A Trick with a Glass: Michael Ondaatje's South Asian Connection

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Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,316 words

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[(essay date spring 1992) In the following essay, Kanaganayakam examines the representation of Sri Lankan culture in Running in the Family, discussing the personal and collective implications of the nation's colonial past for the returning expatriate.]

You tell me to pack up my bags and go But where? I turn my face towards Country after country Silently I lip read their refusal What do I call myself? Exile, émigré refugee Jean Arasanayagam "Exile II"

In an essay appropriately titled "Going Home," Zulfikar Ghose reflects on the experience of visiting Pakistan after twenty-eight years, of becoming aware not only of the transformations caused by successive governments but also of deep-seated ambiguities in the task of reclaiming one's past, of establishing a space within one's psyche that promises contentment through its unequivocal assertion of identity. He describes a visit to the Peshawar museum where the incomplete statue of the fasting Buddha compels his attention:

The missing parts of the statue appear to have a vital presence: the starved, absent organs--shrunk, withered, annihilated--throb bloodily in the imagination; that which is not there startles the mind with the certainty of its being; it is an image of amazing contradictions, and illustrates the ambiguity of all perception: reality can be composed of absent things, the unseen blazes in our minds with a shocking vividness.(Ghose 15)

For the exile, the expatriate, the referential surface is not without significance, but it remains a part of a larger perception that seeks continuities, detects dichotomies and connections, and forces the imagination to transform what is seen to reflect and accommodate what lies below the surface. If the experience of exile inevitably involves division, it also affords the perceptions of complex connections that question and subvert prevailing structures. As Aamer Hussein points out, "there is ... a tremendous inherent privilege in the term, a mobility of mind if not always of matter, to which we as writers should lay claim: a doubling instead of a split." (Hussein 102)

Michael Ondaatje, in Running in the Family, returns to a country he left twenty-five years ago, and his perception of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) is no less profound, no less complex, for it entails returning to a past characterized by the duality of being both "native" and "foreign," to a tenuous, middle-of-road position that served as a constant reminder to the British of the unfortunate effects of miscegenation; for the Sinhalese and the Tamils, the Burghers symbolized the residual vestiges of colonial domination, and therefore an extension of British, metropolitan culture. As Ondaatje puts it, "I am the foreigner. I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner" (79). The gap that separates the British finds expression early in Ondaatje's work:

Everyone was vaguely related and had Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burgher blood in them going back many generations. There was a large social gap between this circle and the Europeans and English who were never part of the Ceylonese community. The English were seen as transients, snobs and racists, and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100053088