The One and the Many

The One and the Many


The Human Rights Paradox of Anil’s Ghost

“One village can speak for many villages. One victim can speak for many victims.”1 In Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost, forensic anthropologist Anil repeats this phrase to herself as she toils to prove government involvement in the murder of a newly dead skeleton discovered in an ancient cemetery during Sri Lanka’s civil war. The novel explores the devastation of this war, and through focusing on Anil’s character, the role of human rights organizations in such atrocities. Throughout, there is a tension between the one and the many, the individual and the masses. We see this in Anil’s personal story, through her insistence on her own self-made independence, and the way she treats the skeleton she investigates, Sailor. It is also explored in terms of human rights work, through the simultaneous upholding of individual experiences while also generalizing populations and assuming that one story is everyone’s story. The ghosts of the thousands left dead by the civil war haunt the novel and its characters, revealing the ghostly voices so often ignored by Western academics and human rights work. This essay will explore the tension between the one and the many in Anil’s Ghost, in order to argue that it reflects a greater paradox within human rights and the way that humans handle and understand atrocity.

The novel’s protagonist Anil is obsessed with being an individual separate from every assumption people have about her in Sri Lanka. She was born there but left when she got a scholarship to study in the United States. After her family died in a car crash, she ended up staying in the West and became a forensic anthropologist for an unnamed human rights organization in Geneva. She only returned to Sri Lanka on assignment. Early in the novel, it is established that Anil was known in Sri Lanka as a swimmer, based on a competition she had won at sixteen. She is continually annoyed when people greet her by remarking, “You are the swimmer!”2 or “You won the scholarship to America.”3 After meeting Sarath, the archaeologist she is assigned to work with, she ends the conversation by saying, “Not married. Not a swimmer.”4 She also refuses to be seen as Sri Lankan. She asserts over and over that her home is in the West and insists on using Western techniques in her work. When speaking with Palipana, an elderly Sri Lankan archaeologist, she is dismissive of his strategies, saying she can be surer of her estimates than he could be “feeling the skull and brow ridges and measuring the jaw”5 with only his fingers.

This insistence on individuality can also be seen in human rights work in general. One of Anil’s primary roles in the story is as a representative of the human rights organization she works for, and a voice for the philosophy and practices of similar organizations separated from the nations they work it. Individuality is very valued in the West and is ingrained in many ideas of human rights, such as the emphasis on “inalienable rights” being inherent to each individual rather than something created by a broader societal system. Historian Lynn Hunt argues that human rights spread among the general population with the popularization of epistolary novels––such as Rousseau’s Julie or Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa––that revealed the “interiority” of all people.6 Although she notes that multiple characters write letters in these novels, the fact that all the examples mentioned in Hunt’s essay are named for the protagonist reveals the emphasis on individualism. In his essay “Amnesty or Impunity,” South African author Mahmood Mamdani explores this in terms of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that took place after apartheid. He wrote that “there was a strong tendency in the TRC…to individualize the wrongs done by apartheid.”7 Mamdani made this mistake out to be one of the main shortcomings of the TRC––it portrayed apartheid as a relationship between individual perpetrators and victims rather than a reltaionship between the systems of government and entire communities. By ignoring the massive scale of apartheid, the label of ‘crime against humanity’ seemed more like a formality than anything else. “Had the victim hearings been driven by the broader interpretation,” Mamdani argued, “they would have addressed all gross violations suffered…by the people of South Africa under apartheid,” rather than “only those violations suffered by political activists or state agents.”8 Similarly, the novels that Lynn Hunt discussed allowed people to build empathy across gender and class boundaries, but they did not often encompass the larger picture of systemic oppression.

However, there is a paradox here. Human rights philosophy upholds individualism, but assuming that one person’s experience is the experience of the masses effectively erases the individuality of everyone else. Furthermore, the actual reporting done by human rights organizations has faced criticism for being too general and unemotional––not focusing on any individuals. Too often, human rights reporting relies on stockpiling––“the collection of facts” and “the piling up of statistical information” while avoiding using any kind of emotional or subjective language.9 In many ways, the stockpiling technique “renders victims powerless by their statistical visibility as victims only.”10 These reports are not meant to empower anyone or tell their stories, and rather act as a way to gain the legal power of a third-party government. This contradiction between the philosophy’s emphasis on individual stories and the reporting’s sweeping statistics, adds another level of complication to the tension between the one and the many. 

In Anil’s Ghost, Ondaatje attempts to avoid this paradox by going somewhere in between. Although Anil is the protagonist, there are many sections of the book written from different perspectives. The reader learns about the conflict through Gamini’s experience as a doctor taking on the massive numbers of people brutally wounded by bombings and torture. We see how his family fell apart due to his endless hours at the hospital, how he would take “pills with a protein drink so he could be continuously awake to those dying around him.”11 The novel closes with Ananda taking up his family’s tradition of painting the eyes on statues of the Buddha. There are even several sections that tell a glimpse of a stranger’s story. A man being strangled on a train, the death of Ananda’s missing wife. One section focuses on Palipana’s niece, who was so affected by the death of her parents that she could no longer speak or function around other people. Another shows a doctor who was kidnapped by insurgents, and ends up staying with them despite the chance to return home to his family. Through these snippets of stranger’s lives, the reader sees the intense everyday impact of loss and violence. War and atrocity is no one story, it touches every individual, and it leaves massive scars on entire populations and nations. It is every single one of these lived experiences, and it is the cultural and historical impact left by them. The use of multiple perspectives allow Ondaatje to write about Sri Lanka’s civil war in this way—a way that neither generalizes everyone’s experiences nor highlights only one individual. 

Perhaps one of the most essential elements of the tension between one and many is the title’s reference to ghosts. As Eve Tuck and C. Ree write in their essay A Glossary of Haunting, “haunting is the cost of subjugation. It is the price paid for violence, for genocide.”12 A Glossary of Haunting is written about ghosts in relation to decolonization, specifically from a Native American perspective. But the ghostly consequences of atrocity and violence can be applied to Ondaatje’s novel, as well. Although there are no literal ghosts in the book, there are many metaphorical ghosts. Throughout, there are descriptions of dead bodies without identity, of missing people who may or may not match them. The novel opens on Anil’s previous work in Guatemala, where she and her forensic team traveled through the western highlands after the civil war, digging up bodies for families to identify. For those families, “there was always the fear, double-edged, that it was their son in the pit, or that it was not their son––which meant there would be further searching…The possibility of their lost son was everywhere.”13 That possibility is a haunting. Every character in Anil’s Ghost has lost someone to the war, and such as the case of Ananda, many are left without a body to bury or identify. Gamini is further haunted by the hundreds of bodies he works with as a doctor, the lives he couldn’t save no matter how much he sacrificed. Ghosts are everywhere around them. 

In A Glossary of Haunting, it is established one of the main reasons ghosts haunt is to demand recognition for their lives as well as their deaths. A death that leaves a person’s body disfigured beyond recognition, buried somewhere to hide it from family and any chance of justice, erases the individual in a harrowing way. It is this very “erasure and defacement” that “concoct ghosts.”14 When a ghost comes back to haunt, it demands to be seen and forces those who it haunts to witness its pain. This is a way for someone who was lost in the many to manifest individuality. 

One individual ghost the novel focuses on is Sailor. Anil becomes obsessed with Sailor as the story unfolds, treating his skeleton as though there was still a person attached to it. While Ananda worked on replicating Sailor’s face, Anil would “lift Sailor into her arms, to remind herself that he was like her. Not just evidence, but someone with charms and flaws, part of a family, a member of a village.”15 Her goal is to find the identity of the skeleton––to prove who he was as an individual. This is an extension of her obsession with individuality; she believes that to solve the greater problem of government sanctioned violence, she must prove the individual experience of one skeleton. 

However, not every character is as interested in Sailor’s individuality. Anil and Sarath enlist a drunken artist, Ananda, to recreate Sailor’s face from the bone. However, rather than sculpting Sailor’s true face, Ananda sculpts “a peacefulness he would have wanted for any victim.”16 When Anil asks Sarath to explain Ananda’s drunkenness and strange behavior, he tells her that Ananda’s wife disappeared three years ago. Even after all that time, he was never able to find her or learn what happened to her. So, when he is given the task of making a face for this skeleton that was taken from its own family, he puts the identity of his wife and all those lost in the war into the sculpture. In that way, he puts the many over the one, thinking of what Sailor represents for the entire nation rather than Sailor’s personal identity. 

Another aspect of Tuck and Ree’s essay is the Western idea that ghosts can and must be defeated, even if through reconciliation or simply being laid to rest. Like the hero of an American horror film, Anil wants to spend her time in Sri Lanka “righting wrongs, slaying the monster, burying the undead, performing the missing right” ––finding “a solution to the problem set of injustice.”17 She believes that proving the circumstances of Sailor’s death will not only bring him justice, but that it will bring justice to every other body killed by the government: “One victim can speak for many victims.”18However, the incomprehensible violence that led to the death of Sailor and so many others makes forgiveness and peaceful acceptance impossible. Instead, the response of the ghosts can only be to “wrong wrongs” as a way of demanding recognition and reclaiming power.19 As Ondaatje writes, “death, loss, was ‘unfinished,’ so you could not walk through it…all that was left of law was a belief in the eventual revenge towards those who had power.”20

The Western perspective on haunting discussed by Tuck and Ree can also be seen in the way that Gamini describes the ending of American and English stories. As Anil is preparing to go home, she remembers Gamini saying, “The American or the Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That’s it. The camera leaves with him…So the war, for all purposes, is over. That’s enough reality for the West.”21 In both contexts, the Western hero seeks to find a perfect and simple solution to the issue, and then wash his hands of it and walk away into his normal life. 

In reality, though, there is no simple solution to lay the consequences of war to rest. Although Anil spends the novel believing that proving Sailor’s death will change everything, it ends up making little difference. In fact, solving the mystery of Sailor only leads to more death. In order to publish Anil’s report, Sarath sacrifices himself, and is tortured and murdered by the government––the same fate that befell Sailor. Even though Ondaatje doesn’t write Sailor as a literal, conscious ghost, he takes on that role symbolically. Sarath’s death can be seen as Sailor wronging wrongs, as well as a comment on the ironic impossibility of proving that someone was killed by the government without getting killed by the government yourself. There can be no reconciliation with Sailor’s ghost, or any of the thousands of ghosts created by the war. Not every wrong can be righted, and this level of violence cannot be wrapped up by one forensic anthropologist or the human rights organization that she represents. In her own way, Anil even points this out, saying “there’s only a mad logic here, no resolving.”22

Indeed, before Sarath’s death, this point is proven when Anil attempts to confront the government about Sailor’s body. Against the mass of the government, she is powerless. As Sarath listens to her present her evidence, she says, “I think you murdered hundreds of us.”23 For the first time, she aligns herself with the Sri Lankan people. Her evidence becomes “a citizen’s evidence”24 and Sarath realizes he must shut her down in order to protect them both. The moment that Anil lets go of her individuality, she becomes a threat, and it must be revoked. As Sarath continues to argue with her, Anil becomes increasingly panicked, eventually saying, “I’d like to remind you that I came here as part of a human rights group…I work for an international authority.”25 She even goes on to emphasize that the organization is “independent,” and they make “independent reports.”26 Anil lets go of her own independence in a new way, making herself part of the organization, separating herself again from Sri Lanka. But even as she does this, she continues to evoke independence through the organization. Yet, no matter if she is an individual or part of a human rights group, she ultimately doesn’t stand a chance against the forces around her. Both she and the group lack of true autonomy––a defining feature of individuality. During the debate over Anil’s evidence, Sarath goes on to say that her “‘international authority’ has been invited here by the government,”, that they make their independent reports “to the government.”27 So, even the independence and neutrality of the human rights group is dependent on the corrupt and guilty government it supposedly works to expose. 

In conclusion, Anil’s Ghost reveals the complex tension between the individual and the many present in human rights work and the portrayal of war and atrocity in general. Independence and individuality are upheld by Western values in human rights, but they do little in the face of atrocity and war. Wrapped up in the system of human rights, Anil is ultimately unable to truly listen to the ghosts around her. Sociologist Avery Gordon wrote in her book Ghostly Matters that “human sciences…provide few tools for understanding how social institutions and people are haunted, for capturing enchantment in a disenchanted world.”28 Ondatje’s novel encapsulates this perfectly. Although Anil pursues Sailor’s ghost, in some ways trying to push the boundaries of the rigid logic of her science, she is never able to understand his haunting. Furthermore, in her singular obsession with Sailor, Anil becomes more or less blinded to the greater picture—the haunting of every person affected in the war, the very haunting of Sri Lanka itself. The fact that her character often stands in for the perspective of Western human rights is essential to understanding this shortcoming. As Ondaatje writes, “there could never be any logic to the human violence…For now, it would be reported, filed in Geneva, but no one could ever give meaning to this.”

  1. Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost (Vintage, 2001), 176.
  2. Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 17.
  3. Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 25.
  4. Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 17.
  5. Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 95.
  6. Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights (W. W. Norton and Company, 2007), 48.
  7. Mahmood Mamdani, “Amnesty or Impunity? A Preliminary Critique of the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa (TRC),” Diacritics 32, no. 3, (2002): 57,
  8. Mamdani, “Amnesty or Impunity?” 38.
  9. Ron Dudai, “Can You Describe This?” eds. Richard Wilson and Richard Brown (Cambridge University Press, 2008), 252.
  10. Dudai, “Can You Describe This?” 235.
  11. Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 209.
  12. Eve Tuck & C. Ree, “A Glossary of Haunting.” Handbook of Autoethnography (2013), 5,
  13. Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 1.
  14. Tuck & Ree, “A Glossary of Haunting,” 643.
  15. Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 170.
  16. Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 187.
  17. Tuck & Ree, “A Glossary of Haunting,” 641.
  18. Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 176.
  19. Tuck & Ree, “A Glossary of Haunting,” 654.
  20. Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 56.
  21. Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 286.
  22. Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 186.
  23. Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 272.
  24. Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 272.
  25. Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 274.
  26. Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 274.
  27. Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost, 274.
  28. Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 8
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