Journey across old Ceylon
Title: ‘The Last Colonial’
Author: Christopher Ondaatje
Publishers: Thames & Hudson
Sir Christopher Ondaatje as the Ceylon-born successful athlete,
explorer, entrepreneur, publisher, writer and benefactor of the arts &
wildlife conservation needs no introduction to the English reading
public. This is his latest writing effort and his near autobiography. In
his own words, it is the book that has given him the most satisfaction.
Ondaatje takes us on a journey across what was then the ‘Empire on
which the Sun never Sets’ through a collection of short stories gained
through his exploration, some spellbinding. He lovingly gives glimpses
of what he calls the care free wilderness of his childhood Ceylon. In
fact, Ceylon is the common thread that binds his numerous writings
including this one.
Ondaatje shows us how his passion for cricket and his developing love
for English literature from early years made him survive the agony of
being transplanted from his native land to the strange customs of West
Country England - inspiration for any teenager. His stories are the
stories of how being at the right place at the right time and then above
all taking or not taking the opportunity this presents can make the
difference between fulfilment and misery. In spite of being short
stories Ondaatje’s mastery is that they have all brush marks for you to
vividly complete the painting with all its details and vibrant colours.
While the tempo may wax and wane from story to story the excitement to
read on continues unabated. For a Sri Lankan especially, it is one of
those books you will nostalgically not let go until you hit the end.
Ondaatje’s book can be about many things to many people. It is a book
about how one should and can integrate and be a valuable part of any
society you choose to live in.
It is a book about taking risk and going where your heart takes you.
It is about the value, meaning and challenge of understanding cultures
by going beyond the veil of ‘extremist’ whitewashing that unfortunately
has wrapped many a culture and a nation in the instantaneous information
age we live in today. It teaches you how life can be bittersweet but how
sweetness can survive in the end.
Ondaatje through his stories vividly teaches you why you should live
by your convictions not by your instincts. How through this path you can
have both a bread and butter life and a God’s life. Through his passion
to pursue the Leopard he enlightens you with little known facts and
legends about it - It is the Leopard that pleasantly further binds him
to the land of his birth. While the core of each short storey continues
he sidesteps you into interesting interludes which adds further shades.
The book rouses the inquisitiveness within you to higher and higher
heights to get to know the author intimately as you get more and more
convinced of the many more anecdotes and conjecture that he must have
close to his chest. But you are disappointed because there isn’t enough
of him to satisfy your urge. We can only hope that he will reveal
himself more over books yet to come.
As you glean some of the little known facts about Ondaatje it makes
one proud as a Sri Lankan. He has to be the first truly complete Global
Ceylonese. The first Ceylonese by birth and perhaps so far the only one
to have taken part in Winter Olympics. Again, the first and the only one
to win a gold medal although it was officially for Canada the land of
Ondaatje’s success in everything he touches makes him a global role
model that we Sri Lankans especially the youth desperately lack. It is
true that the ‘Old Colonials’ raced to honour him first but there is
still the opportunity for us Sri Lankans to do our long neglected part.
His writings intentionally or not reveal that he is a Sri Lankan at
heart. Sri Lanka has shown that it can be a nation of innovators and
entrepreneurs but the common thread of envy that shamefully binds us
makes us quickly fall flat. Here is a man who can help us make a turning
point. He can be the inspiration to the new generation. But it is up to
us - especially those who head our leading educational institutions that
mould our young and the brightest. Can we be blessed to use Ondaatje’s
wisdom to be the starting point to teach our youth to rid themselves of
Kuveni’s curse which is nothing but envy it appears? Ondaatje still has
plenty years ahead of him, is full of energy and his mission in life
will continue forever. Do we want to gain from his wisdom as much as
- Lalith Seneviratne