June 30, 2019
June 30, 2019

Sparkling International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research Studies

Volume 2           Issue 2           April – June 2019           Pages 17-22


Sharmilee Rose P

Assistant Professor, Department of English, Tirunelveli Dakshina Mara Nadar Sangam College, T. kallikulam, Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, India.


This article is set out to analyze the remembrance of Sri Lankan Civil war in Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost. He is a Sri Lankan- born Canadian writer. As Ondaatje settled in Canada, he remembers the Sri Lankan Civil War through each and every character of the novel, Anil’s Ghost. He recalls the war through various incidents like killing, disappearance, kidnapping, torturing and burning. He recollects the loss of family members through the character of Lakma and Palipana. He also recalls the sufferings of war like torture and disappearances through the characters, Gunasena and Sirissa. Ondaatje creates the same situation and the cruel incident in this novel. Through this novel he has clearly picturized the Sri Lankan Civil War and the reminiscence of the war.

Keywords: war, history, mass, abduction bombings, disappearance, violence, reminiscence.

Anil’s Ghost is the fourth novel of Michael Ondaatje. It deals with the Sri Lankan Civil War. War is not a forgettable one. Every war is not remembered by people. By remembering war, one can acknowledge the history of the country. Some writers reminisce the World war, some of them remember the Civil war, and some of them recall the forgotten war through their writings among them one of the writers is Michael Ondaatje. He is a Sri Lankan- born Canadian writer. As he lives in Canada, he remembers the Sri Lankan Civil war in Anil’s Ghost. It is not a forgettable war, he remembers this war to the people who does not know about this country.

Through the novel, Anil’s Ghost Michael Ondaatje remembers the Sri Lankan Civil war to the future generation and the people who migrates to other countries. He does not write about the Sri Lanka war alone, instead he intermixes it with the plot. In order to remember the war, he takes seven years to recall the war. As Ondaatje was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, he sets the novel in the same place. Anil’s Ghost tells the story of Anil, who is like the author, is both a native of the country and a stranger to it.

Both the author and his protagonist have beautiful memories of growing up there, memories overlaid by horror. In an interview, Ondaatje says “Sri Lanka now is a more complicated world morally” (Kanner). As he is a Canadian citizen, he always wants to feel at home in Sri Lanka, and so he writes this novel. He doesn’t want to describe only the dark violence of the country, instead he adds subplot to this novel. In an interview, he says,

I grew up in a country that was different the germs of racism were there then, I just wasn’t aware of it. But 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. I wanted to celebrate it. In a way, the archaeology was there for the purpose, as well. I allowed that to represent the country, not just generals and politicians. (Kanner 2000).

Even though he hesitates to write about the dark violence of the country, the navel explores the dark side of the country. During Sri Lanka’s 16- year conflict which began in the mid-1980s, the government struggles to crush uprisings by the Tamil Tigers and separatist guerrillas, and thousands of people simply vanished. At the beginning of the novel, one can see this disappearance in a list of missing people.

In Anil’s Ghost, Ondaatje mentions the years and the sufferings of the victims. He also indicates the reason for the war that is fought for homeland. In reality, Sri Lankan Civil war began on 23 July 1983 and there is a fight between the Sinhalese and the Tamilians. In Anil’s Ghost, Ondaatje claims: “There had been continual emergency from 1983 onwards, racial attacks and political killings. The terrorism of the separatist guerrilla groups, who were fighting for a homeland in the north” (Ondaatje 38-39).

In order to create an independent Tamil state in the north and the east in the island, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as Tamil Tigers, fight against the government. Their main target is policemen and the moderate who attempt a dialogue with the government. As a result of this war, they have killed an officer and 12 soldiers. In this novel, Ondaatje writes this incident in a short manner. At the beginning of the novel, a government official is murdered by a man on the train.

Ondaatje remembers the Sri Lankan Civil war through the victims. In 1984, the Tamil Tigers become famous due to devastating attacks such as the Kent and Dollar Farm massacres, where hundreds of men, women and children are attacked during night as they sleep and are hacked to death with fatal blows to the head from axes. In Anil’s Ghost, Ondaatje mentions these incidents in a brief manner: “The victims of ‘international violence’ had started appearing in March 1984. They were nearly all male, in their twenties, damaged by mines, grenades, mortar shells” (Ondaatje 114).

In 1985, the Tamil Tigers indiscriminately open fire, killing and wounding 146 civilians of Anuradhapura. The Anuradhapura massacre is apparently answered by government forces with the Kumudini boat massacre in which over 23 Tamil civilians died. Ondaatje says, “In the shadows of war and politics there came to be surreal turns of course and effect” (38). He also remembers the disposal of dead bodies, during the civil war.

Sometimes bodies washed in onto the shore, the combers throwing them onto the beaches. On the Matara coast, or at Wellawatta, or by St Thomas’s College in Mount Lavinia where they, Sarath and Gamini, had learned to swim as children. These were the victims of politically motivated murders – victims of torture in the house at Gower Street or a house off the Galle Road – lifted into the air by helicopter, flown a couple of miles out to sea and dropped through the fathoms of air. (Ondaatje 208)

He remembers these incidents through the character of Gamini. In reality, during the civil war, the causalities are tortured and disposed by this method.

In Anil’s Ghost, Ondaatje remembers the three Eelam war which happened between 1980s and the to early 1990s. Especially he remembers the import of weapons. During the first two years of war the guerrilla has smuggled the weapons with the help of arms dealers. They also have homemade bombs to attack the Sinhalese.

During the first two years of the war more than three hundred casualties were brought in as a result of explosions. Then the weapons improved and the war in the north-central province got worse. The guerrillas had international weaponry smuggled into the country by arms dealers, and they also had homemade bombs. (Ondaatje 114)

In “Tamil Guerrillas in Sri Lanka: Deadly and Armed to the Teeth,” Mr. Rohan Gunaratna says, “The Tamil Tigers have brought arms from dealers in Hong Kong, Singapore, Lebanon and Cyprus; from corrupt military officers in Thailand and Burma, and directly from governments, including those of Ukraine, Bulgaria and North Korea” (Bonner 1998).

In reality, the Tamil Tigers are considered as terrorists in the world. In order to kill their enemy, they use to carry their suicide bombers. It also helps them to save them from their enemy. For an example, if they are captured they will kill themselves by taking cyanide capsules that they wear around their neck. One day they carry out suicide bombings and kill some people in Colombo. In “The Sri Lankan conflict,” Jayshree Bajoria writes about the murder of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE suicide bomber. “Rajiv Gandhi, prime minister of India at the peacekeeping force deployment, was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber in 1991” (Bajoria 2009).

In 1993, they killed Ranasinghe Premadasa, the president of Sri Lanka. In Anil’s Ghost, Ondaatje remembers this incident through the murder of the president Katugala. While he takes part in National Heroes Day, Katugala is murdered by one of the Tamil suicide bombers. The man who carries the bomb is named as ‘R’. He comes to the political rally to kill Katugala, but no one knows about his arrival.

No one knows really if R – came with this new procession, as seems most likely, or whether he was at the junction where the group met the larger crowd. . . He was not just the weapon but the aimer of it. The bomb would destroy whomever he was facing. His own eyes and frame were the crosshairs. He approached Katugala having already switched on one of the batteries. One blue bulb lighting up deep in his clothing. When he was within five yards of Katugala he turned on the other switch. . . The cutting action of the explosion shredded Katugala into pieces. (Ondaatje 290-291)

Ondaatje not only remembers the war, but also remembers the effects of war through the victims. He remembers the mass massacre of people through the massacre of students in Anil’s Ghost. Sirissa encounters the beheaded students on the bridge. As she goes to her school, she sees the students’ dead body on the bridge. Even though she recognizes them, she couldn’t do anything.

She does not even think of releasing them from this public gesture. Cannot touch anything because everything feels alive. She begins running forward, past their eyes, her own shut dark until she is past them. Up the hill towards the school. She keeps running forward, and then she sees more. (Ondaatje 171)

Through this Ondaatje remembers the headless bodies that are washed ashore Kalmunai beach. In an International Journal of Conflict and Violence, Braithwaite and D’Costa write about the atrocities of the war in Sri Lanka.

While we do not document cascades of state crime and combatant crime in detail here, it must be noted that abductions, disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, rape, and sexual violence were rampant in Sri Lanka during its twenty-six years of protracted warfare. (Braithwaite and D’Costa 21)

During Eelam war II, burning people in the north and the east become a common sight. Ondaatje recalls this burning people in Anil’s Ghost. At the beginning of the novel, the protagonist reads the suffering of the Sailor. She says the guerrillas are torturing him and sets fire on him. In the burning light, they dig his grave. He also recollects the mass murder and burial of school children. “At a mass grave found in Naipattimunai in 1985, bloodstained clothing was identified by a parent as that worn by his son at the time of his arrest and disappearance” (Ondaatje 38).

Disappearance and abduction are quite common in Sri Lanka during the Civil war. Ondaatje evokes this disappearance through many victims. One can find this incident through the disappearance of Dr. Linus Corea.

For months no one knew where he had got to. The police, the Prime Minister, the head of the Communist Party were called in, and all were outraged. There was no communication from kidnappers wanting payment. It was the Colombo mystery of 1987, and offers of rewards were made throughout the press, none of which was answered. (Ondaatje 117)

Not only Linus, but also Gamini is disappeared. Due to war, he is abducted by the guerrillas. In the other part of the novel, Ondaatje remembers the killing of the doctor and their assistants. In order to kill their opponent, the insurgents come to the hospital and kill him. They not only do this, but also kill the doctor who gives treatment for him.

Meanwhile, far away in the south, there were other interruptions. Insurgents entered the Ward Place Hospital in Colombo and killed a doctor and two of his assistants. They had come looking for one patient. ‘Where is so and so?’ they had asked. ‘I don’t know.’ There was bedlam. After finding the patient, they pulled out long knives and cut him to pieces. (Ondaatje 122-123)

When Ondaatje was a young boy, he encountered the abduction. He recalls the abduction through the character of Sarath. He also explains the way they kidnap the man. In the market, two insurgents kidnapped a man. Sarath does not know the exact reason for the abduction, but he watched them from the empty office.

Two men, insurgents I suppose, had caught a man. I don’t know what he had done. . . He had no shoes on. And he was blindfolded. They propped him up, made him sit awkwardly on the crossbar of a bicycle. One of the captors sat on the saddle, the one with the rifle stood by his side. (Ondaatje 150)

Ondaatje also remembers the disappearance of the people through the character of Sirissa. After encountering the massacre of the students, she is disappeared. When the protagonist enquires about Ananda’s wife, he informed her that she is disappeared. “Ananda’s wife, Sirissa, disappeared at that time. . .” (Ondaatje 181).

Through Lakma’s story, Ondaatje recalls the children who lose their family during the war. The guerrillas killed Lakma’s parents in front of her eyes. Like this incident, many children might have lost their parents. “A few years before, the girl Lakma had seen her parents killed” (Ondaatje 99). Palipana, the tutor of Sarath and Gamini also has lost his brother during the civil war. At the beginning of the novel, a woman has lost her brother and husband. Through these characters, Ondaatje recalls the loss of family during the Civil war.

Ondaatje recalls the explosion of bombs and its effects in Anil’s Ghost. When he is young he might have heard the bomb sound, and so he remembers the event through the character of Gamini. As a doctor, Gamini gives treatment to the people those who are affected by the explosion of bomb. Whenever a bomb goes off in a public, he will wait in the entrance of the hospital to give treatment for the affected people. Each time they receive the public bomb affected people, but this time he receives the street bomb affected people.

Whenever a bomb went off in a public place, Gamini stood at the entrance of the hospital, the funnel of the triage, and categorized the incoming victims, quickly assessing the state of each person – sending them to Intensive Care or to the operating theatre. This time there were women too, because it had been a street bomb. (Ondaatje 121)

Ondaatje also remembers the massacre on roadside in Anil’s Ghost. When Sarath and Anil go to Colombo, they come across the man who is crucified by the insurgents on the road. He is the driver of the truck and he is lying in front of his truck. At first, they think that he might have in his drunken state, but later they come to know that he has been attacked by the insurgents. “He was almost unconscious. Someone had hammered a bridge nail into his left palm and another into his right, crucifying him to the tarmac” (Ondaatje 107). In reality, roadside killing is common in Sri Lanka during the civil war. As Ondaatje encounters the mass massacre, abduction, tortures, bombings and killings, he expresses these events in Anil’s Ghost. In order to recall these incidents, he writes this novel.

To conclude, through these events Ondaatje reminiscences the Sri Lankan Civil war for future generation. When he was 11 years old, Ondaatje moved to England with his mother. As a young boy he doesn’t know about the disturbing situation of his country. Due to war his family moves to England, later they settled in Canada. When he has grown up he doesn’t have any idea to write about the Sri Lankan Civil war. In order to remember this war, he revisits his country and relearns about the past of the country. Like Ondaatje, many of them may migrate to other countries in their young age. For them and their future generation he writes this novel to remember the Sri Lankan Civil war.

Works Cited

Bajoria, Jayshree. “The Sri Lankan conflict.” Council on Foreign Relations, 18 May 2009, www.cfr.org/backgrounder/sri-lankan-conflict. Accessed 13 Mar. 2019.
Bonner, Raymond. “Tamil Guerrillas in Sri Lanka: Deadly and Armed to the Teeth.” The New York Times, 7 Mar. 1998, www.nytimes.com/1998/03/07/world/tamil-guerrillas-in-sri-lanka-And-armed-to-the-teeth. Accessed 13 Mar. 2019.
Braithwaite, John and D’Costa, Bina. “Cascades Across an Extremely Violent Society: Sri Lanka.” International Journal of Conflict and Violence, Vol.10, no.1, 2016, pp.11-24, www.ijcv.org/index.php/ijcv/article/view/436/pdf. Accessed 13 Mar. 2019.
Kanner, Ellen. “New discoveries from the author of The English Patient.” Book Page, May 2000, bookpage.com/interviews/8051-michael-ondaatjefiction#.XNgPc0hS_IU. Accessed 5 Mar 2019.
Ondaatje, Michael. Anil’s Ghost. Picador, London, 2011.

To cite this article

Sharmilee Rose, P. (2019). Remembering War in Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s GhostSparkling International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research Studies, 2(2), 17-22.

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