“Running in the Family” by Michael Ondaatje

November 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

Published after Ceylon’s decolonization, Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family (1982) aims to extend his personal struggles of reconciling identity to explicate Ceylon’s context. By exemplifying the archetypical Burgher as one who experiences a sense of Western aristocracy, identity crises and cultural alienation, Ondaatje offers a post-colonial discourse which examines the effects of colonization. Ultimately, the representations of Burghers as affluent, ambivalent and rootless are intended to illuminate Ceylon’s context and the impacts of colonization.

As a result of their baroque Western lineage, Burghers are portrayed to be affluent. By alluding to “the old governor’s home” (Ondaatje 24) that he resided in with the visual imagery of its “18th-century Dutch defense” (Ondaatje 26), Ondaatje exposes his lavish heritage as a descendant of the ruling Dutch elites, accentuating his family’s historical prominence. His family was portrayed to be extremely prosperous, culminating into prevalent narratives of their decadence. In fact, they were so wealthy that they simply entrusted “funds for three years of university education” (Ondaatje 31) to Mervyn. Ironically, he “had not even passed the entrance exam” (Ondaatje 31) and was haphazardly splurging the fortune on “extravagant rooms in Cambridge” (Ondaatje 31). This exemplifies the frivolous attitude the Burghers had towards money due to the amount of wealth they possessed. Similarly, Ondaatje’s family would retreat “during the hot months… to Nuwara Eliya” (Ondaatje 39), a place only for the privileged, to indulge in “constant parties, horse racing…and serious golf” (Ondaatje 39). This reckless behaviour reflects their excesses, which allows them to partake in the typical activities of the Western nobility, emphasizing their social status and Westernized lifestyle. Furthermore, frequent intertextual references to high-calibre Western entertainment, namely “Jane Austen’s Persuasion” (Ondaatje 22) and Shakespearean plays, reinforces Ondaatje’s privileged status as a civilised Burgher with Western inclinations. Quintessentially, Burghers are portrayed as wealthy, indulgent individuals due to their Western descent.

Subsequently, Ondaatje portrays them to be ambivalent due to their entanglement with identity crises. By utilizing the contrasting symbols of “jungle” (Ondaatje 21) and “snow” (Ondaatje 21) to represent the East and West respectively, Ondaatje highlights the divergence between the ethnicities, elucidating the divisive nature of the Burghers’ convoluted identity. This is emphasized when Bampa dresses in both Western “grey suits” (Ondaatje 56) and Ceylonese “sarong and vest” (Ondaatje 56), displaying his mimicry of both cultures. As characterized by Bampa, Burghers are fixated in “those ‘in-between’ spaces” (Spinks, ch.5) where they are neither Ceylonese nor Dutch, manifesting into persistent anxiety as they pander to either culture while suppressing the other (Singh). This self-division is reinforced with the metaphor of “floods…(which) swirled (Ondaatje) away” (Ondaatje 23), typifying the fluidity of identity in constantly transgressing between the two cultures. Likewise, “the train kept shunting back and forth” (Ondaatje 155) on the Colombo-Trincomalee run, never reaching either destination in the West or East despite Mervyn’s efforts. Evidently, Ondaatje underscores the Burghers’ powerlessness in negotiating identity, showcasing their ceaseless entrapment by their conflicted identity. As a result, Burghers are represented as irresolute individuals.

Simultaneously, Burghers are represented as outsiders with a sense of rootlessness from Ceylon. While Ondaatje practices local customs, such as “eat(ing) with (his) hands” (Ondaatje 26), it is a performance of identity and an attempt to go native to assimilate into Ceylon (Singh). This is subsequently exposed through the visual imagery of him “shovelling in the rice… (and) crunching the shell” (Ondaatje 26), displaying his desperations to portray himself as a native who is in tuned with his Ceylonese culture. This self-deception perpetuates, going to the extent where he calls the weather “delicious heat” (Ondaatje 79) despite the incongruent reality that “No one moves too far from… the fan” (Ondaatje 79). Hence, it appears that Ondaatje romanticizes Ceylon for self-deception. Additionally, he likens Ceylon to the feminine symbol of “a pendant off the ear of India” (Ondaatje 63), aligning with the Westernized perception of the “feminine East” (Pattberg). This distinguishes him as a “cultural outsider” (Ty 102) who views Ceylon from western lenses, bolstering his self-proclaimed claim as “the foreigner” (Ondaatje 79). Successively, Ondaatje constructs Ceylon as a fantastical imagined space with the visual imagery of “slipper-footed elephants, a white queen… (and) a Moorish king…” (Ondaatje 63). This exoticizes the Ceylonese landscapes, portraying them as “alternative worlds that create nostalgia or evoke memories of a homeland” (Ty 100) that he does not belong to, exposing his cultural alienation to Ceylon. Ultimately, as embodied by Ondaatje, Burghers are represented as outsiders who are culturally dislocated from their Ceylonese roots.

Other than exploring Ondaatje’s struggles with his identity and facilitating emotional catharsis, these portrayals were intended to illuminate the effects of colonization. By characterizing the Burghers as affluent, Ondaatje reveals the presence of Western supremacy in the historical context. During colonization, Ceylonese locals were degraded as “savages…(living in) mud-huts” (Ondaatje 86) by the Westerners, exemplifying them to be uncivilised, poor and filthy. In juxtaposition, the Burghers were recurrently associated with ideas of Western aristocracy and civilisation, exhibiting the political and economic disparity between them and the natives. Thus, the locals were marginalized while the Burghers were elevated, revealing the colonial development of social inequality. Additionally, Ondaatje represents the Burghers as ambivalent individuals, signifying the erosion of Ceylon’s national identity due to the colonial enforcement of Westernization. Yet, the Burghers’ experience with self-division and identity crises were exacerbated, estranging them from Ceylonese culture. This rootless character parallels the national sentiments after colonization, where many are disturbed by a lack of belonging to their nation. Essentially, these portrayals expose the ills of colonization in worsening social stratification, diluting the native culture and emerging generations of culturally displaced individuals.

Cumulatively, Ondaatje’s search for a closure in his identity crises has developed into these depictions of Burghers as wealthy, self-divided and rootless. Beyond achieving emotional catharsis, these portrayals are unified under a post-colonial commentary which expounds on the effects of colonization and Ceylon’s context. Most importantly, Ondaatje compels readers to realize that colonization has corroded Ceylon’s national identity, subsequently manifesting in cultural tensions which instigated the civil war (Spinks, ch.5).

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