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Wednesday, 7 December 2011

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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 his adoption.

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 others have?

- Lalith Seneviratne

 

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