Running in the Family: Chapter Notes – The Prodigal, Part 1



Harbour (133 - 134)

·         This is a collection of short stories and phrases about Ondaatje’s love for the Ceylonese harbour

·         He describes one specific memory of going to the harbor and saying goodbye to a sister or mother

·         Recalls further memories associated with harbours; this includes the song “Harbour lights” and how he would hum the song “Sea of Heartbreak

·         Comments on how he enjoys the harbour because it is “sincere”


Monsoon Notebook (ii) (135 - 136)

·         This chapter contains memories of the wildlife in Ceylon, ending with Ondaatje listening to them on a tape recorder in his Canadian home

·         This chapter contrasts to Monsoon Notebook (i), which dealt with Ondaatje’s childhood and recollections from in a more fictionalized style without the realization that Ondaatje is conducting research for a book.


How I Was Bathed (137 - 139)

·         This chapter is a retelling of the story of how Ondaatje was bathed at school as a child

·         The story is retold at a dinner party by Gillian Ondaatje, although the story was originally told to her by her friend Yasmine Gooneratne 


Wilpattu (140 - 143)

·         Ondaatje drives to Wilpattu with his family to experience life in the jungle and the chapter consists of collected stories about their time there. Unusually there is a specific date for this entry, April 8th

·         Upon arrival they all take a shower using the rain and are all amazed about the beauty of the place. As they shower a large wild boar appears and judges all the people taking a shower in the open rain. He stares at them and walks away without harming anyone.

·         The chapter than separates to the next part of the journal, which is the last day in Wilapttu on April 11th when Ondaatje realizes that his soap has been stolen, apparently by the boar.


Kuttapitiya (144 - 146)

·         This chapter contains stories from Ondaatje’s childhood at Kuttapitiya which was his last childhood home and was famous for its gardens

·         Ondaatje reminisces about life with his family and the antagonistic relationship between Lalla and his father who would always plunder the garden. As a result Mervyn started planting prickly plants and succulents which Lalla was less interested in stealing

·         Ondaatje’s daughter finishes by saying that if they lived ‘it would be perfect.’



Motifs, Symbols & Imagery


The idea of songs has been introduced before with the song ‘A Fine Romance’ which Ondaatje’s mother always loved to sing. However, it is brought up again in this section of chapters (particularly Harbour) to highlight the romanticisation of Ceylon and Ondaatje’s quest for personal identity. In Harbour, there are three separate quotations dealing with songs or singing and each adds to thematic development. Ondaatje writes primarily in this chapter about his love of the harbour and relates it to songs, such as when he says, “For years I loved the song, “Harbour lights,”” (133). The title of the song is rich in colourful and romantic imagery, and as a result it romanticizes the idea of the harbour and Ondaatje’s memories of it. This romantic idea is brought to life in a more adolescent sense when Ondaatje says, “later in my teens danced disgracefully with girls, humming “Sea of Heartbreak”” (133). Here he ironically relates a song about heartbreak with the notion of fleeting teenage relationships and raging hormones. It could be argued that the romantic nature of the song is stripped through the image in the reader’s mind of lustful teenagers and because this idea so strongly contrasts the one preceding it, Ondaatje could be writing to give an idea of the versatility of the harbour he loves so dearly, or he could be saying that he has conflicting feelings and memories of every kind about his time in Ceylon. This contributes to the other interpretation of this chapter, which is that it is written to highlight Ondaatje’s quest for personal identity. The last singing quotation of the chapter emphasizes this; “I sing “the lights in the harbour don’t shine for me…” but I love it here” (133-4). In Ondaatje saying that the figurative lights in the harbour do not shine for him, he insinuates that he does not belong to Ceylon anymore, yet he still loves his home country. From this the reader recognizes thematic development in the idea that this memoir is Ondaatje’s quest for personal identity. On a related note, the fact that, at various points, we see Ondaatje, his mother and his father singing and humming songs suggests that this is something else that runs in the family.



The motif of bathing is found in two consecutive chapters yet the contrast found between the two examples brings to light thematic issues in the text. In How I Was Bathed, the idea of bathing was described using violent and extreme diction;  Maratina filled a bucket with water and flung the contents towards our cowering screaming bodies” (138). Ondaatje suggests that the boys being bathed dislike their baths through his harsh description. However, it is noted in the chapter that Ondaatje does not recall this childhood story for himself, and because he does not seems to be traumatized by it this suggests that the event itself was simply not important enough to want to retain. The bathing and references to soap found in the next chapter, Wilpattu, are of a contrast – writing “The girls are out there in their dresses getting wet and suddenly the rest of us decide this is the only chance for a bath that we will have here and walk out into the storm” (141) is picturesque and romanticized, as opposed to violent and harsh. In this story, accepting and enjoying bathing in the thunderstorm indicates that Ondaatje has grown since his experiences as a child, and his relationship with Ceylon has changed from one of familial necessity and forgotten memories to one of enjoyment and curious inquiry. In this way, the contrasting quotations embody the theme of Ondaatje’s quest for his personal identity in exploring his relationship with Ceylon through extended metaphors.



Similarly, soap is discussed in both How I Was Bathed and Wilpattu to make the contrast between the two chapters even more apparent. In the former, the idea of soap and its meaning to the children in the story is portrayed in extreme language (“scrubbed him violently with carbolic soap and threw him towards the opposite side of the room” (138)). While on one hand insinuating that memories of soap should have unfavourable characteristics about them, Ondaatje goes on to describe in the next chapter how distressed he is over losing his bar of soap to a val oora, or a wild boar. He writes, “This thing has walked off with my bar of Pears Transparent Soap? Why not my copy of Rumi poetry? Or Merwin translations? That soap was aristocratic and kept me feeling good all through the filthy hotels of Africa” (143), showing that the bar of soap was highly valued. There are a number of different interpretations of this contrast – one of them is that Ondaatje had brought this soap all around the world with him, showing it to be almost an extension of his self, only to lose it in the Ceylon jungle shows how there will always be a part of Ondaatje left in or stolen by Ceylon. This ties in with the theme of the quest for personal identity, as it illustrates the impact Ceylon still has on even a westernized Ondaatje, and questions how much the author belongs to both the East and the West. Alternatively, Ondaatje’s longing for this aristocratic soap which in some respects suggests a taste for home may imply that there is a part of him now that is irremediably Westernised suggesting that he will never be fully Ceylonese.



Cars in previous chapters were a motif that represented escape, and while they still mean similar things, the idea of escaping is different for Michael than it was for Mervyn. While Mervyn’s escape was to get away from his life and to indulge his alcoholism, Michael’s escape is back to his homeland to explore the intricate jungle, shown in the chapter Wilpattu. Ondaatje writes, “We now have an hour’s journey to the middle of the jungle. It is a slow ten-mile-an-hour drive on bad roads of red clay and sand.” (140). Michael’s slow car drive represents his gradual reentry into the inner parts of Ceylon, and his gradual journey to rediscovering his Eastern Ceylonese roots. This differs from his father’s journeys, which often involved (literally and metaphorically) speeding away from problems that he did not want to face, and wishing that he could leave Ceylon for the West. Thus, the motif of cars shows the difference in generational views of Ceylon as well as the attitude of the different generations toward the cultures of the East and West.



Death has been previously illustrated as concept that is treated very casually by the Ondaatjes, partly perhaps as a way of depicting their unfettered and carefree nature and the same proves true in the author’s generation as shown when Ondaatje writes of the approaching wild boar, “If I am to die soon I would choose to die now under his wet alphabet of tusk” (142). The willingness to die indicates that the feeling of being back in the jungle is so euphoric and thrilling that it would be worth dying here to maintain it. It is as if Ceylon has an effect on her people making them care little about the meaningfulness of death, possibly because it is a country of such intense and rich beauty that it overpowers any other sense and adds a romantic quality to the lifestyle.



Animals throughout the text are often used in thematic development, and in this section the theme they specifically deal with is the romanticisation of the past and of life in Ceylon. In Monsoon Notebook (ii), Ondaatje describes how the wildlife inhabited their homes, saying “Wildlife stormed or crept into homes this way” (135) and “Others moved in permanently; birds nested above the fans, the silverfish slid into steamer trunks and photograph albums” (135-6). The casual acceptance of these animals into their homes, and even the placement of them throughout the estates, shows how relaxed the Ceylonese were about their surroundings and creates a pastoral sense, whereby a life in the countryside that is lived in harmony with nature is shown. In addition, the livelihood Ondaatje describes the animals portraying contributes to the romanticized nature of the scenes. When, “at 3 a.m., night would be suddenly alive with disturbed peacocks” (136) and even when “In this silent room [in Canada] there are these frogs loud as river, gruntings, the whistle of other birds” (136), the vibrancy of these animals is shown and the reader realises that they too are contributing to the romanticized image that is being constructed of Ceylon.


Romanticisation of life in Ceylon is also portrayed through animal imagery in Wilpattu, where Ondaatje describes how “A val oora – a large filthy black wild boar has appeared majestically out of the trees” (141). As this beast draws closer to Ondaatje and his family, the author remarks that “[the beast] can take his pick, any one of us” (142), and in doing so romanticisation is seen through the casual approach taken towards death. Because the boar presents a blatant threat to the lives of these people, their carelessness suggests that Ondaatje has reached a level of fulfillment where he believes that dying now would be no great loss. This laissez-faire attitude to life and death seems both relaxed and unreal at the same time further contributing to the almost magical image painted of life in Ceylon.


The Val-oora

One of the key symbols in this section is the wild boar that Ondaatje sees while showering in the rain. Ondaatje clearly feels a close connection with the animal, describing it at points as “My wild pig. The repulsively exotic creature in his thick black body and the ridge of non-symmetrical hair running down his back” (143). The boar is an exotic creature that has “non-symmetrical hair running down his back” and we may tentatively argue that Ondattje feels similarly unsymmetrical as he is torn between the two worlds of the East and the West. More straight-forwardly the boar seems to be the perfect symbol of Ceylon for Ondaatje, it is exotic, wild outlandishly striking and unique and there is clear a sense of connection between the two.



The only mention of food in this section is in the chapter How I Was Bathed, where Ondaatje describes a dinner party scene. He writes, “We are having a formal dinner. String hoppers, meat curry, egg rulang, papadams, potato curry. Alice’s date chutney, seeni sambol, mallung and brinjals and iced water” (137). The exotic and unique sounding food served here clearly contrasts with that which would normally be served at a Western dinner party and the intense delight that Ondaatje takes in delicacies like the ‘egg rulang’ suggests the strength of his identification with the Ceylonese version of a formal dinner, and thus his identification with eastern Ceylonese culture over the western culture he was previously associated with.



The ornate descriptions of nature and flowers in this memoir often add to the romanticisation of history and the past. However, in this case the nature and flower imagery also reveals some of the more intricate details of the relationship between Mervyn and Doris. Ondaatje writes that his childhood estate, “Kuttapitiya […] was famous for its gardens. Walls of flowers – ochre, lavender, pink – would flourish and die within a month” (144). This idea, coupled with the fact that this was where Ondaatje’s mother and father lived “for the longest period of their marriage” (144) suggests that, like the flowers, their marriage would have periods of romantic beauty only to be inevitably followed by a rude awakening when Mervyn returned to drink.


Ondaatje also uses images of nature to create a sense that there is an intimate connection between man and nature in Ceylon which serves to further accentuate his portrayal of this country as a kind of pastoral idyll. In Monsoon Notebook (ii) Ondaatje uses the image of the snake coming in “like a king and [moving] in a straight line through the living room, dining room, the kitchen and servant’s quarters,” (135) which suggests that supposedly wild animals seem to make no distinction between the Ondaatje home and their own natural habitat. Ondaatje’s casual use of expressing an auditory image through an insect’s noise helps accentuate the idea of nature embedding itself into society and this idea is further emphasized by the descriptions of the birds “[nesting] above the fans” (135) as well the “silverfish [sliding] into steamer trunks and photograph albums” (136). This is directly contrasted to the image of the “bars across the window” which might paint the animals as intruders rather than residents. Perhaps the most effective image of the intimate relationship between man and nature in Ceylon can be found when Ondaatje describes how he couldn’t hear the sounds of the night until he played them back on his tape recorder in Canada because "they were always there like breath," (136).




The Contrast between the East and the West

In ‘Harbour’ Ondaatje describes how he loves the Ceylonese harbour, with its “Infinite waters [which] cohabit with flotsam on this side of the breakwater and the luxury liners and Maldive fishing vessels” (133). The combination of western and eastern features portrayed in the quotation show not only the influence of the West on the East, but also suggest Ondaatje’s love of both cultures as both represent some part of him and his cultural and personal identity.


In ‘Monsoon Notebook (ii)’ Ondaatje describes how “In this silent room (with its own unheard hum of fridge, fluorescent light) there are these frogs loud as river” (136). In doing so he contrasts the natural sounds of Canada and Ceylon, proving through example that one is very westernized culture with electronic devices creating the majority of the sound, and comparing it to the eastern culture with only the sounds of nature permeating through the silence. Apart from the clear contrast between the natural and the artificial, the fact that Ondaatje has brought the sounds of Ceylon with him back to Canada may be a metaphor that suggests how, following his journey, his life even in Canada has been affected by what he learnt, saw and experienced while in Ceylon. Alternatively this chapter may suggest that while they appear superficial different there may be more similarities between Canada and Ceylon than we had first thought – both, for example, have a background hum that accompanies the lives of the people who live there. As a result, perhaps we can conclude that the difference between whether this hum is created by a fridge or a frog isn’t really that significant after all and this may in turn suggest that Ondaatje has found a way to bridge or relate these two different worlds of which he is a part.



The fragmented structure of Monsoon Notebook (ii) reveals Ondaatje’s postmodern struggle to try to find an objective truth to write about in his memoir, as the fictional elements and the lack of objective research he is able to do takes away from the truthfulness of all the stories included. This is portrayed through the idea of listening to “that section of the cassette” (136), which is not as genuine as listening to the real sounds of the Ceylon animals. This idea represents how Ondaatje is only listening to stories being retold of events in order to write about them and has no real access to all sides of stories and the whole truth behind the development of some characters. This is significant because it represents how the memoir is only a broken attempt at truth, but the fictionalized parts reflect his attempt.


Ondaatje accentuates this sense of post-modern uncertainty in ‘How I Was Bathed’ in the retelling of stories. After Gillian shares the story of his bath time as a child, Ondaatje comments to himself, “I am dreaming and wondering why this was never to be traumatically remembered” (138). His speculation touches on the idea that this story is one that has likely been exaggerated and possibly even blown completely out of proportion, as he cannot think of a reason why this did not surface “as the first chapter of an anguished autobiographical novel” (138), as he suggests it should.


The Romanticisation of the Past / Ceylon

The chapter ‘Harbour’ paints another romanticised picture of life in Ceylon not only through its colourful descriptions but also through Ondaatje’s choice of particularly romantic times of the day. Twice in two paragraphs Ondaatje ends his sentences with ‘dusk’ (“I arrived in a plane but love the harbour. Dusk” (133), “One frail memory dragged up out of the past – going to the harbour to say goodbye to a sister or mother, dusk.” (133)) which emphasizes the romantic and beautiful feel of the harbour. Ondaatje emphasizes the romanticized nature of the harbour when he says, “There is nothing wise about a harbour, but it is real life.” (133) as here he seems to suggest that despite the simplicity (and perhaps ugly practicality) of the place, the harbour is rich in beauty. Additionally, the idea of appreciation something as banal as a harbour implies that beauty lies not just in the extravagant but in the prosaic as well. While harbours don’t exactly fit in with the natural world, his feelings towards harbours seem to parallel that of his feelings towards Sri Lanka; his appreciation stems from the simplicity and serenity of it. The symbol of a ‘barber shop’ further accentuates this idea of finding beauty in simplicity. The image of the “portholes of moon” subtly provides association between the portholes of a boat and the celestial moon which accentuates the sense of beauty within the ordinary.


In Kuttapitiya Ondaatje glorifies the relaxed nature of Ceylonese life. He writes that his father “played for half an hour and slowly and lazily we rose into the pale blue mornings” (144) and subsequently the reader is able to see how little effort was required of the people living at Kuttapitiya and how stress-free their lives were. Ondaatje uses this sense of relaxation and harmony to glamorize the kind of pastoral life that they lived in the country.


The Fragility/Instability of Marriage

In Kuttapitiya the rapidly changing state of the gardens at the tea estate where “Walls of flowers would flourish and die within a month” (144), echoes the way in which the relationship between Mervyn and Doris would alternate swiftly between periods of contentment and times of conflict with the latter coinciding with Mervyns bouts of alcoholism. The cyclical nature of the image insinuates the variability in their marriage and suggests the theme of the fragility and instability of marriage as it can veer so quickly from being under duress to having moments of romantic beauty.


The Quest for Personal Identity

This section begins with ‘The Harbour’ where the memory of Ondaatje saying “goodbye to a sister or mother” (133) is contrasted with the current image of him travelling on the tug with his brother-in-law while his nieces wait for them on the shore. This contrast shows us how this simplistic connection and almost childish attachement to harbours has stuck with him his entire life and we are given a sense that Ondaatje is developing an increasing awareness of the continuity between his present self and his childhood past. His comments about how he “loved the song, ‘Harbour lights,’” and how he would hum “Sea of Heartbreak” only serve to further accentuate this.


In Monsoon Notebook (ii) the contrast between Ondaatje’s Canadian home and the tape of sounds he made of animals in Ceylon which contains, “frogs loud as river” suggests the contrast that Ondaatje can clearly see between eastern and western culture, and perhaps suggests the sense of tension of uncertainty that prompted him to embark on this quest for personal identity in the first place.


This sense that he is beginning to understand more of his Eastern roots is accentuated in the chapter Wilpattu where Ondaatje clearly revels in the delightfully exotic shower in the rain and the threatening wildness of the val-oora. Furthermore, when he leaves the jungle without his precious bar of soap and remarks, “My eyes are peeled for a last sight of the oora, my soap caught in his tusk and mouth foaming” (143). The idea that Ceylon and her jungle and animals have stolen Ondaatje’s soap signifies that although the soap, itself an icon of western culture, was so important to him, it has been taken from him by his ties to the East. This may suggest how even though Ondaatje leads a westernized lifestyle in his home in Canada, there will always be part of the East inside of him that prevents him from being fully Westernised.


Finally in Kuttapitiya we see Ondaatje’s daughter remark, “‘if we lived here it would be perfect’” (146), and Ondaatje agrees which suggests not only his desire to reconnect to his past, but also how this affinity for the East is something that he has passed on his generation to the next.




Michael Ondaatje

The author’s development through these chapters is made clear to the readers in Ondaatje’s meta-narrative where he writes about his own process of writing. Lines like “Now, and here, Canadian February, I write this in the kitchen and play that section of cassette” (136, Monsoon Notebook (ii)), not only force the reader to realise that the memoir they are reading is a creation like any other fictional story, but also allow Ondaatje to comment wittily on the stories he is presenting as both an insider and observer, for example in How I Was Bathed when he writes that the story being told “is the kind of event that should have surfaced as the first chapter of an anguished autobiographical novel” (138). His ability to comment on the stories as he weaves them into his memoir is what creates the impression that we are gaining a better understanding of both author and the characters as the memoir progresses.


Gillian Ondaatje

The reader already knows Gillian as the sister of the author, but in these chapters (particularly How I Was Bathed) the reader recognizes her as a more outspoken character with a grand movements and expressions that are larger than life. This is shown when she is retelling the dinner party story and Ondaatje comments that “Gillian is no doubt exaggerating Yasmine’s account in her usual style” (138) which accentuates the sense of postmodernism that runs throughout the text as Ondaatje makes it clear that Gillian’s story is not actually hers and thus the reader begins to doubt its truth as we also wonder whether it would have been different had the storyteller been Yasmine Gooneratne. In addition, her presence in her brother’s memoir demonstrates a sense of familial support and suggests that Ondaatje’s quest for a greater understanding of his own personal identity is actually something that appears to be uniting his family.


Yasmine Gooneratne

In the chapter How I Was Bathed Yasmine is another symbol for the postmodern theme. As a figure, she is mentioned briefly at the start of the story as the original storyteller and as “a prefect with [Gillian] at Bishop’s College for Girls” (137), and Ondaatje discusses her briefly again at its close. He writes of seeing her, “this demure woman in a sari who was once “bath prefect” at Bishop’s College Girl’s School, who officiated over the cleansing of my lean five-year-old nakedness” (139), and wonders why it is not only something that she neglected to mention to him, but in addition, something that was never remembered from his childhood. The idea of this story being retold on three levels – from Yasmine to Gillian to Ondaatje in this memoir – reinforces the postmodern doubt that we have about the objectivity of the truth of stories like these.



Once again Lalla resurfaces briefly in the final chapter, Kuttapitiya, where her principle effect is to further romanticse Ondaatje’s childhood home. He describes her penchant for stealing flowers through the comparison to “a bee attracted to the perfume of any flower, who came up every other week solely to ransack the garden and who departed with a car full of sprigs and branches” (145). Her carefree attitude toward Mervyn Ondaatje’s property and gardens expresses an air of romantic indifference and chaos found commonly among her peers in the ‘golden era’ of Ceylon in the 1920s and 30’s that Ondaatje describes earlier in the memoir.


Mervyn Ondaatje

Curiously Mervyn is contrasted with Lalla when Ondaatje writes that “he loved ordered gardens and hated to see beds ravaged by Lalla’s plundering” (145). This contrast is surprising when we consider how similar he is to Lalla in terms of the disruptive effects that Mervyn has on the lives of others, for example during his infamous train rides. This presentation of the other side of Mervyn’s character perhaps suggests an increasing level of maturity to him and perhaps foreshadows the more somber version of Mervyn that we see towards the end of the memoir.



Narrative Style

Ondaatje continues to vary his narrative style throughout this section and in ‘Monsoon Notebook (ii)’ he begins with a third person omniscient voice that uses elaborate description to paint an image of Ceylon in the reader’s mind. Halfway through the chapter, however, the narrative voice shifts temporarily to second person, and Ondaatje writes that the sounds of the outside animals would be “forever in your ear” (136). This signifies an increasingly personal approach to the chapter and this sense of personal connection is intensified in the final paragraph which is written completely in the first person.


The sense of connection between Ondaatje and his family (and again the sense that this memoir is about things running in the family) is emphasized in ‘Wilpattu’ by the fact that Ondaatje frequently switches between narrating in the first person singular “I” and the first person plural “we”. This suggests the intermingling of Ondaatje’s character with that of his family around him and the sense of a close relationship between family members is accentuated throughout the text as Ondaatje recognizes that not only could this memoir not have been written without the support and help of those around him but that it is also bringing him closer to his family and giving him a greater understanding of them.



Relation of the Part to the Whole

This set of chapters focuses mainly on the return of Michael Ondaatje and his family to Ceylon, hence the allusion to “The Prodigal” in the title. While one meaning of the word is to “spend money recklessly”, the more relevant meaning of the story seems to be that of a son returning home, expecting to meet with disapprobation but only to find the he is welcomed back with open arms. Ondaatje uses this title to allude to the sense of welcome that he seems to feel upon his return to his childhood home and this is section is important in establishing the idea that Ondaatje’s decision to write this memoir may be interpreted as an attempt to find out more about his past and come to a better understanding of his own personal identity. Hence many of the chapters are written in the first person and detail Ondaatje’s experiences in Ceylon while there is relatively little development of characters like Mervyn, Doris and Lalla.


The first chapter, Harbour, combines Ondaatje’s stories of returning to Ceylon with those of his childhood at the harbour, creating a sense of fusion between the past and present, while Monsoon Notebook (ii) creates a sense of fusion between East and West. The third chapter, How I Was Bathed, retells a more recent story from Ondaatje’s life and further develops the text’s postmodern themes and the fourth chapter, Wilpattu, continues to contrast East and West by focusing on Ondaatje’s most recent experiences in Ceylon.