Anil’s Ghost – A Book Review
By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
April 26, 2003

I was hesitant reading Anil’s Ghost when it was published. Sometime the overreaching popularity and fame of a writer can become the cause of avoiding reading his works. And I confess, it was a mistake.

Michael Ondaatje is a familiar name in the literary arena. After his Booker winning novel The English Patient was memorialized by the superb direction of Anthony Minghella, artistically given life to by Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott, Juliette Binoche and other unforgettable casts, the urge for reading the original novel was there. I wanted to forget the theme and intricacies of the movie so that I could rediscover it years from now, but the memories of love and gloom are still remaining. Perhaps a few more years require before embarking to that appealing trek.

Anil’s Ghost is set up in different settings. Michael Ondaatje, a Sri Lankan born Canadian writer revisits his country of origin, painting through his artistic skills the devastations of another war-ravaged nation. It is about life and death, the agony of dying victims of war, terrorism’s brutal reminder emanating from their remaining tortured bones.

“The bodies turn up weekly now. The height of the terror was eighty-eight and eighty-nine, but of course it was going on long before that. Every side was killing and hiding the evidence. Every side. This is an unofficial war, no one wants to alienate the foreign powers. So it’s secret gangs and squads. Not like Central America. The government was not the only one doing the killing. You had, and still have, three camps of enemies – one in the north, two in the south – using weapons, propaganda, fear, sophisticated posters, censorship. Importing state-of-the-art weapons from the West, or manufacturing homemade weapons. A couple of years ago people just started disappearing. Or bodies kept being found burned beyond recognition. There’s no hope of affixing blame. And no one can tell who the victims are. I am just an archaeologist. This pairing by your commission and the government was not my idea – a forensic pathologist, an archaeologist, odd pairing, if you want my opinion. What we’ve got here is unknown extrajudicial executions mostly. Perhaps by the insurgents, or by the government or the guerilla separatists. Murders committed by all sides” (Page 17). These are Sarath’s words to Anil.

Anil Tissera is a young Western educated Sri Lankan woman. She is a forensic anthropologist. An international human-rights group sends her “to work with local officials to discover the source of the organized campaigns of murder engulfing the island.”

Anil meets Sarath, an archaeologist based in Sri Lanka. They embark in their journey of uncovering an unpleasant truth, truth that the seated Sri Lanka government, Singhalese and the Tamil opponents were both hiding to cover their crimes against humanity.

Why did the Sri Lankan government allowed Anil to investigate the killings that might implicate them in return? “President Katugala claimed no knowledge or organized campaigns of murder on the island. But under pressure, and to placate trading partners in the West, the government eventually made the gesture of an offer to pair local officials with outside consultants, and Anil Tissera was chosen as the Geneva organization’s forensic specialist, to be teamed with an archaeologist (Sarath) in Colombo” (Page 16).

Anil’s Ghost reads like a mystery novel. There is the meticulous investigation in finding the identity of a murdered man whose bones Anil and Sarath discovered hidden among the century old human bones in government protected area. Their investigation led them to sought help from a legendary epigraphist Palipana who was residing in semi-monastery seclusion. The description of Palipana’s life in brief was refreshing as it shows the nature’s way of revealing history through rocks and bones.

Gamini is Sarath’s brother. He is a doctor who has seen war’s wrath and fought to save countless lives in the local hospitals. The rebels kidnap him for a day or two. They need his expertise to heal their wounds. “He worked into the night, bending over patients while someone on the other side of their beds held an old Coleman lamp. Some of the boys were delirious when they emerged from the influence of the pills. Who sent a thirteen-year-old to fight, and for what furious cause? For an old leader? For some pale flag? He had to keep reminding himself who these people are. Bombs on crowded streets, in bus stations, paddy fields, schools had been set by people like this. Hundreds of victims had died under Gamini’s care. Thousands couldn’t walk or use their bowels anymore. Still. He was a doctor” (Page 120).

Gamini and other doctors were not working for profit. “They all knew it was about the sense of self-worth that, during those days, in that place, had overcome them. They were not working for any cause or political agenda. They had found a place a long way from governments and media and financial ambition. They had originally come to the northeast for a three-month shift and in spite of the lack of equipment, the lack of water, not one luxury except now and then a tin of condensed milk sucked in a car while being surrounded by jungle, they had stayed for two years or three, in some cases longer. It was the best place to be” (Page 231).

Anil is a fearless woman. She wants to find justice for the victims. She wants to hold responsible of those who are behind the murder of that sailor’s bone she is methodically examining. She doesn’t want to listen to Sarath who advises her to be careful, the big brother is watching her every move. Anil doesn’t know whom to trust anymore. She even begins to suspect Sarath who might be working for the government. But there is a twist in the story that must be explored by the interested readers.

Michael Ondaatje’s Anil Ghost is a painful testament that war and terrorism bring nothing fruitful but more wars and terrorism. War and terrorism may take different forms in different nations or different historical era, but the underlying essence is the same: they kill people. They transform a kind society into bipolar schism.

Wherever it occurs, Sri Lanka or Iraq, it is the victims’ generation long pain and sufferings passed onto the new generation that inflames more wars as a means of vengeance. History tries to warn the new generation from embracing the same repeated mistakes done by their ancestors, but the killings and mayhems unfortunately continues in the name of insatiable power, greed and religious creed. A shift in our violent paradigm is urgently required. And observing the rousing anti-war sentiments around the world among the peaceful mass of billions, the mouthful agenda of neo-bigots and terrorists may very well become the things of an inglorious past in the hopeful future.


1. Michael Ondaatje, "Anil's Ghost", McClelland Stewart Inc., Toronto, 2000.
2. Picture Reference:


Mahbubul Karim (Sohel) is a freelance writer. His email address is: