Running in the Family: Chapter Notes – A Fine Romance

 The Babylon Stakes – Kegalle (i)


The Babylon Stakes (p.48 – 52)

·         Horse-racing described as a major form of entertainment in Ceylon

·         Betting and gambling were large parts of the people’s lives as much of their work and daily lives revolved around it (i.e. his mother closed down her shop for a month during the horseracing season)

·         Owning a horse was something that many people sought after (his grandmother owned a horse called Dickman Delight)

·         Betting and attending horse-races was a very social activity, young couples would attend the races and bet large sums on horses then go out together to dance, drink and fall in love without a thought towards the consequences then would proceed to drive drunkenly back to town, ending the night by crashing their cars


Tropical Gossip (p.53 – 54)

·         Reiterating the idea that marriages were not always considered serious unions as they were often “rainbowed over” by love affairs

·         Repeating the idea that his father’s generation was wild and free from the 1920’s until the second war as “nobody really had to grow up” and so Ondaatje’s father’s generation spent their youths forming “complex relationships”

·         Suggests that the truth about his father’s generation’s love affairs is lost in history and exaggerated through gossip and Ondaatje conveys his desperation at this point to find someone to tell him directly what happened during this time without influences of gossip and rumours.


Kegalle (i) (p.55 – 60)

·         Descriptions of Ondaatje’s paternal grandfather (Philip) who built the family home at ‘Rock Hill’ are given. He is portrayed as a strict and aloof man who was often compared to his brother Aelian who most people preferred due to his generosity and light-hearted manner. Both men were lawyers, but Philip was more successful.

·         Many Ondaatjes’ liked liquor, had diabetes and hot-tempers, this is a series of things that ‘run in the family’

·         Philip Ondaatje’s funeral at which there is a “loud argument”

·         Mervyn Ondaatje returns to ‘Rock Hill’ and gave away and sold much of the land when he needed money, he lived simply and remarried to a woman with whom he had children with

·         His father struggled with a drinking problem, and would go months without drinking but would then drink straight for 3-4 days without sleeping, eating or talking to anyone. His father’s unhappiness is reflected in his change of the lyrics to “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean” to be a song about alcohol and liquor rather than about a girl





At times these are a symbol of the past and of Ondaatje’s connection with Sri Lanka, for example when he says that the only thing that remained intact in his childhood garden was the “mangosteen tree, which [he] practically lived in as a child during its season of fruit” which “was full and strong” (59). The nostalgia here is significant and the fact that only this remains not only suggests the decline and deterioration of Philip Ondaatje after his divorce but it also hints at the tenuousness of Ondaatje’s connection with his past and the land of his birth. Another tree that remained in the home was the “kitul tree; which the polecat used to love” (59), the tree and the polecat are perhaps a symbol of the exotic nature of Ondaatje’s youth. This tree, linked with the more morose memories of his father’s alcoholic rages, introduces a melancholy feel to the scene as we Ondaatje recounts his fathers last drunken years.



Horses appear as symbols of escapism when they are associated with racing and the socially elite circles in which the Ondaatjes moved. The concern with horse racing also conveys the frivolous (or carefree) nature of the times as “Racing concerned everyone” (49) and the government believed that by gambling and betting it would supply more money for the economy. In fact “Even during the war the August races were not to be postponed” (49), which shows how the world of the rich in Sri Lanka was pleasantly insulated from real world affairs.



Alcohol is seen as a symbol of the “flaming youth”, their exuberance, their lack of consideration of consequences and it is such another form of escapism, hence people drink to forget their sorrows when they have lost at the races. Indeed, alcohol is mentioned fourteen times throughout the section suggesting its importance to the people of the time. Ondaatje even states that “most Ondaatjes liked liquor, sometimes to excess” but most were hidden drunks and did it in secret as it was frowned upon. The most frequently named form of alcohol is Champagne which, with its connotations of exclusivity and celebration, suggests not only the wealth and elite social status of the ‘Gasanawa group’ but also helps to reinforce the impression that, for these people at least, Ceylon in the 1920’s and 30’s was a whirlwind of social engagements and parties. It is possible that Ondaatje is also using the motif champagne to celebrate this irresponsibility.



The Fragility / Instability of Love and Marriage

During the section, ‘Flaming Youth’ the idea of a wasted youth is introduced and is carried on in Babylon Stakes and Tropical Gossip. The idea of the fleeting, spontaneous and transient nature of relationships is explored as it states: “They could have almost drowned or fallen in love […] during any one of those evenings” (52). It is also stated that “love affairs rainbowed over marriages and lasted forever - so it often seemed that marriage was the greater infidelity” (53). The idea that a love affair is deemed a truer form of love than a marriage shows the limited worth and value placed on marriage and the idea of matrimony. “Nothing is said of the closeness between two people: how they grew in the shade of each other’s presence” (54), this also reflects the idea that affairs and spontaneous love were more common than the idea of a marriage with equal affection.


Post-Colonialism and the Contrast Between the East and West

In this section, the influences of the West are shown as the grandfather, Philip, attempts to Westernize his family. He is described as being a very strong-willed man who had strict guidelines for his family. He “had a weakness for pretending to be ‘English’ and, in his starched collars and grey suits, was determined in his customs” (56) and also “would visit England, buy crystal, learn the latest dances” (56) and this shows how ‘Bampaidolised Western culture and is therefore, in some ways, a symbol of colonialism as he attempts to enforce obedience to an alien set of rules among his family. The idea that Philip Ondaatje oppressed his family is reinforced once he dies when the adults revert back to being almost childish as his “mother and Uncle Aelian retired in a fit of giggles” and his “grandmother got into a loud argument”.


The Romanticisation of the Past

Ondaatje creates the impression of the idyllic lifestyle of the ‘Gasanawa group’ whose lives seemed to revolve around the relaxed routine of swimming, breakfasting, sleeping till noon, attending the races, dining and then repeating the whole again. The differences in the young and the adults are used to accentuate this sense of an idyllic past. While the young are described with an air of irresponsibility and chaotic joyfulness, the grandfather is described as being tough and strict and inspiring terror in his family. The uncle, Aelian was also described as being a “very generous man” who helped his neighbors and friends when they needed it and the celebration of both the young and the generous uncle in contrast to the strictness of Philip Ondaatje helps to cast a generation that could have been viewed as selfish and irresponsible into an even more flattering light.



Lalla Gratiaen

Lalla is remembered for her over-extravagant dress and her intensity: “one hand on her hip, one hand on her hat, and a blue jacaranda blossom pinned to the shoulder ... looking off into the drama of the one-hundred-yard stretch with the intensity of one preparing for the coming of the Magi” (p.49). She owned a horse named ‘Dickman Delight’ and, in a typically comic twist, she failed to bet on her horse the only time that it actually one due to a misprint on a telegram that read “Rain over Columbo” rather than “Raid over Columbo” (50). Overall Lalla is described using irony and humor in this section and continues to display a lack of regard for or awareness of other people, for example by wearing a large hat “with no consideration for anyone behind her” (49).


Philip Ondaatje

This chapter focuses mainly on Michael’s paternal grandfather Philip who “built the family home, ‘Rock Hill” (55) using his great wealth. He is spends so much time in Rock Hill that he “ignored everybody in Kegalle social circles” and is characterized by others as a “snob” due to his wealth. However he is considered a “very loving man” in the family, being the protector, “good father” and “patriarch”. In this sense he is a very colonial figure and his love is very much based on “constant tradition” and keeping the family in line with it. This can be seen in the “strict meals” that Michael’s brother “remembers painfully” (56). It is possibly because of his strictness that the “whole family lived in terror of him” and his wife “could not blossom till after his death”, which can perhaps again be interpreted in a post-colonial light as it is only once the colonizing forces have gone that the colonized can really fully express themselves and enjoy their freedom. Hence, perhaps the fact that, at his funeral, his son is “nowhere in sight”, Doris Gratien and great uncle spent the time giggling under a tree (57).


Mervyn Ondaatje

Mervyn returns to Rock Hill alone and, after losing several jobs, eventually “took up farming” (58). A stark difference can be seen between his way of living when he was young and his life after the divorce when he lived “quite simply” having abandoned many of his earlier friends. He marries again but he is plagued with an alcohol addiction that threatens his relationship; he would “threaten to kill her” when she “had hidden a bottle” (58). It becomes clear that Mervyn slowly deteriorates after his days of carefree living and becomes irreversibly controlled by alcohol and in this way perhaps Mervyn Ondaatje is a symbol that also represents the decline of the whimsically vibrant, exuberant and innocent life of Ceylon in the 1920’s and 30’s. Part of what makes this period of time so attractive is that it was a honeymoon period into which reality, for the time being at least, was unable to intrude. The inability for the honeymoon to continue forever is echoed in Philip Ondaatje’s gradual descent into alcoholism.


Noel Gratiaen

Although mentioned only briefly in the ‘Tropical Gossip’ chapter, Noel’s return as QC to ‘argue for the lives of friends from his youth who had tried to overthrow the government.’ (53) is another indication that the idyllic world of the 1920’s and 1930’s could not last forever … and indeed the allusion to the attempted revolution of 1971 implies that an unpleasant future was awaiting those who survived the excesses of the 30’s.



Narrative style:

This section is more structured than the first part of ‘A Fine Romance’ and there is less insertion of seemingly random facts, although the long run-on sentences in ‘The Babylon Stakes’ do create a sense of effusive excitement about the past. The lack of dialogue throughout the section shows a very detached recount that may seem third hand and contain the factual qualities of history books. However, having already been alerted to the constructed nature of the text, the reader may see this as an opportunity for bias and a selective choice of events.


Quotations are often used as sub-titles that encapsulate the feel of the chapter, for example the sub-title for The Babylon Stakes reads “The Wall Street crash had a terrible effect...” because it interfered with horse racing. It reflects the dominance of horse racing in people’s lives and shows the degree to which they were insulated from the problems of the rest of the world.


The chapter “Tropical Gossip” is narrated with more uncertainty and is a good example of Post-Modern self-awareness as there is a reflective feel as the narrator questions the values of rumour and truth. Ondaatje also continues his use of humour throughout this section, most noticeably perhaps in the sub-title to this chapter which depicts a couple being discovered in the throes of an affair.



Relation of this Section to the Whole:

Ondaatje continues to explore the idea that history is a reconstruction of the past rather than a record. What is important to the characters in the memoir, i.e. whether horses won or lost or to whom they belong, is not intrinsically important. However, the focus on these details implies their importance to the people narrating this history of the Ondaatje family and Ceylon in the inter-war years. At times, e.g. at the end of ‘Tropical Gossip’, we see Ondaatje become aware of the unreliability of his sources of information and this sense of self awareness is another key post-modern trait of the text.


The idea of the “flaming youth” also continues with elaborate details on the frivolity of the roaring twenties in Ceylon and a life without regard for consequences.