filtered into remembered love. Only truth disappears. Skeletons will force governments to tell a kind of 'truth' which will only beget more death.

Yet in Ondaatje's analysis, contemporary violence is juxtaposed with a primarily Buddhist antiquity, which goes against the Tamil demand for a more plural Sri Lanka, not simply a Sinhala and Buddhist one. Ondaatje himself never delineates a new plural identity for Sri Lanka, simply falls back, in the end, on the inherited peace of the Buddha.

But then, this is a fine novel, not a political blueprint. Anil's Ghost is as limpid as a rock pool, in which love's reflection need not be any less beautiful even though it is savage.

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