Jan 052012

by Daniel Färber, January 5th, 2012

Table of contents

1. Introduction
2. Anil and the Question of Identity
2.1. Anil becoming Anil
2.2. Anil’s homes
2.3. Anil – traveller or migrant?
2.4. Anil and her lovers
2.5. Anil and Sarath
2.6. Anil surveying
2.7. Anil under surveillance and power
2.8. The motif of water
3. Conclusion: Anil’s fluid identity
4. Literature

1. Introduction

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When we talk about the identity of a person, we usually start off with his or her name, age, or hometown. Two out of these three attributes, however, are already subject of debate for the character of Anil Tissera. Anil has lived a life as it is nowadays often lived everywhere around the world. She leaves her home country, a former colony, and moves to a western country, where she goes to university and is able to find a good job. Many years later, she returns to her origin. But apart from these geographical facts, what can we say about this moving person? Who is Anil, and what happens to her during these constant travels and migrations? How do the changes of location affect her identity?

To answer these questions, I will begin with Anil’s childhood and youth in Sri Lanka, and in particular I will look at the purchase of her name ‚Anil‘ from her brother and the implications thereof. In chapter 2. 2. I want to go through the various places Anil has lived in during her life, namely Sri Lanka, the UK, and the USA. Her social connections at these locations will also be of concern. The following chapter deals with the constructed categories of ‚traveller‘ and ‚migrant‘ and I will see into which of these categories Anil can be fitted, or if this is possible at all.

Then, Anil’s love relationships will be the subject. I will look at the question whether her lovers play a role for her identity, and if so, which conclusions can be drawn form these relationships. Her most prominent companion in the novel is Sarath, a Sri Lankan government official. He can hardly be put into the group of Anil’s lovers, and therefore I will look at him and the implications of their cooperation in the following chapter. To examine Anil within certain structures of power around her, I will analyse her in situations in which she surveys her surroundings, but also in situations in which she is under the surveillance and power of others. In the last chapter I want to take a closer look at the motif of water in the novel. Based on that motif I will draw a conclusion of Anil’s identity.


2. Anil and the Question of Identity

2. 1. Anil becoming Anil

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Although Anil Tissera is the main character of the plot and gives the novel its title, and although we learn about various events from her past in numerous flashbacks, we know only little about her youth, i.e. the time before she left Sri Lanka. We are told, however, about an interesting incident that happened when she was thirteen years old. „Her name had not always been Anil“ (67). Apparently, Anil had been given two names she did not like, and with the pragmatism of a little girl she came up with the idea of buying her brother’s second name, which he did not use. After a lot of dispute about the issue Anil eventually succeeded and from then on bore the name she had wanted so badly.

There are several aspects inherent in this name change that are useful for the discussion of Anil’s identity. First, the name Anil takes is not just any name, but the name of her brother and her grandfather. As Victoria Cook observes, the renaming therefore is on the one hand „a liberating and self-creating action“ and thus an act of independence, but on the other hand also an affirmation of „her identification with her ancestry“ (2004, 4). Furthermore, there is quite a high price that Anil has to pay for her new name. „She gave her brother one hundred saved rupees, a pen set he had been eyeing for some time, a tin of fifty Gold Leaf cigarettes she had found, and a sexual favour he had demanded in the last hours of the impasse“ (68). Not only does Anil have to give her brother money and material goods as a payment, but she also has to do him „a sexual favour“, and whatever that exactly means, it is certainly something that Anil was reluctant to do and that put her into a humiliating position. So while taking the new name was an overall good experience for her and when she later „recalled her childhood, it was […] the joy of getting it [i.e. the name] that she remembered most“ (68), Anil had to undergo a procedure that involved debasement and disempowerment in the very process of becoming powerful, liberated and independent.

Of course, this „sexual favour“ is only mentioned briefly and it is in no other scene referred to, so it could be argued that I am over-interpreting the incident since it does not affect Anil’s future life, at least as far as we know about it. But I think this consideration only strengthens my point because it shows that at that stage she was still under the domination of a male superior, even if it was just her one-year-older brother. She did not tell his desire to her parents nor simply refuse to fulfil it, but instead accepted it and the debasement that came with it.

‚Naming‘ is a frequent action in postcolonial discourse and a prominent field of inquiry in postcolonial literary theory, for it is often noted that, to cite one example, „[t]he very process by which one culture subordinates another begins in the act of naming and leaving unnamed“ (Spurr 1993, 4). What can be made of this in respect of Anil’s renaming? In my view, this concept is applicable, but not in the usual way. Here, it is not one side naming the other, but Anil renaming herself. The structures of power that we encounter in this case are therefore slightly different. There is no superior powerful side acting upon the powerless other side. Instead, Anil acts upon herself, and while on the one hand she is powerful through the new name, she subordinates herself on the other hand by complying with her brother’s desire in order to get this new name.


2. 2. Anil’s homes

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Another important aspect of Anil’s identity is Anil’s home. Right at the very beginning of the main plot, the reader is confronted with a first ambivalence: „In the West she’d read, The dawn comes up like thunder, and she knew she was the only one in the classroom to recognize the phrase physically“ (9). From that sentence we get the direct information that she has lived in the West. But we can also conclude that she had lived in a Southeast Asian country before, since she is familiar with dawn coming up like thunder – an image from Rudyard Kipling’s poem On The Road To Mandalay, which takes place in Burma.

The following section begins with the question „‚How long has it been? You were born here, no?'“ (9), which substantiates the previous conclusion. As the novel progresses, the reader is gradually further introduced to the exact circumstances that Anil has been in during the course of her life. Anil left Sri Lanka when she was eighteen and began studying medicine in London. After that, she lived in the USA, but visited several other countries around the globe to work there as a forensic anthropologist. The social connections she makes outside of Sri Lanka take place in Great Britain, where she marries another medical student from Sri Lanka, and in the United States, where she forms a close friendship with a colleague called Leaf and has an affair with a married man named Cullis.

If we embrace the fact that a big part of Anil’s home and therefore a big part of her identity is constituted by her social surroundings, we can determine certain changes of her identity against the background of her changing acquaintances. Her first home after she has left Sri Lanka is London, but she still has a strong connection to Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan culture. Although she claims that „[a]fter she had left Sri Lanka at eighteen, her only real connection was the new sarong her parents sent her every Christmas“ (10), there is a connection to her native country that manifests itself in her marriage to a Sri Lankan, which she later deliberately conceals: „It was while studying at Guy’s that Anil found herself in the smoke of one bad marriage. She was in her early twenties and was to hide this episode from everyone she met later in life“ (140f).

The reason for this marriage is Anil’s intense longing for something that represents her home country and its culture, a longing that can certainly best be described as homesickness:

He too was from Sri Lanka, and in retrospect she could see that she had begun loving him because of her loneliness. She could cook a curry with him. She could refer to a specific barber in Bambalapitiya, could whisper her desire for jaggery or jakfruit and be understood. That made a difference in the new, too brittle country. Perhaps she herself was too tense with uncertainty and shyness. She had expected to feel alien in England only for a few weeks. (141)

Anil’s first step into the western world is at the beginning not a complete one. She still holds on to her Sri Lankan background and together with her husband reminisces about Sri Lanka. Ironically, it is her father-in-law’s wish that his son and Anil return to Sri Lanka and live a traditional life which eventually puts an end to the marriage. This divorce and her ex-husband’s return to Sri Lanka cause her to finally cut the cord, which even results in her abandonment of her native language. „She no longer spoke Sinhala to anyone. She turned fully to the place she found herself in, […] She was now alongside the language of science“ (145).

Anil at last turns her back on Sri Lanka, she immerses herself in work and wins a scholarship to study in the United States, where she becomes more and more a westerner. She says about herself that she is „now light-years beyond the character she had been in London“ (147). At the beginning of her time in England „[s]he seemed timid even to herself. She felt lost and emotional“ (142). Now in the United States she goes bowling, drinks beer and eats tacos (cf. 147), and it is not mentioned that she even thinks about Sri Lanka. When Cullis asks her if she will go back to Colombo, she answers with a plain and simple „No.“ (36). I would say that it is only at this stage that Anil has found a new place that can rightly be called ‚home‘.

Things change again after her return to Sri Lanka. During her investigations there, she begins to identify with the Sri Lankan people again. At the hearing at the Arnoury Auditorium she says: „‚I think you murdered hundreds of us.'“. With this statement she includes herself in the group of victims, the innocent Sri Lankans. „Fifteen years away and she is finally us.“ (272) thinks Sarath, and the word ‚finally‘ demonstrates the journey that Anil had to go through to find a way to identify with the Sri Lankan people.


2. 3. Anil – traveller or migrant?

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It is a worthwhile approach to see if Anil can be fitted into familiar categories of identity. The forms of identity that are appropriate in this case are those of a ‚traveller‘ and of a ‚migrant‘, because both ideas describe a specific way of ‚moving around‘, something that Anil does frequently. The biggest difference between the two concepts is that a traveller intends to leave again from the place he goes to, either in order to return to his origin or to continue the journey to another place. A migrant, however, plans to leave his origin for good and wants to establish a new home at his destination. That might, of course, not always work out for the migrant and he quite often does return, but this return is then usually the result of resignation and failure.

Anil has features of both a traveller and a migrant. Not only does her job already involve a fair amount of travelling, she also moves around a lot after she has left Sri Lanka. But these moves are rather to be called migrations since they are more permanent and because she does not return to her origin. Another argument which supports Anil’s role as a migrant is the fact that Anil usually crosses borders when she moves to the next place. A border crossing is an essential part of a migration. Someone who moves from one city to another within the same country can hardly be called a migrant, but as soon as he enters another country we are likely to call him that.

What puts Anil into the role of a traveller is the fact that all her moves happen for her own benefit. A migrant often does not know if life at his destination will improve compared to the life he has led before, and many times it does not. Anil, however, knows beforehand what she can expect at her destination and her prospects are always good, be it for example an education or job opportunity.

At this point, I also want to take a look at Anil’s return to Sri Lanka. She has been away for fifteen years and stopped keeping in touch with her family and her friends. The government official who picks her up at the airport upon her arrival asks her: „‚You have friends here, no?'“ to which she replies: „‚Not really.'“ (10). He also characterises her return as „The return of the prodigal“ (10), referring to the parable of the lost son from the bible. By doing this, he suggests that she tried to leave Sri Lanka behind to live her own life, but failed. Just as the lost son returns because he knows that even as one of his father’s servants he will have a better life, Anil in the role of the prodigal son would admit her own failure in her emigration and would come back to Sri Lanka regretting that she has left. Anil, of course, vigorously rejects this title: „‚I’m not a prodigal.'“ (10).

However, a very striking incident, which can be connected to the idea of the lost son, takes place on the first weekend after her return. Anil hires a car and visits her childhood nanny, who lives together with her granddaughter. At the beginning, Anil is puzzled because she does not know the granddaughter, who does not even introduce herself although she speaks English. In a way, this whole encounter can indeed be seen as the return of the prodigal: Lalitha takes the role of the father and the granddaughter takes the role of the reluctant brother. She is jealous of Anil, which manifests itself for example in the fact that she does not facilitate the conversation by translating what Anil and Lalitha want to say to each other.

The reunion is very disappointing for Anil. She emphasizes the important role that Lalitha has had in her life: „‚In a way she was the one who brought me up.‘ Anil wanted to say more, to say that Lalitha was the only person who taught her real things as a child“. But Lalitha’s granddaughter interrupts and clarifies aggressively: „‚She brought all of us up,'“. Anil realizes that the ties to her Sri Lankan past and her youth have been cut when she turns around to her childhood nanny and sees that „Lalitha had fallen asleep“ (24).

We have seen that Anil can neither entirely be called a traveller nor a migrant, but Heike Härting might have a solution to this problem of definition in form of another concept. She claims that Anil can well be described as a nomad since she possesses „transnational mobility“ and a „sense of an absolute cultural and social displacement“ (2003, 50). Referring to that notion, Härting concludes:

Indeed, the narrative frequently suggests that Anil’s experience of cultural and social displacement presents a cultural impediment that keeps her suspended in a state of perpetual foreignness and transition rather than allowing her to inhabit multiple cultural and historical spaces at once. (2003, 51)


2. 4. Anil and her lovers

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To elaborate further on Anil’s social connections, I now want to go through the persons she has a love relationship with. The first character of importance in this context is the man she marries during her time in England, who I have already mentioned in chapter 2. 2. There, I have claimed that Anil’s husband represents her will to keep contact with Sri Lankan culture and that her divorce is a sign of her liberation from that need. But there is another striking aspect involved in that marriage. What is surprising is that Anil’s husband is introduced as „her future, and soon-to-be, and eventually ex-, husband“ (142). After this introduction he is always only referred to as „he“ (142ff) and the reader never gets to know his name, but is told that „[a]fter she escaped him she would never say his name out loud“ (144). In a context in which names and namings play such an important role there is certainly more meaning behind that circumstance.

Victoria Cook explains that „[b]y refusing to name her husband, Anil erases him from the cartography of her life in an action reminiscent of the imperial map-makers that Ondaatje refers to in his mimetic reproduction of the National Atlas of Sri Lanka“ (2004, 7). In this excerpt, in which the design of the Atlas is described, we read the sentences „There are no city names. […] There are no river names“ (40). It is the act of „leaving unnamed“ (Spurr 1993, 4) by which a superior authority – and that is what Anil wants to be here – exercises its power over the subordinated. Anil treated „the whole marriage and divorce, the hello and good-bye, […] as something illicit that deeply embarrassed her“ (144). By doing that, she subjugates „her Eastern cultural identity in favor of the West“ (Cook 2004, 7), but establishes the proportions of power between her ex-husband and herself in the way she needs them in order to liberate herself.

The next relationship that Anil enters is an affair with an American writer named Cullis. If we start again by looking at how Cullis is introduced to the reader, we spot some differences. First of all, his first appearance in the novel is not the first meeting between him and Anil. Instead, Ondaatje puts the reader in medias res regarding their relationship. „While Anil was working with the forensic team in Guatemala, she’d flown into Miami to meet Cullis.“ (33) is the sentence in which the reader first encounters him. At this meeting, which is described in the following two pages of the novel, Anil talks a lot about her work in Guatemala, which makes Cullis realize that „she had fallen even more in love with her work“ (33), certainly not a nice experience for him as her lover. But worse for him is yet to come when she says:

‚You’ve got a mixed bag of characters working on those sites. Big-shot pathologists from the States who can’t reach for salt without grabbing a woman’s breast. And Manuel. He is part of that community, so he has less protection than the others like us. He told me once, When I’ve been digging and I’m tired and don’t want to do any more, I think how it could be me in the grave I’m working on. I wouldn’t want someone to stop digging for me. . . . I always think of that when I want to quit. I’m sleepy, Cullis. Can hardly talk. Read me something.‘ (34)

She complains about the attitude of the Americans and forgets that Cullis is American, then she tells him enthusiastically about a colleague called Manuel who she adores for his wise advice. And without awaiting an answer from Cullis and after her long monologues she suddenly claims that she „[c]an hardly talk“ and is tired. Before Cullis can start reading she falls asleep. The image of the relationship that we can see here is very different to the one which Anil showed in England. There, Anil was in some respects dependent on her husband, because she needed him to keep the connection with Sri Lankan culture alive and to establish a copy of her original home in the western world. By marrying him she complied with the traditional eastern lifestyle and submitted herself to him, at least in the beginning of the marriage.

Now, however, Anil is emancipated and superior to her lover. She has left behind the Sri Lankan part of her identity, she does not speak about her marriage and refuses to even recall the name of her former husband. Instead, when Cullis gets to know her better and asks her about her roots, she has decided on a new home. We are told about this in a short dialogue that is worth a closer examination:

They drove through the suburbs.

‚Do you speak French?‘ he asked.

‚No. Just English. I can write some Sinhala.‘

‚Is that your background?‘

A no-name plaza appeared on the side of the highway, and she parked beneath the blinking lights of a Bowlerama. ‚I live here,‘ she said. ‚In the West.‘ (36)

In this excerpt we can see an interesting accumulation of American things in the background scenery – driving by car, suburbs, a highway, and most notably „the blinking lights of a Bowlerama“. But a revealing conversation takes place within this stereotypical western setting. With her statement „I live here, […] In the West“ she builds up the antithesis ‚East versus West‘ – after all, she does not say ‚I live in America‘, but she expands her home to the whole of the western world, as opposed to the ‚eastern world‘ and Sri Lanka. Furthermore, Anil conceals her Sri Lankan origin from Cullis completely and does not respond to his question „Is that your background?“, although he has obviously noticed that she comes from abroad, be it by her looks, by her accent, or simply by her telling statement „I can write some Sinhala“.

Anils assertion „In the West“ gets even more emphasis through the stylistic arrangement of the dialogue. The description of the symbols of western culture is interposed between Cullis‘ question and Anil’s answer and this hyperbaton builds up the reader’s suspense. With the ensuing word „here“, then, Anil directly refers to these symbols, confirms her affinity for them and thus positions herself within the western culture. Finally, the critical word „West“ marks the end of the conversation and gets the most emphasis.

The last of Anil’s relationships that I want to take a look at in this chapter is the one with a woman named Leaf. While we know quite much about her relationships with her husband and with Cullis, her relationship with Leaf remains rather intransparent. We never get a explicit hint that she and Anil were anything more than just ‚best friends‘. When Anil refers to her, she calls her „her girlfriend“ (28 and 64), a word which leaves some ambiguity whether Leaf is her best female friend or her lover. Leaf is described as „Anil’s closest friend and constant companion“ (235). However, as Margaret Scanlan notices, „the language used about their relationship […] suggests something more“ (2004, 316), which Antoinette Burton cautiously calls a „hint of homo-eroticism“ (2003, 41).

The language Scanlan mentions is to be found in Anil’s reflective thoughts after Leaf has left her:

Anil assumed she’d abandoned her, for a new life, for new friends. […] Still, Anil left a snapshot on her fridge of the two of them dancing at some party, this woman who had been her echo, who watched movies with her in her backyard. They’d sway in the hammock, […] they’d wake up at three in the morning entangled in each other’s arms […]. (254)

Some time later, when Leaf gets in touch with Anil again and tells her that she has Alzheimer’s, we read: „They talked and listened to each other. She loved Anil. And she knew Anil loved her. Sister and sister“ (256). Although the word ‚love‘ appears in the description of their relationship, I would not argue that they are in love in the way two lovers are – after all, Leaf is not explicitly addressed as Anil’s ‚lover‘, unlike Cullis (cf. Scanlan 2004, 316). Instead, I think their relationship is indeed like one between sisters. They are physically attracted to each other, but not in a sexual, but in an emotional sense.

Leaf’s disease can be seen as an inversion of Anil’s intentions in Sri Lanka. Anil tries to unbury the dead in order to identify them, give them a name and solve murder cases. Leaf, on the other hand, forgets names, identities, and even murders, too, albeit murders that happen in films:

‚Leaf, listen. Remember? Who killed Cherry Valance?‘
Anil repeated the question slowly.
‚Cherry Valance,‘ Lead said, ‚I . . .‘
John Wayne shot him. Remember.‘
‚Did I know that?‘
‚You know John Wayne?‘
‚No, my darling.‘ (256)

Geetha Ganapathy-Doré sees in the progress of Leaf’s disease a call for „a conscious effort not only on the part of people who suffer from amnesia but also on the part of the people who tend to them“, an effort to fight „against the collective amnesia provoked by greed and maintained by gun and drug runners“. Ganapathy-Doré considers Anil’s questions such as „Who killed Cherry Valance?“ as a stimulation for Leaf’s memory and compares that stimulus to the fact that some pages of the novel are not numbered. According to Ganapathy-Doré, this could be an imitation of „the human weakness to forget. The meticulous reader is obliged to go back and find out the page number“ (2002).

The connection of the omission of certain page numbers to the motif of oblivion in the novel is an audacious approach, but I am afraid that Ganapathy-Doré over-interprets the aspect here. I would follow her argument if the page numbers had been left out randomly, but there is a quite transparent system behind the omissions: All the numbers on left-hand side pages are left out, that is all the even page numbers. In addition to that, a page number on the right-hand side is left out if a new chapter begins on that page, because then there is some blank space on the top of the page anyway. So, I think it is more probable that the omissions have practical reasons caused by the printing process rather than any figurative meanings.

After that short excursus I want to draw a conclusion of the topic of Anil’s lovers. During her time in England, Anil is at first still very attached to the Sri Lankan culture that she has left behind. Her Sri Lankan husband is a sign for that attachment. When she gets divorced, she frees herself not only from him, but also from the bond with her home country and turns towards the western world and its lifestyle. In America, she has a lover, but her real purpose in life – and her real love – at that time is not the relationship with Cullis, but her work, as I have shown by analysing their meeting in Miami. With Leaf, who has the same job, she can finally live out the love for her work, for example by watching films from an anthropological view.


2. 5. Anil and Sarath

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The person Anil has the most contact with in the main plot of the novel is Sarath Diyasena. Her relationship with him goes through several stages as the story goes on. At the beginning, she is very suspicious of him, because he works for the government. During her first days in Sri Lanka, she reflects on him: „Was the partner assigned to her neutral in this war? Was he just an archaeologist who loved his work?“ (29) and later, she asks him directly: „‚I don’t really know, you see, which side you are on–if I can trust you.'“ (53).

The narrator plays with Anil’s uncertainty about Sarath. The reader always has, for example, less knowledge about Anil’s lovers than Anil herself: in the case of her husband, he does not get to know his name; in the case of Cullis and Leaf, he is told about the circumstances of their relationships with Anil only some time into the book. With Sarath, on the other hand, things are different, as we can see at his first appearance:

As she entered the Archaeological Offices she heard his voice.

‚So–you are the swimmer!‘ A broad-chested man in his late forties was approaching her casually, with his hand out. She hoped this wasn’t Mr. Sarath Diyasena, but it was. (16)

Sarath is right away described by his looks and his age and is named by his full name. While Anil knows his detailed personal data, she does not know his character, his intentions, and most importantly whether he is trustworthy or not. At the end of the novel, during the hearing at the Armoury Auditorium, the reader knows even more about him than Anil, because he is told Sarath’s thoughts: „But now they were in danger. He sensed the hostility in the room. Only he was not against her“ (272).

In the course of time, Anil and Sarath like each other more and more and there is even an erotic tension that develops between the two of them. While Anil is sick, she has a feverish dream in which she is almost naked, lies down on the floor and Sarath traces the shape of her body with a pen (cf. 61f). Sarath has rather caring feelings for Anil. He reminds her of her malaria pill (cf. 27) and lies awake because he hears Anil weeping in the room next to his (63).

There are also a few rare occasions of physical contact between Anil and Sarath. „Sarath reached his hand across the breakfast plates and held Anil’s wrist. His thumb on her pulse“ (63). It gets more intimate when Sarath returns from taking Ananda to hospital:

She opened her eyes in the afternoon and Sarath was there.

‚He will be all right.‘

‚Oh,‘ she murmured. She pressed Sarath’s hand to the side of her face. (200)

At that time, the reader probably thinks that Anil trusts Sarath and is surprised at the fact that she does not wait for him at the walawwa after they have identified Sailor, but instead contacts Dr. Perera (cf. 270). Anil believes that her suspicion was justified when Sarath exposes her in the Armoury Auditorium. Only on the last page that Anil appears on is Sarath’s real plan revealed and we can only assume that she follows his instructions, but we are not told her feelings about him at that moment.

The relationship between Anil and Sarath can be seen as a symbol for the encounter of the west and the east. As I have demonstrated in chapter 2. 4., Anil has turned towards western culture during her time in America. When she arrives in Sri Lanka, she still sees herself as a westerner. She behaves in a western way and actively seeks connections to western culture, as it can be seen in this excerpt, which accumulates western things, just like the scene analysed in 2. 4.:

One postcard from Leaf. One American bird. She pulled some cutlets and a beer out of the fridge. There would be a book to read, a shower to take. Later she might go to Galle Face Green and have a drink at one of the newer hotels, watch the drunk members of a touring English cricket team sing karaoke. (29)

But she is seen as a westerner, too. Sarath tells her „‚You know, I’d believe your arguments more if you lived here,‘ he said. ‚You can’t just slip in, make a discovery and leave.'“ (44) and Chitra identifies her as „the woman from Geneva“ (71).

Sarath, on the other hand, represents the east. Just after Anil’s above-quoted longing for the west, we observe Sarath’s behaviour from Anil’s point of view, which creates an antithesis to her western behaviour.

The day before […] he had shown her a few temples and then, passing some of his students working in a historic area, had joyfully joined them and was soon collecting slivers of mica, telling them where they were likely to find fragments of iron in the ground, as if he were a gifted and natural finder of things. Most of what Sarath wished to know was in some way linked to the earth. (29)

While Anil is drawn towards western civilization in the forms of cooled beer, luxury hotels and cricket teams, Sarath favours being surrounded by nature. Educated in the west, Anil also uses different methods in her work. David Farrier calls Anil an „expert in the analysis of the contemporary“, whereas „Sarath understands the island through its histories“. He argues that his „training enables him to fathom, to examine the depths for traces of a far more intimate knowledge“ (2005, 85). Sarath might have more understanding of the nature around him and also of Sri Lanka’s culture, but we should not forget that in the end they reach their goal, the identification of Sailor, together. Anil comes up with the idea that Sailor must have worked as a miner (cf. 179), Sarath concludes that it might have been a plumbago mine (cf. 204).

Anil’s and Sarath’s relationship moves from suspicion to respect, to disappointment and suspicion again on Anil’s side, until she eventually finds out that Sarath did not betray her but lived up to his standard: „As an archaeologist Sarath believed in truth as a principle. That is, he would have given his life for the truth if the truth were of any use“ (157). Ultimately, he does give his life for the truth and to save Anil.


2. 6. Anil surveying

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After the analysis of Anil’s relationships, I now want to examine Anil’s behaviour during acts of surveillance. In this chapter I will look at Anil as the person who surveys, and in the next chapter as the person who is under surveillance. An exploration of these situations will help us position Anil’s character within the framework of power relationships and therefore bring us closer to Anil’s identity.

The most important task of Anil’s profession itself involves already a great deal of surveying. When she examines a body as a forensic doctor, she has to look at it very closely in order to find out the causes of it’s death, its age and how long the person has been dead. Very often, and in particular during her work in Sri Lanka, she also has to identify the dead body by giving it a name and by assigning it to the life and the history of a missing person. Anil’s job is the first and a vital step in the course of serving justice – based on her results the police and a judge can accuse the culprit and solve a murder case. Being the first link in this chain of justice puts Anil in a position of great responsibility, her examinations are very important and her surveying actions are a sign of the power that she has in the whole process.

A concrete example of Anil surveying her surroundings can be found in the scene where she films Cullis. While he is still asleep in the morning of their meeting in Miami, she takes her video camera and films him and various things in their hotel room: „She stood on the bed and shot down at Cullis’s sleeping head, his left arm out to where she had been all night beside him. Her pillow. Back to Cullis, his mouth, his lovely rips, […] down to his ankles“ (35). That procedure is an act of power similar to her forensic work. She documents what she sees, preserves memory and, most importantly, she looks at someone who can not look back, which causes the power relationships to be one-sided. That interpretation supports my analysis of Anil’s relationship with Cullis in chapter 2. 4., where I have claimed that Anil is in a position superior to Cullis.

When Anil returns to Sri Lanka, she tries to exercise this power over her new environment, too. She claims that „[t]he island no longer held her by the past“, and that „she had now lived abroad long enough to interpret Sri Lanka with a long-distance gaze“ (11), which she metaphorically does a few days later when she sees a bird:

She put herself into the position of the bird as it took off, and was suddenly vertiginous, realizing how high they were above the valley, the landscape like a green fjord beneath them. In the distance the open plain was bleached white, resembling the sea. (45)

These examples show that Anil is used to having an overview over the events that take place around her. She thinks that she is in control of the situation. This soon changes during her stay in Sri Lanka, which will be the topic of the next chapter.


2. 7. Anil under surveillance and power

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One of the first things Anil does after her return to Sri Lanka is to examine a body together with two young students at Kynsey Road Hospital. Anil is so affected by the recently killed victim that her hands begin to tremble – the two students look at each other and one of them says pertly: „‚Is this your first corpse, then?'“ (13). This consternation is an unexpected experience for Anil, who „never usually translated the time of a death into personal time“ (13) and it shows for a short moment that she is not as confident as she wants herself to be.

A similar incident happens to her during her visit to Lalitha, which I have already mentioned in chapter 2. 3. Lalitha’s granddaughter disturbs the emotional reunion between Anil and her childhood nanny with her disapproving glance:

Anil could hardly recognize the tiny aged woman. They stood facing each other. Anil stepped forward to embrace her. Just then a young woman walked out and watched them without a smile. Anil was aware of the stern eyes that were taking in this sentimental moment. (22)

Anil is literally under the surveillance of Lalitha’s granddaughter, who shows her power and excludes her from the conversation by deliberately speaking in Tamil, a language that Anil is unable to understand.

In these two examples, Anil feels disturbed, but although she is in an inferior position she is in no real danger. Things are different when she, Sarath and Ananda are confronted with soldiers who stop their car in a roadblock. One of them takes Anil’s bag, empties it and searches its contents in front of everybody (cf. 162f). Anil is embarrassed about her personal things being looked through so thoroughly. The structures of power are very evident during this encounter. Anil knows that „the international authority of Geneva“ (29) does not mean much in a critical situation, but that she has no other option than to comply with the soldier’s orders.

It becomes even more dangerous for Anil during the hearing at the Armoury Auditorium. What happens to her there is similar to the events at the roadblock. Again, she is questioned by a group of men who are in a superior position. The setup of the Auditorium alone makes these power relationships clear: Anil is in the front and everybody is looking towards her, while she tries to make her case without any real evidence. Sarath makes the situation worse and intimidates her even more during his questioning, but of course that is the only way he can save her.

Were told about the following events only indirectly by the thoughts of Sarath, but we can assume that she is facing tough searches on her way out of the building.

Sarath knew they would halt her at each corridor level, check her papers again and again to irritate and humiliate her. He knew she would be searched, vials and slides removed from her briefcase or pockets, made to undress and dress again. (277)

While Anil leaves the building and has to undergo all the examinations, she is certainly in the most humiliating situation of the ones I have mentioned so far and her inferior position and powerlessness in the face of the local authorities become very evident.


2. 8. The motif of water

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Throughout the novel there is one prominent recurring motif to be encountered, namely the motif of water or, in a more figurative sense, the motif of fluidity. Before I link this idea to Anil and her identity, I want to go through the several occasions where the motif can be found.

To begin with, Anil’s and Sarath’s working place in Colombo is set up on a ship with the name Oronsay, which has been put out of service and has been „berthed permanently in an unused quay at the north end of Colombo harbour“ (18). The ship is apparently named after a Scottish island with the same name and has „once travelled between Asia and England“ (18), so there is a strong connection to Great Britain. Ganapathy-Doré sees the ship as „an island of confidentiality in the murky political waters of Sri Lanka“ (2002), but since government officials certainly know that Anil and Sarath are working on the ship, it is in my opinion as safe or unsafe as any other place in Colombo. I would rather claim that the ship represents the insecurity of their whole enterprise. Just as the ship is not connected to the safety of the mainland and is therefore subject to dangers such as storms, Anil’s and Sarath’s actions are constantly endangered of being exposed.

Speaking of the Scottish island Oronsay, islands in general play a significant role in the novel. Sri Lanka itself is of course an island, Anil is legally a citizen of another island, the United Kingdom (cf. 16), and Anil’s and Leaf’s most discussed film is Point Blank because of a scene in which Lee Marvin swims from the prison island Alcatraz to San Francisco (cf. 237). Anil and Leaf ask themselves where exactly Lee Marvin was shot: „When they looked at the scene closely they saw Lee Marvin’s hand leap up to his chest. ‚See, he has difficulty on his right side. When he swims later in the bay he uses his left arm.'“ (238).

To return to Anil, she uses exactly the same image earlier in the novel: „But here, on the island, she realized she was moving with only one arm of language among uncertain laws and a fear that was everywhere“ (54). In this quote, Anil mentions „the island“ explicitly and connects it to uncertainty and fear. In my view, this is the main characteristic of the islands in the novel. Not only does Sri Lanka cause uncertainty and fear in Anil, but she is also lonely and uncertain during her time in Great Britain, her legal country of residence, as I have elaborated in chapter 2. 2.

When we look at the already mentioned process of naming, we come across two further references to water. „They had labelled the bodies TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SAILOR“ (51). The names that Anil and Sarath give their four unburied bodies are taken from a children’s counting game that begins with these four words. What is notable about these namings, however, is that the three ancient bodies are named ‚tinker‘, ‚tailor‘ and ’soldier‘, and that the important fourth body, which turns out to be a murder victim, is called and from then on referred to as ’sailor‘. This could be read as connoting the body with the same uncertainty I have assigned to the role of the islands. A sailor is someone without a fixed home, or at least with a home unknown to Anil and Sarath. They want to give him back that missing part of his identity and reconstruct it, mainly by finding out his real name, because they see him as a „representative of all those lost voices“. They argue that „[giving] him a name would name the rest“ (56).

The second example of naming involving the motif of water is the name that Anil is known by in Sri Lanka. It is also the name that Sarath addresses her by at their first meeting: „‚So–you are the swimmer!‘“ (16). The reader already knows where this title comes from:

Anil at sixteen had won the two-mile swim race that was held by the Mount Lavinia Hotel.

Each year a hundred people ran into the sea, swam out to a buoy a mile away and swam back to the same beach, the fastest male and the fastest female fêted in the sports pages for a day or so. (10)

The idea of this swim race is very striking and it can be interpreted as an analogy to Anil’s life and her identity. As a swimmer she swam one mile away from the island, which is quite a distance in water, turned around and swam back. In the same way she leaves Sri Lanka at the age of eighteen and also gradually leaves her Sri Lankan background, until she is very far away from her home country. After her physical return to Sri Lanka, during her investigations, she gradually returns emotionally, too, and she becomes a Sri Lankan again.


3. Conclusion: Anil’s fluid identity

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Victoria Cook once speaks of „the fluid whole that is Anil Tissera“ (2004, 3) and I think this is a very good expression to describe Anil’s identity. As I have shown, Anil’s journey around the world is not only a geographical one, but also metaphorical. With the purchase of her brother’s name she starts a process of emancipation, but during this purchase she is still in a position inferior to her brother. Later, in England, she still does not let go of her Sri Lankan roots, which leads her into the marriage with a Sri Lankan.

It is only after her divorce, when she moves to the United States, that she finally liberates herself from male power and finds her own independent identity. At the beginning of her time in Sri Lanka, she also sees herself as an outsider, or at least as someone who can judge the events from the outside, but during the course of her investigations she starts to see herself as a Sri Lankan again. Anil moves away from and back to Sri Lanka as she did in the swim race, her title ’swimmer‘ therefore is in this context very appropriate.

Anil’s story ends as Gamini has predicted it: „‚American movies, English books–remember how they all end? […] The American or the Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That’s it. The camera leaves with him.'“ (285). It is unfortunate that we have to leave Anil at this moment and can not follow her further, because the very interesting question of her new destination after Sri Lanka – she has nowhere and nobody to go to – has to be left unanswered. In this respect, the novel offers its readers a slightly negative prospect.


4. Literature

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Ondaatje, Michael. 2001. Anil’s Ghost. New York: Vintage.


Burton, Antoinette. 2003. „Archive of Bones: Anil’s Ghost and the Ends of History“. Journal of Commonwealth Literature 38.1: 39-56.

Cook, Victoria. 2004. „Exploring Transnational Identities in Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost„. CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 6.3 <http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol6/iss3/2/> (accessed April 15, 2009).

Farrier, David. 2005. „Gesturing towards the Local: Intimate Histories in Anil’s Ghost„. Journal of Postcolonial Writing 41.1: 83-93.

Ganapathy-Doré, Geetha. 2002. „Fathoming Private Woes in a Public Story: A Study of Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost„. Jouvert: A Journal of Postcolonial Studies 6.1 <http://english.chass.ncsu.edu/jouvert/v613/anil.htm> (accessed April 15, 2009).

Härting, Heike. 2003. „Diasporic Cross-Currents in Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost and Anita Ran Badami’s The Hero’s Walk„. Studies in Canadian Literature/Etudes en Littérature Canadienne 28.1: 43-70.

Scanlan, Margaret. 2004. „Anil’s Ghost and Terrorism’s Time“. Studies in the Novel 36.3: 302-317.

Spurr, David. 1993. The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Durham: Duke University Press.