Eight winters ago in India I fled the manila-folder-bound desiccation of Delhi for the south and Kerala. The backwaters there have a sensuality that slides about you as you enter, moving you away from the frantic buzz of life, separating you from a sense of time and place. The slowness starts to seep into your skin, spreading itself over you, drinking you in.
I took with me a novel that was making a lot of noise at the time, an overripe Booker prizewinner that, being in my impressionable twenties and passionate about my adopted subcontinent, I felt duty-bound to read. That took a day, and then I found myself with nothing else except decades’ worth of back copies of the Reader’s Digest piled up in the sitting-room of the houseboat on which drifted.
Except there was something else, buried at the bottom of my suitcase and momentarily forgotten – a small and beautifully produced Bloomsbury Classics hardback edition of Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje (who himself won the Booker Prize another year). My sister had sent it to me as a Christmas present. The problem was that it was set in Sri Lanka, to which I was travelling on from Kerala. I like to read books in situ, and I had been trying to save it up, at least until my plane hit the tarmac in Colombo. But in the end, unable to resist the feel of it, I opened it and began to read.
Running in the Family is Ondaatje’s memoir of his birthplace, of is Dutch-Sinhalese family and the characters who peopled the first eleven years of his life. His father, Mervyn Ondaatje – part Errol Flynn, part South Asian aristocrat – had taken a boat to England in the late 1920s, where, having managed to convince his parents that he had passed the Oxbridge entrance exam, he proceeded to live in elegant style in Cambridge without ever darkening the doors of the university. At his parents’ expense, Mervyn boated, had numerous love affairs, including one with a Russian co
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