The Book Club – February Chapter


Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

This February, we read Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. It turned out to be a book which everyone enjoyed.  The prose, the fascinating portrayal of his life with his parents in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Michael Ondaatje, an award-winning,  Sri Lanka born Canadian writer has woven a magical mosaic of a book. A memoir of charming stories knitted out of the enchanting fabrics of his life.

Ceylon – “The island seduced all of Europe.  The Portuguese. The Dutch. The English.” Running in the Family gives a compelling view into our neighbouring country Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). As a child, Michael lived in Sri Lanka with his family, when it was still Ceylon. The book reveals a captivating Ceylon. A  place of calm and happiness. No mention of the regional disturbances. Instead, we are introduced to unheard of creatures. Large houses, beautiful lawns, the heat and the trees. Stunning, long and winding roads and the seas. The parties and picnics. And most importantly the eclectic community.

The Ondaatjes – A fantastic family – all heart and drama. Outrageous incidents dot the family timeline. Incidents from getting engaged to two women at the same time or going abroad to study and then never making it to college, to children being forced to swallow the tongue of a reptile based on an ancient belief that it will make the child a great orator on growing up.

The book is peppered with names that one may have heard of or read about and are very much verifiable. Distinguished members of the era make this a fascinating account. For instance, there is an incident of the visitors’ book, where Sammy Dias (the cousin of the Sri Lankan PM) and Michael Ondaatje’s father Philip Michael Ondaatje break into a literary war. Each would express his dislike for the other by writing dirt about the other in the Visitor’s Book of a rest-house.  It soon stopped mattering if either one of them had not stayed in the rest-house. Pages had to be ripped out of the visitors’ book and ultimately both were banned from giving their feedback in the book. Getting banned is a regular occurrence. Philip Michael Ondaatje is also banned from the Ceylon railways following his reputation of causing a commotion while travelling inebriated.

Grandmother Lalla is described as an ‘overbearing charmed flower,’ who continues to give treats to people despite being broke. And his mother made of the similar mantle as grandmother Lalla, both “carrying their theatres on their backs”.

There are pictures of the author’s family, which are as striking as the words – giving a comforting feeling of magical existence.

The craft – The memoirs are captivating, the incidents are outlandish and the characters are larger than life. But all this makes a fabulous read because of the excellent way the book is written. Michael Ondaatje writes beautifully. We had read a couple of his books earlier and we are happy to have added this marvellous book to our “read” list.

I would recommend this book to Running in the Family to anyone who loves Michael Ondaatje, or would love to read about Sri Lanka.

Rating – 5/5

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