Anil’s Ghost and the Sri Lankan Civil War

In this photo released by the Sri Lankan army Tuesday, April 21, 2009, ethnic Tamil civilians who escaped from the Tamil Tiger controlled areas are seen arriving Monday, April 20, 2009 at the government controlled areas in Putumattalan, north east of Colombo, Sri Lanka. (AP Photo/Sri Lankan Army, HO)

Literary texts are ideological forms of social consciousness that arise out of the material foundations of society. Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost can therefore be said to have a particular relationship with the social order from which it was written: a Sri Lanka wracked by civil war, chronic crisis, and diaspora.

Anil Tissera, a Sri Lankan forensics expert returning to her homeland after fifteen years studying and working abroad, is sent by the United Nations back to the island-nation to investigate the dirty war being waged by the government against its own people, a war that brought a spiral of violence, impunity, and fear: “If a father protested a son’s death, it was feared another family member would be killed.”

This search for the truth, particularly for the identity of the victims, also sheds light on Anil’s personal history as well as of the two brothers she becomes involved with in her investigation: the archaeologist Sarath Diyasena and the doctor Gamini who treats victims of the armed conflict.

The ruling ideology functions primarily to make submissive subjects out of the dominated classes. In Ondajaate’s Anil’s Ghost, this operates in how the structure of the novel seems to privilege the standpoint of the neutral observer who is not party to the conflict and who condemns the abuses perpetrated by all sides of the decades-long armed conflict of circa 80s Sri Lanka.

Anil and Sarath unearths fresh skeletons that are attempted to be passed of as one of the ancient bones found in a restricted archaeological site accessible only to the government. The extent of state terrorism is such that Anil expresses anxiety on their entering the restricted area for their investigation. “You’re six hours away from Colombo and you’re whispering–think about that,” Sarath would say in reply to Anil’s paranoia.

“Every side was killing and hiding the evidence,” said Sarath. The framing of the novel seems to bolster this through narratives and details that juxtapose government brutalities along with its enemies’ atrocities. Anti-government guerrillas kidnap doctors, like Gamini, who are then forced to serve the sick in their base areas. Separatist “terrorists,” meanwhile, assassinate the president by blowing themselves up in a civilian crowd. The foreign observers stands above this chaos.

But literary texts are not mere direct expressions of socio-economic structure but have an autonomy that endows them with their own rules and effects. Anil’s Ghost’s, as inspired by the sordid conditions of the Sri Lankan armed conflict and as written by a western educated Sri Lankan expatriate schooled, should not be read therefore as automatically embodying the dominant ideologies. In fact, a self-reflexive commentary on the protagonist’s subject position attacks the voyeurism of the west and the predominant liberal myth of neutrality that washes the former colonial powers’ hands off the conflict:

‘American movies, English books-remember how they all end?’ Gamini asked that night. ‘The American or the Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That’s it. The camera leaves with him. He looks out of the window at Mombasa or Vietnam or Jakarta, someplace now he can look at through the clouds. The tired hero. A couple of words to the girl beside him. He’s going home. So the war, to all purposes, is over. That’s enough reality for the West. It’s probably the history of the last two hundred years of Western political writing. Go home. Write a book. Hit the circuit.’ (286-287)

Here, the novel even makes clear the complicity of an unjust world order to the armed conflict. There is a need to settle with the use of a sardonic aside as this is what cannot directly be stated in Anil’s Ghost: the world capitalist system, by relegating former colonies like Sri Lanka as mere sources of raw resources and cheap labor to advanced industrial centers, is directly responsible for soaring inequality, ethno-religious hostilities, and fascist state repression.

Anil and Sarath would ultimately identify the skeleton as that of Ruwan Kumara’s, a victim of a frequent practice by armed forces here in the Philippines:  “They had brought a Billa-someone from the community with a gunnysack over his head, slits cut out for his eyes-to anonymously identify the rebel sympathizer.”

Anil’s Ghost gives a powerful depiction of the tragedy of the Sri Lankan civil war as seen from the eyes of human rights advocates and medical practitioners as they are caught in the escalation of the armed conflict. Reading Anil’s Ghost makes for a more compelling read in the light of the past years’ brutal conclusion of the brutal civil war that has wracked Sri Lanka in the past 3 decades. ■


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