Michael Ondaatje writes a good story and some fine poetry. I have enjoyed his ‘Cat’s Table’ and ‘Running in the Family’. ‘The English Patient’ is his best known work.
I had been reading ‘Running in the Family’ about Michael’s early life in Kegalle, Sri Lanka. Michael Ondaatje left Sri Lanka at the age of 11 in 1954 and after a few years in England he moved to Canada in 1962 where he is a respected literary figure. The Ondaatje family had a coconut estate in Kegalle called Rock Hill where Michael spent his childhood.
Kegalle, Sri Lankan City
Kegalle is the largest town between Colombo and Kandy at about the half way point. I was researching significant events in Sri Lanka since independence in 1948 and one was the 1971 uprising.
Sri Lanka had a Communist Party from the 1930’s but it was of no significance until Bandaranaike’s government in 1970-77. This government with its policy of ‘Sinhala Only’ and widespread nationalisation coupled with the world situation led to high unemployment and food shortages. The youth of the country were dissatisfied and organised themselves within the JVP party (Janath Vimukthi Peramuna), a hard left communist group dedicated to overthrowing the establishment by violent means.
The JVP gangs raided local government offices in 1971 and obtained the register of all those owning firearms. A week later, their insurgency began and gangs went around confiscating the firearms and looting all the things young men want, radios, sports kit, and food. The uprising was particularly violent and most nearly successful in Kegalle. So I went there.
The JVP was strong in Kegalle. Michael Ondaatje tells this interesting tale. After their time of looting, the JVP gang went to Ondaatje’s house at Rock Hill and requested the shotgun and rifle. They were polite and took nothing other than the guns for they knew Michael’s father to be a friend of the community. Father, who had died a little while before, had donated land for a park among other things. Michael was not there at the time. His step-mother and sister had to host the communists.
The looters stacked their armoury in the garden and asked Michael’s step-sister for a bat and a ball and would she like to join them in a game of cricket? History does not relate whether she scored runs or not but the story underlines the importance of cricket in Sri Lanka, even in the middle of a communist revolution.
Kegalle Police Station
The insurgency was a close-run thing. Attacks were made on all Police stations in the country at the same time using home-made hand grenades and stolen guns. The government only just survived by putting the revolutionaries down with utmost brutality. One of the important actions was at Kegalle Police Station. Re-inforcements arrived just in time to save the besieged police.
The revolution and the attack on the Police Station were important events for my research. I asked my driver to take me to the police station so I could take a photograph. He refused to stop but slowed down as we went past. You do not take pictures of police stations here.
Then I asked the driver whether he knew Rock Hill. With the aid of a smart phone and Google Earth we soon located it. The area was clearly a former coconut grove but now divided up for dwellings. We enquired of a few people who all seemed to know of the family and we eventually found the house.
Michael Ondaatje’s Boyhood Home
The current owners are the third generation after the Ondaatjes left in 1972. They had kept some of the garden and had modified the house a little but it sat well on the top of Rock Hill. An interesting feature was a small extension on one side. We were told that it had been a chapel in Ondaatje’s time but was now a Buddhist Shrine.
The owner and her daughter were aware of the literary eminence of the former occupant but had not read his books. We chatted for a while about the changing face of Kegalle then left for lunch at an hotel on the new bypass called ‘The Bypass Hotel’. The bill for the three of us was 570 Rupees, almost £3 for curry and rice and an ice cream.