One day in June, the Toronto Globe and Mail carried a news photograph showing a man, naked to the waist, surrounded by police officers. The man´s hands are handcuffed behind him. A police officer is pulling at the man´s pocket with both his hands, and on the other side another policeman, of lower-rank with a submachine gun hanging from his shoulder, has his left hand inside the prisoner´s other pocket. The caption reads: “Police search a man shortly after a suicide bomber killed 21 people in Sri Lanka yesterday, including a cabinet minister, during a function to raise funds for families of slain soldiers. The assassination shattered the country´s first War Heroes Day.”
When you look back at the photograph, you notice how the Tamil man´s mouth is open. When you look into the eyes of the police officers around him, you perhaps get a sense of the silence of that open mouth and its dryness. Will they take him to a prison and break his jaw so that afterwards he can´t even ask for water?
The photographer, in making the suspect the centre of attention, has not been able to hide his diminutive size. His skin is dark. The slim torso is arched because he is being pulled from two different directions. Inches above the man´s left nipple, is the circular, metal mouth of the police officer´s gun. He, the prisoner, could not be more than 20 or 22.
When you look at the photograph, if you have already read Ondaarje´s book, you might be reminded of the line about how “the victims of ´intentional violence´ had started appearing in May 1984”. “They were nearly all male, in their twenties, damaged by mines, grenades, mortal shells.” When you look at this photograph, of course you need not have read Ondaarje´s novel to be reminded of another fact. That someone turned himself into a human bomb. The half-naked prisoner´s life—rather, what I immediately think of as his impending death—makes me also wonder about all the other deaths.
This is how Ondaatje imagines the possibility of all those deaths in Anil´s Ghost:
R— wore denim shorts and a loose shirt. Underneath these was a layer of explosives and two Duracell batteries and two blue switches. One for the left hand, one for the right, linked by wires to the explosives. The first switch armed the bomb. It would stay on as long as the bomber wished. When the other switch was turned on, the bomb detonated. Both needed to be activated for the explosion to occur. You could wait as long as you limited before turning on the second switch. Or you could turn the first switch off. R— had more clothing on above the denim shorts. Four Velcro straps held the explosives pack to his body, and along with the dynamite there was the great weight of thousands of small ball bearings. And, a little later: At four p.m. on National Heroes Day, more than fifty people were killed instantly, including the President. The cutting action of the explo¬sion shredded Katugala into pieces. The central question after the bombing concerned whether the President had been spirited away, and if so whether by the police and army forces or by terrorists. Because the President could not be found.
The devastation here is direct and graphic. Yet, what Ondaatje documents more effectively, more cen¬trally in the novel, is the effect of the less public killings. Although that context is inevitably also broad and social, his novel is more of a record of the result of individual killings on individual psyches.
There are several individuals that Ondaatje brings into his canvas. Apart from Anil, who has returned to Sri Lanka as a human rights investigator, there is her archaeologist colleague Sarath, his doctor-brother Gamini, and an alcoholic miner, Ananda, who can recreate a human face from looking at and touching the bare bones of exhumed skulls. Ananda is the closest that Ondaatje comes to recycling his earlier character Kip, the Indian sapper from The English Patient, representing the tragedy and triumph of pure craft. It is precisely their ordinary mastery of a skill and their patience at it, that marks the horizon of thoughtfulness and even humanity for Ondaatje.
Ananda is the one who Anil and Sarath recruit to find out the identity of the man whose skeleton they have uncovered. The face that Ananda recovers for them, however, is peaceful. Too peaceful. This is not the portrait of the murdered man. It becomes clear that Ananda is only trying to imagine the face of his wife who was abducted by insurgents and was never heard from again. And hence, the serenity of expression on the reproduction. And yet, despite this failure or perhaps because of it, Ondaatje finds in Ananda´s art the model for existence or at least survival:
As an artificer now he did not celbrate the greatness of a faith. But he knew if he did not remain an artificer he would become a demon. The war around him was to do with demons, spectres of retaliation.
There is another arresting passage in Anil´s Ghost:
´American movies, English books— remember how they all end?´ Gamini asked that night. ´The American or the Englishman gets on a plane and leave?. That´s it. The camera leaves with him. He looks out of the window at Mombasa or Vietnam or Jakarta, someplace now lie can look at through the clouds. The tired hero. A couple of words to the girl beside him. He´s going home. So the war, to all purposes, is over. That´s enough reality for the West. It´s probably the history of the last two hundred years of Western political writing. Co home. Write a book. Hit the circuit. ´ As ´desi´ writers based in the West, we write books about home, wherever home might be in Southasia. Whenever we do this, we, too, have our return tickets in our pocket. Some will argue that this guilt so weighs on Ondaatje that when he recreates the horror of civil war in Sri Lanka, he doesn´t want to find himself capable of explaining the reasons for the brutality.
I am unable to decide whether Ondaatje wants to set himself apart from the older forms of Western cultural production or whether he recognises his own complicity and thenceforth the limits of his art. What 1 am clearer about is the knowledge of what follows from those two choices. We can never be just one or the other, we arc always both—always setting ourselves at a distance and also, at the same time, remaining unceasingly caught in the trap of the dominant paradigm.