A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned to my friend, Tim, that I was going to Sri Lanka. “Oh,” he exclaimed, “One of my favorite authors is from Sri Lanka. You should read about Michael Ondaatje’s trip back there.” That day, I ordered Running in the Family.
Ondaatje, the Booker Prize-winning author of The English Patient, grew up mainly in Canada, but he has roots in Sri Lanka. In 1978, he traveled to what was then known as Ceylon, to revisit his childhood and his ancestry. Running in the Family, about that trip, was published in 1982.
I began reading it on the flight over here, and I had it under my arm as Shawn Smucker and I walked from our hotel, across the street to the beach. I looked up to notice a man walking on ropes, high above us in the palm trees, pouring a liquid from pots into a pot that he lowered by rope to the ground.
Our very gracious hotelier, Tommy, saw us looking up and explained to us that the man was collecting the sap of the palm flower, which is subsequently fermented and made into a drink called the palm toddy and also further distilled into arrack. He told us that he’d serve us a toddy before lunch and some arrack after dinner.
After that little education, I planted myself on a chair on the beach, and opened Ondaatje’s book, wherein, after a few pages, I came across the poem, “High Flowers,” which reads, in part,