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The Sunday TimesPlus

16th February 1997



Picturing the prose

Director Anthony Minghella shows how a supremely literary novel, Lankan author Michael Ondaatje's 'The English Patient, can be turned into an elegant yet dynamic film. The 12 Oscar nomination's that his film has won perhaps answers the question: Is there any novel that can't be filmed? Indeed, there are now several films based on books that seem perilous to adapt.

Sri Lankan writer Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient is rich with poetic language, its narratives-within-narratives mirroring the layers of identity the book explores.

While Hana, a young Canadian nurse, cares for a severely burned patient in a deserted Tuscan villa at the end of World War 11, we gradually learn her life story.

And we also hear the patient's story as he tells it to Hana, his fragmented memories surfacing slowly.

"He remembers picnics, a woman who kissed parts of his body that now are burned into the colour of aubergine''. Ondaatje, a Booker Award winner, writes.

Ondaatje, Mingheela etc.Author Michael Ondaatje (L) and Director Anthony Minghella (C) on location with William Dafoe and Naveen Andrews for the English Patient
How can a film maker recapture such lyrical prose on screen? The smartest decision that screenwriter and director Anthony Minghella made was not to try. Minghella's English Patient is a brilliant example of how a supremely literary novel can be turned into an elegant yet dynamic film.

Just as the finest translators of poetry are artists, too, with the licence to create an equivalent but not exact version of a poem, film makers must translate novels into a different but equally resonant language.

It is amazing how often that obvious idea - turning words on the page into images and dialogue that can live on screen - gets lost.

Usually it happens because the screenwriter and the director are asking the wrong question, wondering, ''How can I be faithful to this book?" when they should be asking ''How can I make this novel my own?"

The English Patient proves that any novel can be successfully filmed, though it isn't easy. Much of the novel focuses on Hana, whose father has been killed in the war, and her relationship with Kip, a Sikh member of the British Army who has arrived to clear the area of German mines.

Almasy and CliftonAlmasy and Clifton at Shepherd's Hotel in Cairo
The unnamed patient's memory takes him back to his grand romance with a colleague's wife, Katharine Clifton, and eventually reveals the link between his plane crash and that adulterous affair.

This love story is buried deeply in the novel; Katharine doesn't even turn up until almost 100 pages into the 300-page book. The romance must be dug out like a treasure. Also, Ondaatje evokes unsettling questions about nationality and loyalty. The patient's adulterous relationship echoes the way nationalism, like marriage, has its limits.

The film smartly turns the novel inside out, making the patient's love story central.

On screen, The English Patient sets its tone with an enticing opening image of romance, danger and adventure: the patient and Katharine are in a plane, flying over the desert, her head back in repose and a long white scarf billowing in the wind.

It doesn't hurt that the patient and Katharine are played by Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, who may be the two most beautiful people in movies.

So what if the patient was 15 years older than Katharine in the book, ordinary-looking and deeply cynical? Handsome young men can be cynical, too.

From the start, this film evokes the romance of Out of Africa and the scope of Lawrence of Arabia.

Both the film and the novel share the most important element of Ondaatje's work: a deeply emotional story about how life-giving passion exists in the midst of war. And some of Ondaatje's images are beautifully visual, and among the film's most stunning.

On screen, as in the book, Hana peels a plum from the garden with her teeth, sensuously feeding the pulp to the patient. And when the patient is carried across the desert by Bedouins who rescue him after the crash, this exquisite scene is recreated on screen.

Desert sceneCount Almasy croses the North African desert on a rescue mission
Minghella's changes bring the themes into focus faster and enhance the drama of the love story. On screen, the affair begins after the patient and Katharine are caught in a violent sandstorm in the desert ( a scene that does not appear in the book). Sand fills the air, buries a car and leaves them clinging to each other in romantic life-or-death isolation.

How could they not become lovers after so intense an experience? What was quiet, inconspicuous and realistic on the page becomes a dashing and volatile set piece on film.

Minghella also manages to work touches of the novel's poetry into the film, but he does so sparingly and is always careful to make it clear that they are written words-

- The Week

Traditional homelands

The revival of a dubious claim

Henry P. Abeyasekera

V. Navaratnam, a former member of the Federal Party, and his leader S. J. V. Chelvanayagam were politicians who were respected and held in high regard for their principled politics. However, writing from Canada where he lives in retirement, he commences his article which appeared in The Sunday Times of the 19th January on a wrong premise. His article was entitled "Broken Pledges and Militarism."

Navaratnam writes: "Historically the Sinhalese and the Tamils were always politically independent of one another and separately occupied their respective traditional homelands until the British conquest early in the 19th Century. The Tamil homeland territory was ceded to the British by the Dutch by the Treaty of Amiens in 1802." This spurious argument which he advances had been nailed to the counter as soon as it was made by Mr. C. Suntheralingam for the first time.

Time and again articles have appeared in the local Press and memoranda have been submitted to the government by authorities on the subject, which have shown by proven historical facts and the realities of the present that the Eastern Province has been a part of the ancient division of Rohana throughout, from the beginnings of the historical period of the Island and later of the Kandyan Kingdom.


It cannot be gainsaid that there were Tamil settlements on the fringes of the coastal areas of the Eastern Province from very ancient times, but they were always under the Sinhala polity till 1766 when, by the Treaty which brought the Kandyan-Dutch wars to a temporary close, the coastal areas of the Eastern Province were ceded to the Dutch, thus bringing the entire coastal areas of the Island under Dutch control.

In reviving this claim for "traditional homelands", Navaratnam no doubt relies on the alleged "Cleghorn Minute" which Suntheralingham quoted in a letter dated 19th May 1962 to Navratnam's chief, Chelvanayagam. Earlier, in May 1958, Suntheralingam, quoting the same alleged Minute, addressing his "Fellow Tamils" states: "The area which constituted the traditional homelands of the Tamils is unmistakably shown to extend from Chilaw, northwards and eastwards to a point near Medawachchi, thence south of Padiviel- kulam to comprise the present Trincomaleee District, Batticaloa District right down to the mouth of the Walawe Ganga. This area was ceded to the British by the Dutch..." It is significant that there is a shift in the Tamil position today. The claim is now only upto the Kumbukkan Oya! Clearly the Tamil parties are themselves unable to rely on Cleghorn.

This minute is said to have been made by Cleghorn, the Colonial Secretary of North, the first Governor of Ceylon, in 1798 when the British knowledge of the Island would have been very meagre.

Coup'd oeil

The Mahawamsa Tika had not been discovered at the time, and even among the local literati, other than the Sangha, there was lacuna in the knowledge of the history of the Island. Governor North under whom he worked, says of Cleghorn's writings: "..... the greater part of what he wrote after the coup'd oeil which he took of the country during the first time he was here in 1796 was absurd". Cleghorn was a secret emissary of the Colonial Office whose chief lord Dundas was his patron. Before his appointment as Assistant to Governor North, he had been sent on a secret mission to the Middle East, India and Ceylon to advance British interests. He carried out his mission very successfully especially in Ceylon, where he subverted the allegiance of the de Meuron Regiment of mercenaries from the Dutch to the British forces. He was obliged to please his patron. His much impugned minute to the latter was clearly a classic example of the application of the principle of 'divide et impera' so frequently and successfully used by the British to hold the peoples of their colonies in slubjection. It is an irony of fate that this minute of Cleghorn is continuing to haunt us even long after the British have left. So much has been written and on so many occasions about this valueless document that it is surprising that Tamil political parties still continue to rely on it to claim the Eastern Province as their traditional homelands."

MapThe map of Dutch missionary Baldeaus
To come back to Navaratnam's comments, the Treaty of Amiens of 1802 which intended to end the Napoleonic wars in Europe, resulted in the Dutch having to cede their possessions in the East to the British for their willy nilly support of the French. These territories included the littoral areas of Ceylon which were already under British control. All of these littoral areas, except for the Jaffna Peninsula and the northern islands including Mannar were under Sinhala polity under one King or another at the time the Portuguese arrived. They wrested from the Sinhala kings the western and southern littoral while the littoral of the Trincomalee and the Batticaoa Districts which formed the Eastern Province continued to be under the Kings of Kandy. The Peninsula and the Islands including Mannar formed the Tamil Kingdom of Jaffna at the time the Portuguese arrived. The map of the Dutch missionary historian Baldeaus describes this Kingdom as "Regnum Jaffnapatnum" cum Inslis Adjecentibus. "This Kingdom was annexed to the Portugese territories in 1618. By the Treaty of 1766 the King of Kandy ceded the littoral of the Eastern Province which were parts of the Trincomalee and Batticaloa Districts to the Dutch. These then were the littoral areas of Ceylon which the Dutch ceded to the British by the Treaty of Amiens of 1802. The traditional homelands of the Tamils ceded to the British at Amiens were if at all, only the area of the Kingdom of Jaffna which had existed for only about three hundred years in the background of a known history of about two thousand five hundred years of the country. Throughout this period, this area too was under Sinhala polity.

Although the Tamils had inhabited areas just south of the peninsula also and had settlements along the eastern coast, these areas always remained within the Sinhala polity, except in later times when Vanniar chiefs exercised their authority, still most of them owing allegiance to the Sinhala kings.

Dutch documents

Cleghorn depending on Dutch documents states that till the year 1766, the Dutch government "had but a very small territory of Trincomalee annexed to it. In 1766 the Kandyans ceded to the Company Cottiar, Tambalegam and Kottiar Pattu". As regards Batticaloa, he states that till 1766 the Dutch occupied only the small island of Pulentivu at the mouth of the river. From this it can be seen that the areas of the Eastern Province which the Dutch obtained from the King of Kandy were Kottiyar, Tambelegam and Kottiar Pattu in Trincomalee, and Pulentivu and the eight divisions of Batticaloa which they took over in 1766. These were then the only areas of the Eastern Province which the Dutch ceded to the British by the Treaty of Amiens. They were neither politically independent nor separately occupied by the Tamils as stated by Navaratnam.

The Eastern Province was always under Sinhala polity. The Arrowsmith map of 1803 and Allen's map of the same year depict the coastal areas of Ceylon, so ceded. There is no mention in any map or in any historical record of the Island that the Northern and Eastern Provinces were 'traditional homelands' of the Tamils and that they were 'politically independent and separately occupied' by them, as averred by Navaratnam.


These provinces were temporarily merged under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord which was forced on us by Rajiv Gandhi at the behest of the Tamil parties who insisted on it as it was the precursor to a permanent merger, without which Eelam would not be viable.

In fact, Rajiv, addressing a mammoth rally at the Maidan in Madras on his return in September 1987, assured the Tamil Nadu masses that he had laid the foundation for Eelam for their brethren in Sri Lanka, and the Golden Shawl was draped round his shoulders.

With the fertile, well watered and prosperous Eastern Province with its long coastline which included Trincomalee Port in their possession, Eelam would be an El Dorado which would be far from being fictitious. So they looked about frantically to set up a base for a claim, and now cling to the Cleghorn Minute with a fanatic devotion. Thus arose the claim for 'traditional homelands.'

As for the Southern constituency, a merger of the two provinces, or even a re-drawing of the provincial boundaries will spell doom to the devolution package already under siege on other grounds too.

The government would be well advised to keep off this very dangerous ground if it is to have any hopes of seeing its package with suitable amendments through.

Continue to Plus page 3 - The Enigmatic Mr. Wilson, Part III: The Tenth Avatar of Vishnu

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