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Sunday, 22 July 2012





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Shades of modern Sri Lankan lore

The Cat’s Table
Author: Michael Ondaatje
Reviewed by Dilshan Boange

Michael Ondaatje is without doubt the Sri Lankan name that resonates most prominently along with names of writers such as Romesh Gunasekera and Shyam Selvadurai who have become international stars in the stratosphere of contemporary literary fiction.

I remember once raising the question at a third year lecture on South Asian Writing whether Michael Ondaatje is classed as a Sri Lankan writer in terms of his work, apart from his personal history of being rooted in Sri Lanka? What is it that makes a ‘writer’ as from or belonging to a certain national or ethnic classification? Is it his ‘bio data’ or his ‘work(s)’? In that discussion our lecturer Dinithi Karunanayake expressed that the ‘fuller’ mark of a Sri Lankan writer in English would be if a Sri Lankan produces literature that reflects the Sri Lankan ethos and or brings it into discussion in his work. And in that respect until Anil’s Ghost the majority of Michael Ondaatje’s works of fiction –Coming Through Slaughter, In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient do not portray a landscape of Sri Lanka nor a Sri Lankan consciousness.

Colonial Ceylon

The most recent of Ondaatje’s works The Cat’s Table can be treated very much as a Sri Lankan novel set in the pre-independence era chronicling the protagonist’s voyage from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to England as a young boy sent to begin his education in the English boarding school system. The sea voyage aboard the massive liner the ‘Oronsay’ and the life thereafter in England narrated in nostalgic recollection shows how a symbolic connection between the boy and his passage half way across the world can be centralised on that life changing sea voyage where in certain respects the protagonist learnt about people and the world though strangely the world was practically detached from them.

In his fictional narrative Ondaatje has created a fabric that holds a notable textural element of a somewhat relatively modern Sri Lankan lore. And that is the fable of the death of a well known Sri Lankan businessman known for his munificence who was believed to have become the victim of voodoo. The philanthropist was known for having founded hospitals through his philanthropy. The story goes that he had made a joke at the expense of a Bhikkhu from Battaramulla. Playing on spoonerism he had jested at the Bhikkhu calling him ‘Muttara-balla’. ‘Muttara’ as the word would denote in Sinhala meaning urine and of course the world ‘balla’ meaning dog.

The offended Bhikkhu was believed to have been an exponent in voodoo and witchcraft, and had vowed vengeance upon the offender. Thereafter during the course of the day he had been bitten by a dog, believed to have been in some accounts one of his own pets and a stray who had wandered into his property according to other versions, resulting in his immediate death. The reason for the death is supposedly stated in the death report as being a victim of rabies.


The type of witchcraft said to have been at work in this case was what is called ‘pilli’. It is where a malignant spirit is conjured to carry out a killing by being fused with the body of an animal, since the spirit has no tangible ‘earthly’ form of its own. The practice according to some sources say the spirit is fused to a living animal while others say it is the dead body of an animal that serves as the vehicle for the spirit to carry out the bidding of the conjurer who summoned it. What is intriguing to note in this case is that the form of animal used to carry out the alleged act of witchcraft was a dog; the animal whose name was used to for the alleged mockery by a contortion of the name of the Bhikkhu’s hometown.

The story of Sir Hector

Ondaatje as writer weaves texts that preserve accounts of lore unrecorded in mainstream writing. One of the best examples being Coming Through Slaughter. In The Cat’s Table he brings this modern fable of the aforementioned renowned Ceylonese philanthropist’s death at the alleged hands of witchcraft by a Bhikkhu through the account of a fictional character named Sir Hector de Silva.

The entry point to go into the story behind Sir Hector begins with the talk going round the passengers of the renowned philanthropist Sir Hector being on board with a sizeable posse including physicians, on his voyage to England to seek treatment for a fatal ailment. His wealth and great philanthropy are spoken of to give the reader an account of the stature of this figure whose sense of exclusivity is such that he and his party had declined the invitations made on more than one occasion, to dine at the captain’s table.

Under the section titled ‘A Spell’ Ondaatje opens the storyline of Hector de Silva aboard the ‘Oronsay’ thus –

“If our journey to England was recorded for any reason in the newspapers of the time, it was because of the presence on the Oronsay of the philanthropist Sir Hector de Silva. He had boarded the ship and was travelling with a retinue that included two doctors, one ayurvedic, a lawyer, and his wife and daughter. Most of them stayed in the upper echelons of the ocean liner and were seldom seen by us. No one in his party accepted the invitation to eat at the Captain’s table. It was assumed they were above even that.”


Going on to detail the vast fortune Sir Hector had amassed through industries including gemming and rubber, Ondaatje explains that the journey to England was in the hope of finding a means to cure him from his fatal illness which is mentioned as being a form of hydrophobia.

Discovering the background of Sir Hector’s illness the protagonist narrates thus –“One Morning Hector de Silva had been breakfasting on his balcony with friends. They were joking among themselves in the way those whose lives are safe and comfortable entertain one another. At that moment, a venerable Battaramulle – or Bhikkhu –walked past the house. Seeing the Bhikkhu, Sir Hector punned off the title by saying, ‘Ah, there goes a muttaraballa.’ Muttara means ‘urinating’, and balla means ‘dog’. Therefore, ‘There goes a urinating dog.’ It was a quick-witted but inappropriate remark. Having overheard the insult, the Bhikkhu paused, pointed to Sir Hector, and said. ‘I’ll send you a muttaraballa...’

After which the venerable, reputedly a practitioner of witchcraft, went straight to the temple, where he chanted some mantras, thereby sealing the fate of Sir Hector de Silva and closing the door on his affluent life.”

Inaccuracies of Sinhala

This narrative reflects a good account of the fable believed to be associated with the aforementioned philanthropist. Yet what can be noted in terms of certain inaccuracies of language representation is how Ondaatje appears to attribute the Sinhala word ‘battaramulle’ as a term referential to a Bhikkhus whereas the word actually denotes part of that particular monk’s name or title as a clergyman.

Perhaps this is reflective of Ondaatje’s lack of thorough knowledge on the specifics of how Bhikkhus are titled once ordained and named in association with their hometown or village of descent. Or then again perhaps this inaccuracy is meant to reflect the lacking in this kind of knowledge in the character of the colonial era preteen protagonist depicted through the novel’s narrative.

However it may be a similar inaccuracy is detectable in the manner in which the translation of ‘muttaraballa’ is presented in respects of grammaticism. ‘Muttara’ in Sinhala is a noun for ‘urine’; but Ondaatje has translated it as a verb denoting a continuous action –‘urinating’. Therefore in direct translation of word for word, the breakdown and translation of Muttaraballa does not come as ‘urinating dog’ in the strictest terms so to speak. This offensive remark and the manner in which it is narrated frames the word ‘Battaramulle’ as a Sinhala term for Bhikkhus and thereby one is left to believe that Sir Hector did not know the Bhikkhu in question specifically. Although Ondaatje has done a marvellous work of fiction that captures a facet of Sri Lanka from privileged vantages of colonial times a gross misinterpretation is obvious in the manner in which the terminology crucial to this snippet of Lankan lore has been put across.

The curse takes final effect

This intriguing character brings a certain sense of awe and mystery to the protagonist and his companions and finally the end of Sir Hector comes in mid voyage in a most unexpected way as the result of a puppy spirited aboard from a stopover at the port of Aden. The animal is kept a secret and guarded, yet manages to slip out of its guardians and becomes a curiosity scampering about the vessel and revealed of making a purposeful exploration.

“Eventually the creature made his way trotting along a mahogany-panelled, carpeted hall and slipped through a half-open door into a master suite, as someone left carrying a full tray. The dog jumped up onto the oversized bed, where Sir Hector de Silva lay, and bit down into his throat.”

The protagonist narrates how after coming to know of how Sir Hector’s demise occurred they believed it had been witchcraft that had been at work. “ the story we had had already heard from the ayurvedic about the spell put on him by the Bhikkhu... And as the little creature was never to be seen again, we came to believe the smuggled dog was a phantom.”

A classic case of the witchcraft of ‘pilli’ is thus portrayed in The Cat’s Table although not explicitly stated as being of that labelling, nor going into the conceptual aspects of that craft. Michael Ondaatje’s latest work of fiction thus brings an element projecting modern Sri Lankan lore and in a certain manner making his novel a repository for the unrecorded, within the contexts of the story he has devised to be told in a captivating narrative, testimony to his prowess of an alluring raconteur.


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