Unassuming and gentle, Ondaatje is the rare author you can love

by Lakshmi Chaudhry and Sandip Roy

Jaipur: Booker prize winner Michael Ondaatje is one of those rare authors who you can love. Contrary to popular wisdom, it's quite rare to love the author as well as the books he or she writes. But Ondaatje is the exception.

Speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival at a session titled ‘From Ink Lake’ moderated by Amitava Kumar, Ondaatje touched on his own books, the craft of writing, and his relationship to his native country, Sri Lanka. He also read an excerpt from his latest book Cats Table.

 Unassuming and gentle, Ondaatje is the rare author you can love

Ondaatje is that rare author you can love: Reuters

The session began with a bit of humour, when Amitava Kumar introducing him said, “Ondaatje has won pretty much every prize other than Sri Lanka man of the match”. Looking like like Richard Attenborough with his fluffy white hair, white beard and round face. Ondaatje was very unassuming and gentle. Somewhat different from another white-top in the audience – Suhel Seth.

Speaking on reading, Ondaatje said, "When I read biographies I skip first the 30 pages, the childhood. Chaplins childhood is like stolen Dickens." He said the western novel contained organized and logical safety in chronological progession. Japanese films on the other hand, he said were made of collage bricollage lists . "Step back and you see the pattern of life".

The conversation predictably moves on to his Booker prize winning work The English Patient. "I wanted the marginality to come to the center”, he says, adding that he wanted to bring (protagonist) Kip into the landscape. “Politically I don’t believe we can have only one voice to the story.”

During question time which starts a tad embarrassingly because the journalist who speaks to him seems unaware that he wrote The English Patient, Ondaatje is asked what he thinks about Sri Lanka now. He replies that Anils Ghost was his book about the war. He thought it would end with Anil going back to North America, but at the end realised the book had to stay in Sri Lanka. He says the book wiped him out emotionally. War always continues in different forms as it does in Sri Lanka.

The one critique we had of the conversation with Ondaatje, is that it underlines the dangers of an interview with a Great Author that becomes entirely about the craft of writing. This is fascinating to other writers but tends not to be interesting to a lay audience — even when it includes many fans of said author. The ordinary reader most often responds to an author not because he describes a ship’s passage through the Suez or the way the sun strikes a vase but because he taps into bigger themes that strike a chord or hit a nerve.

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Updated Date: Jan 20, 2012 13:52:48 IST