Anil’s Ghost is a novel by Michael Ondaatje about Anil who is chasing down her own identity. When talked about an identity of a person, it usually started off with his or her name, or hometown. However, two of these attributes, are already debated for the character Anil Tissera. Different experiences in one’s life allows them to piece together their values and beliefs forming the identity they possess and who they are as individuals. An individual’s identity is an important aspect of them to feel distinctly different from others but to have a connection as well if they have similarities. Moreover, someone’s identity makes them feel a sense of importance within themselves and to understand their talent and abilities. Losing an identity can damage an individual physically and psychologically; it will change them for better or worse. Anil, the protagonist in the novel novel, suffers from this as well and must go through various events to discover who she is. In Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje, the way Anil’s identity was changed and formed was due to her changing her name, her identity as swimmer is still influencing identity till today, and they way lover affected her identity. This paper explores how Anil’s identity was influenced by her changed her real name to her brother’s second unused name, how her identity as a swimmer was bothering her due to her past life in Sri Lanka, and the way love had influence her identity.
Earlier in Anil’s life, Anil makes a serious change in order to control over her identity. When Anil was thirteen-years-old she didn’t like the name that she had been given at her birth. “Her name had not always been Anil” (Ondaatje 67). Anil had been given two names she did not like both of them, so she came up with the idea of buying her brother’s second name, which he did not use at all. After lots of debates on this issue Anil eventually succeeded and got his brother’s second unused name, but the history behind having the name “Anil” was very unexpected. ”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” (Ondaatje, 68). Not only does Anil have to give her brother money and good materials in order to get his unused name, but also she has to perform “a sexual favour“, and whatever that exactly means, it is definitely something that Anil was hesitant to do that put her into the most embarrassing position. This shows that she was ready to do anything just to have control over her identity. She was so passionate that her tries made her “taut and livid inside the family”. (Ondaatje”,136) Anil by no means gave her family rest, which is strange behaviour for Sri Lankans who are always “surrounded via household order”. (Ondaatje”,138) The fact that she goes through all the nonsense is the proof of her belief in the idea that identity is something that can be controlled by the individual.
Anil’s identity crisis initiates due to the thoughts of her previous life in Sri Lanka. First of all, Anil is uncomfortable about having a conversation about her past life before America. An example of this is when a man working in the hospital has a conversation with her:
‘Your dress is Western, I see.’
‘It’s a habit.’
‘You’re the swimmer, no?’
She walked away, nodding exaggeratedly. (pg. 26)
This quote displaces that Anil has events from her past that makes her want to overcome the situation. In this case, she has ended her career as a swimmer from when she lived in Sri Lanka. This is an issue for Anil because while others in Sri Lanka associate her as a great swimmer and keep reminding her of that, she is trying to forget her past life and only focus on her new life in America. But, her family was making everyone believe that she was a great swimmer. 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” (Ondaatje”,10). Anil has been living out of Sri Lanka for the past fifteen years. She has tried to maintain her distance from the identity of being ‘the swimmer’ and has
“lived abroad long enough to interpret Sri Lanka with a long-distance gaze…, the island no longer held her by the past…, spent the fifteen years since ignoring that early celebrity” (Ondaatje”,11).
But Sri Lanka does not see her in this particular way. In fact, the first time that she meets, Sarath Diyasena, he addresses her by saying “So—you are the swimmer!” (16). This quote displaces that no matter what her educational background is she is still identified by her early accomplishments as a swimmer. This issue creates a conflict within herself of whether she should be what they identified her as or be what she wants to be, which is an American. Anil only came back to Sri Lanka because her occupant required her to do so. Many individuals for their jobs try their hardest not to get emotionally attached because it will then start to make them ineffective when they are on work. In this case, when Anil returns she initially tries to push away her feelings for this country and forget her past life or else she would not be able to perform to the greatest. This also shows that she at least has some control over her identity and also some control over the way that people view her. This also displayed that your identity in past will never leave your back, you can’t get rid of it but yes you can have multiple identity since people are stuffed with different talents.
People define themselves based on those they associate with, which creates an identity for oneself through the journey they take with surrounding the people. Anil’s attempts to control over her identity extends to her lovers. She got married while she was in London, yet now she states that she will “never say his name out loud” (144). Her husband throughout the novel is portrayed 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 handle. She wants to have complete control over her identity and life. By not saying his name, she is trying to erase him from her life. She wants to change her past and maintain an identity without any mention of him. She leaves her possessive husband who had controlled her freedom and hence posed a threat to her identity. The next relationship that Anil enters is an affair with an American writer named Cullis. First of all, his first appearance in the novel is not the first meeting between him and Anil. Instead, Ondaatje puts the reader in questions regarding their relationship. “While Anil was working with the forensic team in Guatemala, she’d flown into Miami to meet Cullis.“ (33) At this meeting, which is described in the following two pages of the novel, Anil talks a lot about her work in Guatemala, which makes Cullis realize that “she had fallen even more in love with her work“ (33), certainly not a nice experience for him as her lover. She does the same thing with her lover, Cullis as what she did with her husband. Anil tries to make him the way she is. 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 or her identity. She “left nothing of herself for him to hold on to” (264). This show that her identity as an individual matter more to her than her past relationships which is with her ex-husband and her boyfriend Cillis. Due to that she left her husband and trying changing her Boyfriend as the way she wanted him to be.
In conclusion, Identity is an important theme in Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost. Identity is something that is constantly changing for each person in the world . People cannot completely control their identities a man or woman cannot have just one identity. People are stuffed with diverse personalities that alternate in such a way that they can’t be defined as one thing. Memories of the past exist and affect our life even if we try to avoid them