A walk through the footsteps of Michael Ondaatje

The Ondaatje’s were, originally, from Tanjore South India. He is of Dutch, Sinhalese, and Tamil ancestry Michael Jurie (Jurgen) Ondaatje was physician to the King of Tanjore

by Leel Pathirana

( December 1, 2018, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Rock Hill estate is located in a small sunny hill at the edge of the Urban Council border of the Kegalla town. This is where the world renowned Sri Lankan-born Canadian novelist, poet, director, playwright, memoirist, critic, and editor, Michael Ondaatje was born and raised. Rock Hill is a large land (Estate) was belongs to Michael’s grand farther Philip Ondaatje and then to Michael’s farther Mervyn Ondaatje, a planter by a profession.

When I first heard the name “Rock Hill” twenty years ago, since it’s sounds English, myself was thinking how an English name has come to that area, since the area was dominated by mostly Sinhala Buddhists. When I asked from an ageing woman with a walking stick from the same area, she told me that the large land and a bungalow was the property of the Ondaatje’s and is a wealthy planter. The old people of the area called “Ondaatje Watta” (Ondaatje’s Land).Later on my curiosity became clear that it was the ancestral home of Michael Ondaatje.

At present, his bungalow and the land has been limited to small block, and the rest has been sold off. The present owner has purchased it around mid eighties and he does not know much about, the legend of Michael Ondaatje and what only he knows is, it was belongs to a Planter called Ondaatje

The Ondaatje’s were, originally, from Tanjore South India. He is of Dutch, Sinhalese, and Tamil ancestry Michael Jurie (Jurgen) Ondaatje was physician to the King of Tanjore. He Physician was invited by the first Dutch Governor of Ceylon, Van de Meyden, to cure his lady of a serious ailment. His success in curing the lady made the Governor his friend. In appreciation of his services and performance he was appointed the First Doctor of the Town of Colombo., after arrived to Sri Lanka Ondaatje was converted to Christianity in 1660, married a Portuguese wife, Magdalene de Cruz (1640-1688), and adopted the name "Michael Jurgen Ondaatje and was the founder of the family that bears his name and He died in 1714 leaving his legacy in Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

Mervyn Ondaatje was born 1906 in Kegalle, Ceylon (Rock Hill House), served as a Major in the CLI during World war 2, and later was a planter, was sent to University in England by his parents and left Ceylon by ship and arrived at Southampton. But he did not pursue his studies and married to Doris Gratiaen in 1932 and lived rest of his life in Kegalle, Rockhill estate most of his times.

Michael Ondaatje was born on September 12, 1943 in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the son of Mervyn Ondaatje and Doris Gratiaen, prominent members among the inhabitants of what once comprised Ceylon's colonial society. Mervyn Ondaatje was a Tea and Rubber-plantation superintendent who was afflicted with alcoholism. Doris Gratiaen performed part-time as a radical dancer, inspired by Isadora Duncan. As a result of his father's alcoholism, Michael’s parents eventually separated in 1954 and young Michael Ondaatje moved to England with his mother Gratiaen.

Ondaatje was educated initially at St. Thomas College in Mount Lavinia Colombo The Anglican elite colonial school, which produced four of the Sri Lankan Prime Ministers. After moving with his mother to England, he continued his education at Dulwich College in London between 1962-64 and during his years at university, Ondaatje began to write poetry and returned to his ancestral home with his mother late sixties.

One of Ondaatje's famous book, a memoir Running in the Family (published in 1982) integrates a contemporary travelogue—informed by Sri Lankan myths and legends—with childhood memories, family stories, with his return to his native island of Ceylon, in the late 1970s and photographs to recreate Ondaatje's family history with a particular emphasis on the eccentric personalities of his father and maternal grandmother.

He recounts last memories from his home at Rock Hill in Kegalle in 1971, when a group of JVP insurgents (People liberation Front) arrives at the homestead in search of weapons. "While all this official business was going on around the front porch, the rest of the insurgents had put down their huge collection of weapons, collected from all over Kegalle, and persuaded my younger sister Susan to provide a bat and a tennis ball. Asking her to join them, they proceeded to play a game of cricket on the front lawn. They played for most of the afternoon, he narrates.

Also, he has a great sadness leaving his farther behind, who loved him dearly and whom he loved deeply. “He had a drinking problem and he was a tyrant. His world collapsed when I left for England and my mother divorced him. His family was his life and he was left a broken man. He had quite a sad death in Kegalle.”

His another book, Set in the midst of the 1980s Sri Lankan civil war, Anil's Ghost recounts the story of Anil Thisera, a Sri Lankan emigrant to the United States and forensic pathologist, who returns to her native country to investigate human remains for evidence of possible war crimes. She is assisted by Sarath, a Sri Lankan government archeologist, whose motives prove dubious at best. Less experimental than his previous novels, Anil's Ghost constructs a narrative with elements of both fact and fiction as demonstrated by the novel's appended bibliography of nonfunctional sources.

He is best known for his Booker Prize-winning novel, The English Patient, which was adapted into an Academy-Award-winning major film.

Ondaatje currently resides in Toronto with his wife, novelist/editor Linda Spalding, where they edit Literary Magazine and he instituted Gratiaen Trust in 1992 for the Gratiaen Price for the Best English literature for the memory of his late Mother Doris Gratiaen. Ondaatje has two children with his first wife, Canadian artist Kim Ondaatje. His brother Christopher Ondaatje is a philanthropist, businessman and author. Ondaatje's nephew David Ondaatje is a film director and screenwriter, who made the 2009 film The Lodge.

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