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Dark Trade with the Earth

Review of Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje, Picador India 2000. Rs 195.

Anil Tissera (not her real name), a forensic pathologist, returns to her native Sri Lanka as part of a human rights agency to investigate reports of large-scale massacres on that benighted island. "The bodies turn up weekly now", says Sarath Diyasena, the archaeologist selected by the government to be teamed with her in the investigation, "murders committed by all sides".

One murder, particularly -- they nickname the skeleton, "Sailor" -- indicates that "government forces have possibly murdered innocent people." And so the "unburial" begins. "In this skeleton there are traces of lead... but there is no lead in this cave where we found him"; "twisting happens to bones that get burned when they are "green", that is, flesh-covered"; "we can do palynology tests to identify the type of pollen that fused to the bone, on those parts of him that were not burned". Thus, speaking the "language of science", they piece together the evidence, bit by gruesome bit.

To identify the "Sailor", Sarath decides to reconstruct the face of the skeleton. They go to his old teacher, Palipana, for help. The blind, ascetic Palipana -- "for him, now, all history was filled with sunlight" -- directs the investigators to Ananda Udugama, master craftsman-painter, now gem-miner, and drunk.

Then, well into our journey through a modern hell, Ondaatje gives us this magnificent detour into the world of Netra Mangala, the ritual of the eyes: "Coomaraswamy points out that before eyes are painted there is just a lump of metal or stone. But after this act, it is thenceforward a God." So Ananda, bedecked, must climb a ladder to paint the eyes of the Buddha, but must paint over his shoulder looking into a metal mirror, for "no human eye can meet the Buddha's during the process of creation".

"I didn't want the dark violence to be the only portrait of the country. It's not just a culture of death, it's an intricate, subtle, and artistic culture," said Ondaatje -- author of 11 books of poetry -- in a recent interview (at www.bookpage.com). "I wanted to celebrate it. In a way, the archaeology was there for that purpose, as well. I allowed that to represent the country, not just generals and politicians."

Anil thinks, "A good archaeologist can read a bucket of soil as if it were a complex historical novel". Ondaatje sees the writer's craft too as an archaeology: "A writer uses a pen instead of a scalpel or blow torch. As a writer, one is busy with archaeology. "It's what the writer does with any character. On one level you're moving forward, but in the other, you're revealing the past."

As they examine these "patterns of death", the scientist and the poet coalesce: "then he turned on a slim hose and let it hover over each bone, air nestling into the evidence of the trauma as if he were blowing cool breath from a pursed mouth onto a child's burn."

During the archaeology of emotions, many ghosts are unearthed: "Anil found herself in the smoke of one bad marriage.... Even now she wouldn't replay it and consider the level of damage. She saw it more as some contemporary fable of warning." These histories of heart-wrenching parting, loss and death are shared either through a common public history as in the case of Anil, Sarath, and Ananda, or through a complex overlapping past as in the remote Sarath and his solitary brother Gamini, on their trajectories of a tragic reconciliation.

Gamini, the doctor, lives on speed to cope with the "soul in clinical shock" (as one reviewer called it). After weeks and weeks of 15-hour days, "the only reasonable constant was that there would be more bodies tomorrow -- post-stabbings, post-land mines, Orthopaedic trauma, punctured lungs, spinal cord injuries...." He tells Anil, "My marriage disappeared.... I'm probably another example of trauma, you see." He warns the Anil that the government doesn't "want results.... Nobody's perfect. Nobody's right. And too many people know about your investigation. There is always someone paying attention."

Anil ignores the advice, she is picked up by government forces, and the terrifying conclusion begins: "the darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared with what was happening here."

The Economist (May 13-19 2000) tells us that the 17-year-old civil war in Sri Lanka has claimed more than 55,000 lives.

The "dark trade with the earth" continues.

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