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Sreeram Chaulia wrote this review of Anil's Ghost on Feb2,2001
    Sreeram Chaulia's ratings
    Book rating: 4 / 5 ~
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    "The Reason for War was War"

    With the likes of Shashi Tharoor having already reviewed it, I would not have hazarded proffering my own impressions of Michael Ondaatjes recent novel (April 2000), had it not been for its compelling nature and contents.

    This was probably the only work I was forced to read twice over and might read again. Such is its spellbinding quality and classic message, traits that seem to have vanished in the post-modernistic novel and its cold non-judgementalism. If one has scoured The English Patient (most have at least seen the mega successful film version) and not failed to notice the moral fabric of Ondaatje, Anils Ghost conforms with humanitarian pathos, historicity and drama.


    First of all, the novel is politically correct in the timing of its publication. Sri Lanka has caught world attention in the past few months as ethnic war reaches yet another flashpoint in its diabolical eighteenth year of continuance. The most conservative estimate assesses loss of human lie at 80,000 since 1983. Add to it widespread destruction of property, honours and economies, topped by an ever-enveloping ambience of fear, and we have the archetypal setting for what Oxford historian Niall Ferguson calls the pity of war. The English Patient echoed purposelessness of slaughter during World War II and held out an epistle of enduring human love. This time, Ondaatje has chosen to chronicle a living war, one ringing in our drawing room TV News world.

    Characters & Plot

    Anil Tissera steps from distant Canada into the maelstrom of mid-1980s Sri Lanka, when a debilitating tripartite war raged among government forces, Tamil separatists in the North-East and the Janata Vimukti Perumana (JVP) in the South. Besides her self-anointed male first name and happy memories of an athletic childhood in Colombo, virtually nothing is now common between her ethos and the country of her origin. She prizes, as a forensic anthropologist, the quest after objective truth, in this case the unmasking of culprits responsible for organised murder and genocide. The Truth shall set you free, she believes.

    But here is the Emerald Isle afraid of exhuming skeletons locked in hermetically sealed cupboards for fear of domino effect reprisals. In Foucaultian terms, she finds that Sri Lankans had mastered the art of how one hid or wrote the truth and when it was necessary to lie. Anil thus embarks on a Pyrrhic hunt for darker proof.

    The plot thickens as a contemporary skeleton acts as the bait, only to collapse in an anti-climactic confiscation of Anils damnatory evidence by government cover-up agents. Harsh reality smothers an independent spirit and packs Anil back to her home away from this non-home, the West.

    The silver lining Ondaatje delivers is through a bridge between the countrys connivance with silence and Anils integrity- Sarath Disanayake, archaeologist partner of Anil in the Human Rights investigation. Operating as the voice of reason as a pragmatic son of the soil, seasoned to the dangers lurking in every corner, yet living the philosophy of his profession, i.e. objectivity, Sarath represents a contradiction that proves too costly in the end.

    We have him calmly sermonising, most of the time in our world, truth is just an opinion, especially in a war without heroes and paragons. The truth about government atrocities is not holistic to Sarath, for What you (Anil) are proposing could result in chaos. Why do you not investigate the killings of government officers?. The authors message is limpid: every side had victims and mass killers. Where is the account to be balanced? One was no worse and no better than the enemy.

    If the LTTE was setting off bombs and massacring innocent civilians in the north, anti-terrorist squads were conducting vindictive operations against innocent Tamils in the south. When nine-year old twins deliberately shot in the palms and right legs are on the operating table, you thought, what did they do to deserve thisbe they Tamil or Sinhala.

    The twist of greatness in Saraths character emerges when, after all the mockery of NGO and Human Rights rhetoric, he contrives to inveigle the evidence of the contemporary skeleton through the tangle of bureaucratic and Army suspicions for Anil to publicise the findings. The earlier defence of government, it transpires, was less the fulmination of a Sinhala and defence of his countrys unity and integrity, and more a feint to somehow save the all-too-knowledgeable Anil from disappearance like thousands of others.

    For treason, Sarath pays with his life, buried into the dust he loved to dig and conjoined with the Ghosts that have never been rehabilitated. Saraths demise is made memorable by a parting note to Anil predicting his own imminent death (Someone will drive you to the airport. I would like it to be me but it will probably be Gunasena). Thus, although overtly disagreeing with the Subalternity of Anil (the skeleton as representative of all those lost voices), he succumbs to the idealism about justice that is eerily lacking in his exterior demeanour.


    Much more can be dwelt on Ondaatjes cadent characterisation, but these are not the novels only strengths. Endowed with a fine sense of history a la an Amitav Ghosh, he skilfully slips in parallels between ancient and medieval happenings and the current turmoil in Sri Lanka. A live burial of twenty musicians alongside a Chinese Emperor in the 5th century B.C is compared to the way terrorists in our time can be made to believe they are eternal if they die for the cause of their ruler.

    Elsewhere, LTTE practices of conscripting one child from every Tamil family in the North East is derided: Who sent a thirteen year old to fight, and for what furious cause? For an old leader? For some pole flag?. At the other end of the spectrum is a Jayawardena-modelled President politician, who could never give up a political rally or his Buddhist chauvinist vote-bank. A chilling human bomb episode obliterates him!

    Ondaatje also aims pot shots at superficial and self-serving Western concern for Human Rights violations that forsakes the actual theatre when the going gets tough. "Its probably the history of the last two hundred years of Western political writing. Go home, Write a book. Hit the circuit." A near perfect repartee, I felt, to Macaulay (One taste of Western wisdom surpasses all the books of the East). Anil does go back home, but there is a beautiful frustrated compulsion tied into her decision to depart, not a paucity of intention or genuineness. In retrospect, there's hardly a thought in the book that is not morally courageous and exemplary. To posit moral force and sacrifice in a bottomless black tragedy like Sri Lanka is a congratulatory achievement.


    Anils Ghost has a haunting quality and humanitarian message revolving around the futility of war, a missive eclectic enough to be applicable, mutatis mutandis, to Afghanistan, Congo, Sierra Leone, Chechnya or Kashmir, to name some smouldering examples. For the inhabitants of these god-forsaken regions, war is the truth of their times, the bitterest of truths. Readers desiring a glimpse into the crosscurrent of opinions, emotions and wills natural to a civil war must read this lyrically woven ode.