Monday, June 16, 2014

More Fun At The Cat's Table

Yup, from the magical never-ending pile of unread books, I picked up 'The Cat's Table' by Michael Ondaatje. Written in first person narrative, it's fiction, but the stories are told with such vivid details and colors as though it could be possibly a biography or something from the author's memories. (Reviews herehere, here and here.)

The protagonist is also named Michael, alone on a three-week passage from Colombo, Sri Lanka (Ceylon then) to his family in England via the Suez Canal on ocean liner Oronsay. Nicknamed 'Mynah', he was only 11 years old. The title of the book arose from a comment of a fellow diner on the author's table, of them being seated at the table during mealtimes, apparently compromising the liner's least prominent passengers. As opposed to being seated at the Captain's Table. Miss Lasqueti had said, "We seem to be at the cat's table, / We're in the least privileged place."

He made friends with two but rather polar opposite boys of similar ages- betel-leaf-chewing toughie Cassius, and stereotypical fragile but philosophical Ramadhin. They had a ball of a time onboard when they realized that most passengers didn't notice little boys and quickly broke every rule on the ship on purpose, daily. The timeline moved to Mynah in his 20s living in England. It tells of how he stayed in touch with some of his friends from that three-week journey, but lost contact with Cassius till he chanced upon the latter's artworks in a gallery.

We needed to stay up to witness what took place on the ship late at night, but we were already exhausted from waking before sunrise. Ramadhin proposed we sleep in the afternoons, as we had done as children. At boarding school we had scorned these afternoon naps, but now we saw that they might be useful. However there were problems. Ramadhin was billeted next to a cabin where, he claimed, a couple were laughing and groaning and screeching during the afternoons, while the cabin next to mine was occupied by a woman who practised the violin, the sound easing its way through the metal wall into my room. Just screeching, I said, no laughing. I could even hear her argue with herself between the impossible-to-ignore squawks and plucks. As well, the temperature in these lower cabins that had no portholes was horrific. Any anger I had towards the violin player was modified by knowing that she was also probably perspiring, and likely wearing the bare minimum to be respectable to herself. I never saw her, had no knowledge of what she looked like, or of what she was trying to perfect with that instrument. 

The book is rather enjoyable in its voyage. Plenty of little tales about the other passengers onboard. But it's pretty much filled with metaphors of life's philosophical derivation as seen from the adult Mynah, now Michael. The transition from child to adult. The moment the ship docked and passengers disembarked, there were no goodbyes and each boy went towards wherever they were supposed to be. And at that point, it would be the first time in a three weeks someone called him 'Michael'- his mother, whom he hadn't seen for four or five years. Towards the end of the book, a chapter was marked out 'Letter to Cassius', indicating this account of the three weeks and stories are for him, "For the the other friend from my youth."

The three weeks of the sea journey, as I originally remembered it, were placid. It is only now, years later, having been prompted by my children to describe the voyage, that it becomes an adventure, when seen through their eyes, even something significant in a life. A rite of passage. But the truth is, grandeur had not been added to my life but had been taken away. 

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