Michael Ondaatje: Running in the Family

Whenever something momentous happens anywhere in the world, the first instinct of a reader is to read. Whether they be articles, books, or contrasting views on social media posts, a reader reads. And books, even when they are not capable of telling you everything, can still tell you a lot.

As soon as Sri Lanka’s protesters occupied their president’s palace and called for his resignation, I paused from this month’s reading goal to look into Sri Lanka.

The bad news: There is only one Sri Lankan on my shelf. The good news: It is Michael Ondaatje.

“Ceylon falls on a map and its outline is the shape of a tear,” writes this favorite author who is none other than the one who wrote about “the sadness of geography”.

Although I initially hoped otherwise, Running in the Family is not a thorough overview of the nation’s history or politics and turned out to be about family history; and yet I became so absorbed in it that I forfeited an early morning run to read it and finished it on the same day. Because after all, you learn a lot about a country through its people, through its literature, and reading along or between the lines.

There were times when it felt like I was reading about my own country: From superstitions, to drinking tubâ (coconut toddy), the humidity, the smell of durian, the attitudes, and our colonial past — “… the wife of many marriages, courted by invaders who stepped ashore and claimed everything with the power of their sword or bible or language.”

The ousting of leaders has been one of the recurring themes in my readings these past few years and I have read quite a bit to know enough that overthrowing a corrupt leader is not always an assurance of a better government (but also enough to know that the faults of the successor should never erase the sins of the previous one from the memory of its people, otherwise the vicious cycle only continues).

By the end of the book, I already felt a kinship with Sri Lanka’s people; and for now, we wait with bated breath for what is to come. While it is tempting to hope that, by some stroke of serendipity, my country and this land that used to be called “Serendip” by Arab sea traders will stumble upon great things in the future of our governments, we know we cannot leave it all to chance.

There is so much work to be done.