Vancouver Diaries

Anil’s Ghost – Michael Ondaatje

Over the time, I have developed a strong liking for non-fictions that explores the darker and complex realities of human societies. When the going gets tough, its easy to complain about how wretched we are, in our circumstances and surroundings. These writings help us to realize that it could always have been worse and that in reality how well we are within our circumstances! Ondaatje who is a Canadian writer of South Asian origin writes about these complex social circumstances. Anil’s Ghost is no different.

Unlike The English Patient which was completely based on fiction (except geographical facts like existence of the Cave of Swimmers and time/circumstances of its discovery), Anil’s Ghost is based on real life political incidents in Sri Lanka. It deals with the Sri Lankan civil war that is still in progress in the Island ( Anil Tissera, a forensic scientist living and studying in United States/UK visits Sri Lanka, her former homeland to investigate the deaths of civilians in the War as a part of Human Rights Investigation by United Nations. In Lanka, she meets Sarath Diyasena, an archaeologist who helps her in her investigation. During the course of the novel, through numerous flash backs, the writer reveals the characters in depth and the details of their lives to his readers. We come to know about Anil’s failed marriage, her brief relationship with Cullis Wright, a married science writer in the US, Sarath’s view about the war and his confusing allegiance. We also meet Gamini, Sarath brother and learn about their past lives and the reason for their hostility between relations. We learn about Gamini’s deep affection for Sarath’s wife, her death and his wife’s leaving him. We encounter another character, Ananda, who is called upon on the suggestion of Palipana, Sarath’s guru, to help Anil/Sarath to reconstruct the face of a recently buried man’s skeleton. The skeleton is nick-named “The Sailor”, which they had found around an archaeological site. The entire novel revolves around these characters, the Sailor and the lives and feelings of these characters within the circumstances of the civil war and beyond.

But Anil’s Ghost is not entirely about the characters and their experiences. It is, in reality, just an outer clothing to explore the deeper and ugly circumstances of the Lankan civil war. Its about how the govt and the Tamil rebel group (though not named, its the LTTE, tried to hide evidence of the killing and how the media was suppressed from reporting the death and the gore around the war. As the investigation goes on, Anil finally identifies the true name of the person behind the Sailor. Just then Sarath disappears along with Sailor! Some dramatic incidents happen towards the end of the novel that cast our suspicion over Sarath. However, we eventually we realize that Sarath was indeed helping Anil. He helps her to safely leave Sri Lanka, away from the eyes of the govt and the rebels. At the same time, he helps her in preserving the evidence – the evidence she had gathered from the Sailor and the skeleton itself along with her tape recorder that she had used to record all critical conversations. However, Sarath himself gets killed in the hands of the same people they were trying to uncover! A tragic yet thought provoking end. In reality, he continues to live within Anil and Gamini, in their memories, like a ghost – Anil’s Ghost.

Nearing the end of the novel, Ondaatje cleverly describes in detail the happenings related to one of the assassinations that kill President Katugala (a fictional name; in reality it represents President Ranasinghe Premadasa, This is just one representative killing for thousands of other civilians, including the Indian leader of opposition and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi ( describes other notable assassination victims.

The war still continues in Lanka and keeps taking its toll on innocent victims of war, every day, every moment of our lives …

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