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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


This was the one that got away. Several efforts to get a copy of Booker Prize winner Michael Ondaatje's memoir Running in the Family before my session with him remained unsuccessful. There were about 25 copies at the counter that sold books at the entrance of Indus. I'd made a mental note of getting it soon as the session ended. By the time I got there, every single copy was gone. That came as no surprise, as Michael had regaled the crowd with his wonder days in Sri Lanka. The clincher came in the form of this passage:
"She kept losing the contraption to servants who were mystified by it as well to the dog, Chindit, who would be found gnawing at the foam as it were tender chicken. She went through four breasts in her lifetime. One she left on a branch of a tree in Hakgalle Gardens to dry out after a rainstorm, one flew off when she was riding behind Vere on his motorbike, and the third she was very mysterious about, almost embarrassed though Lalla was never embarrased."

Then there was the part of keeping everyone in the family happy, so the line went : "a man who may or may not have been in the Cabinet."

Ondaatje had dwelt on the challenge of penning a memoir, writing something that calls for a return to the roots, for understanding his family, for long conversations, exchanges and putting it together in a the form of a book. I was dying to read it all. It would be a long wait, but worth every minute of it.

I finally spotted the book at the Vijitha Yapa bookstore in Colombo and saved it's reading till I got back. Just like I do with every book, I've come to cherish, I took it slowly. The scenic way of reading merely heightens the experience. And there was so much of it here.

Ondaatje's strong mother, his eccentric father, his grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings. Like the colourful Sri Lankan landscape, this was as rich as it gets.

While some memoirs end up focusing on all things that fell away Running in the Family turns everything it touches into a rollicking read. Right from the time his father falls in love, falls out of love, gets engaged, then disengaged, then married, then divorced, to the drama on the train - his father was eventually banned from the Ceylon Railways in 1943, this is an amazing account of a time, period and lives go by.

Ondaatje's attention for detail and his dextrous pen miss nothing, including the war that brewed between his father and Sammy Dias Bandranaike, a close relative of the eventual Prime Minister of Ceylon.

It all started with an exchange at the Kitulgala resthouse, which happened to his father's favourite. Sammy bitched about everything, to which his father responded:
"No complaints. Not even about Mr Bandranaike."

Soon ink was being spilt with a ferocity never seen before in the annals of visitors books.

"This literary war broke so many codes that for the first time in Ceylon history pages had to be ripped out of visitors' books. Eventually one would write about the other even when the other was nowhere near the resthouse. Pages continued to be torn out, ruining a good archival history of two semi-prominent Ceylon families. The war petered out when neither Sammy Dias nor my father was allowed to write their impressions of a stay or a meal. The standard comment on visitors' books today about 'constructive criticism' dates from this period."

Also dating back to this period are the legendary breakfasts. Having tucked into some during my stay in Sri Lanka, I can say with a certain degree of confidence that they survive, quite like the heat, the tea country, the silences in the estate and the silence that marked his parents relationship.

It is an evocative rendition of life, prose, poetry narrated with a liberal dose of humour. So whether you like it or not, you'll be heading back to the words, lines or incidents long after you've got that heavy hand as you flip the very last page.

I still end up thinking of the harmless breakfast, the crisp breeze and the toe Michael Ondaatje almost ended up losing. Or that bathing ritual when the author was just five, witnessed by the then bathing prefect, now distinguished author and scholar Yasmine Gooneratne.

Then there are the journeys they would all embark on when his mother moved to England in 1949. Journeys that would keep them on the move, but never together again.

"Magnetic fields would go crazy in the presence of more than three Ondaatjes."

Still looking for reasons to get started on Ondaatje, then get his take on books, movies and more in this interview.

More on one of my favourites - Anil's Ghost here.

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