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Michael Ondaatje’s novel, Anil’s Ghost, is the story of a woman, Anil, who is on a quest to identify the remains of a man that she believes to have been killed by the Sri Lankan government. Also central to this mission, and the novel, is Anil’s pursuit of her own identity as well as the true identities of those around her. At first glance, it would seem axiomatic that one’s identity can be discovered and defined. But is it really? Is it possible at all? Anil’s Ghost seems to give a definition contradictory to the one in the Oxford English Dictionary. What it does provide is a sliding definition of identity; an identity that is constantly in flux. Identity is continuously being constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed. It is a construct not of a single person, but of the collective perception of that person.
Anil Tissera is a woman born in Sri Lanka. She is thirty-three years old. She went to school to become a forensic anthropologist. So, Anil is a 33-year-old female Sri Lankan forensic anthropologist. Is that all there is to her? Of course not. Her family would have the world believe that she was a swimmer at heart. A swimmer who happens to have a degree in the field of forensic anthropology! “Anil had been an exceptional swimmer as a teenager, and the family never got over it; the talent was locked to her for life” (10). Ondaatje explains that “as far as Sri Lankan families were concerned, if you were a well-known cricketer you could breeze into a career in business on the strength of your spin bowling or one famous inning at the Royal-Thomian match” (10). Anil has been out of Sri Lanka for the past fifteen years. She has tried to distance herself from the identity of ‘the swimmer’ and has “lived abroad long enough to interpret Sri Lanka with a long-distance gaze” (11). She believes that “the island no longer held her by the past” (11). She has “spent the fifteen years since ignoring that early celebrity” (11). But Sri Lanka does not see it this way. In fact, the first time that she meets her partner, Sarath Diyasena, he greets her by saying “So—you are the swimmer!” (16). Despite all her educational background, she is still identified by her early accomplishments as a swimmer. She seems to have little control over the way that people view her.
Earlier in her life, Anil makes an even more drastic change in order to establish control over her identity. She rejects the name that she had been given at birth. Instead, she turned her gaze onto the name of her brother. “She’d hunted down the name like a specific lover she had seen and wanted, tempted by nothing else along the way” (68). At the age of thirteen, “she gave her brother one hundred saved rupees, a pen set he had been eyeing for some time, a tin of fifty Gold Leaf cigarettes she had found, and a sexual favour he had demanded in the last hours of the impasse” (68). To even entertain the idea of performing a sexual act on one’s brother would be enough to turn many away. The fact that she goes through with it is proof of her belief in the idea that identity is something that can be controlled by the individual.
She pursues this name even though it causes her family to suffer. When Anil was sixteen, she was “taut and furious within the family” (136). Her parents even bring in an astrologer in an attempt to settle Anil down. The astrologer comes to the conclusion that all of her problems were a result of her name. He suggests that Anil add the letter ‘e’ to the end of her name in order to make her name more feminine and to “allow the fury to curve away” (136). She refuses. Such is the force behind her attempt to control her identity.
By changing her name, she distances herself not only from the name that people had originally called her, but also from her gender; Anil is a traditionally male name. Through her name, she is attempting to assert control over her body and the way that others perceive it. To Anil, the selection of a conventionally male name allows her to transcend gender roles. Perhaps this is the reason that she decides to go into the male-dominated field of forensic anthropology.
As a forensic anthropologist, Anil is constantly on the move. The first move in this process is leaving Sri Lanka for England in the course of her studies. This move is significant not only geographically but culturally as well. During her time in the West, Anil latched onto the idea of privacy. When asked what she liked most about the living in the West, she responded, “Most of all I think I like that I can do things on my own terms. Nothing is anonymous here, is it. I miss my privacy” (72). The Sri Lankan man that she is speaking to “looked totally uninterested in this Western virtue” (72). Anil’s denial of Eastern customs is another way in which she attempts to forge her own identity.
As much as Anil tries to distance herself from her past, it is always there with her. If she is running from something, then the things that she is running from must still be having an effect on her. Her rebellion is proof of this. The fact that she has something to rebel against shows that she is not in complete control. There is something outside of her influencing who she is and how she is perceived.
Her career allowed her to pick up and move whenever it suited her. First was the move to London in order to get her degree. After that, she packed up and moved to Oklahoma in order to continue her work. Next was Arizona, where she was “light-years beyond the character she had been in London” (147). Her travels allow her to continually change the makeup of her character and her personality. She believes that these are integral to her overall plan to have control over her identity. She will not allow herself to be pinned down to one place for too long, and feels that she must move in order to maintain control over herself so that people will not label her simply as a ‘Sri Lankan’ or ‘Londoner.’
Anil’s craving for control over her life extends to her lovers. She was married while in London, yet now she states she will “never say his name out loud" (144). Her husband is depicted as a jealous and controlling man. She saw his jealousy as “an attempt to limit her research and studies. It was the first handcuff of marriage, and it almost buried her” (144). This is something that she cannot stand. She wants to have complete control over her life, over who she is. By not saying his name, she is attempting to erase him from her life. She wants to change her past and maintain an identity devoid of any mention of him. She does the same thing with her lover, Cullis. He is a married man with whom Anil is having an affair. Anil tries to make him be the way that she is. She wants him to break free of the confines of married, stable life. He was a man “encased in ice or metal and she was banging on its surface in order to reach him, in order to let him out” (264). Even at the end of their relationship, Anil does not allow him to have any control over her, even over the memory of her. She “left nothing of herself for him to hold on to” (264).
Anil’s quest to identify Sailor is contradictory to everything that she stands for in her own life. While she strives to allow no one else to define her she is simultaneously on a mission to define someone else.
The first significant step in this process is to give the remains a name: Sailor. Anil rejected her own given name, yet she sees it fit to give this man one. Her own struggle to define herself with a name is made irrelevant by this action. By giving this body a name, she is opening herself up for others to define her. She must accept the fact that others will do the same to her. The man has no say in how others perceive and define him. His identity is based on what she thinks of him, not on what he thinks, or thought, of himself.
While attempting to reconstruct Sailor’s head, Anil and Sarath obtain the help of a man called Ananda. The man used to be a painter, but now he is relegated to working in gem mines. Anil knows and recognizes Ananda as an artist, even though he now works as a miner. This parallels her earlier fame as a talented swimmer. She tried to distance herself from the role, but it came back to her again and again. Ananda, though he did not necessarily try to distance himself from his former career, should be identified as a miner, not an artist, at least according to Anil’s logic. Yet, he is not defined by his current role. He is assigned to the role of artist according to the needs of others. His identity is not in his hands; it is not for him to decide, just as it is not for Anil to decide her own identity.
Anil’s early attempts at learning what Sailor did as a profession are a testament to the transience of identity. “His pelvis, trunk and legs also gave the suggestion of agility, something like the swivel of a man on a trampoline. Acrobat? Circus performer? Trapeze, because of the arms?” (178). Yet, Anil recognizes the fact that “the other version of him was different” (178). “The heel bones—the heel bones suggested an alternate profile completely, a man static and sedentary” (178). There is not simply one identity that can describe Sailor. Even in death, his identity remains elusive. Anil’s observations reflect this conclusion.
Another telling conversation regarding the ability to identify people based on their bones sheds light on the subject. Anil tells Sarath, “You’re an archaeologist. Truth comes finally into the light. It’s in the bones and the sediment” (259). He responds, “It’s in character and nuance and mood” (259). She then makes the statement, “That is what governs us in our lives, that’s not the truth” (259). This conversation is especially damaging to Anil’s quest to construct her own identity. All her life, she has strived to define herself. In this statement, she is condemning her own actions as frivolous and hollow. If, in the end, there is nothing left of a person but his or her bones, then what is the use in putting forth such a great effort to create a unique identity?
Anil has a breakthrough in discovering who Sailor is while she is watching Ananda work. She recognizes that the way in which he positions his feet would lead to structurally identifiable impressions left on his bones. Anil applies this logic to Sailor and comes to the conclusion that he worked in mines. This argument is sound and it eventually leads Anil to discover the name of Sailor, but it does not allow her to come to a reasonable conclusion to his true identity. Ananda is a miner, though this is not his true identity. He is recognized by people as a painter and an artist. In this same way, it would be incorrect to apply this argument to Sailor. To say that this is the extent of his identity would obviously be an incomplete conclusion, but this is all that Anil needs him for. All she needs to say about his identity is that Sailor is a man called Ruwan Kumara, a miner from a plumbago village. Buying into this is buying into the idea that Anil is a 33-year-old female Sri Lankan forensic anthropologist.
Anil’s reconstruction of Sailor’s “identity” belittles her own personal quest to construct her own “identity.” For all of her actions and thoughts, it is the perception of others that make up her identity, just as it is her perception of Sailor that makes up his. While she claims that truth is in “bones and sediment,” her reconstruction of Sailor contradicts this (259). Bones can only tell so much about a person. Sailor’s bones were used in this instance to identify him as Ruwan Kumara, part of a government sanctioned killing and subsequent cover-up. This is only Anil’s understanding of him. This is all he means to her. Others perhaps identified Sailor as a friend, a husband, or a father.
Identity in Anil’s Ghost is something constructed to fit the time. It is not the sameness of a person or thing at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a person or thing is itself and not something else; individuality, personality. Identity is something that is constantly changing. People cannot completely control their identities. They can only offer up actions, blood, and bones to others in an attempt to influence the way that they are perceived. Anil recognizes this and concedes that she has no control over her identity during her speech to the gathered government officials regarding Sailor’s remains: “I think you murdered hundreds of us” (272). Sarath’s thoughts show that he recognizes her resignation in the matter: “Hundreds of us, Sarath thought to himself. Fifteen years away and she is finally us” (272). As much as Anil disassociates herself from who she was, and from who she is, she concedes that her identity is not something over which she has control.
Ondaatje, Michael. Anil's Ghost. New York: Knopf, 2000.