Perhaps there is no original craft—there is only right homage.
(Damn, another Ondaatje sentence! Only he would (probably) take out the word “perhaps.”)
“Quite early on I had discovered the overlooked space open to those of us with a silent life.” This is from The English Patient.
The man speaking is an Indian Sikh who endures racism in the English army during World War II. He doesn’t argue with a policeman about the barriers set against him because of his race. He is silent, he waits, and he slips through— “Like a cricket. Like a hidden cup of water.”
This phrase about a silent life got me thinking about a song my mother sang to me at bedtime. I was about 7 years old. Did she sing it more than once? I must have begged to hear it again, but it never became a tradition, because now she doesn’t remember anything about it.
It’s a real folk song…Until it dawned on me to do a Google Search to find out if I’d dreamed it up, years of life and preoccupation had left it detached from my memory, and I started thinking and wondering about the song again only after I became a writer. Not given to song and expressing outright dislike for much of music, my mother found it somewhere and brought it to me once before sleep. She knew it well enough not to require a songbook.
That in itself is a mystery, but she is a locked drawer.
It’s an English folk song from the mid-nineteenth century.
As sweet Polly Oliver lay musing in bed,
A sudden strange fancy came into her head.
"Nor father nor mother shall make me false prove,
I'll 'list as a soldier, and follow my love."
So early next morning she softly arose,
And dressed herself up in her dead brother's clothes.
She cut her hair close, and she stained her face brown,
And went for a soldier to fair London Town.
I didn’t particularly care that she found her wounded boyfriend, who the doctors had given up on, and nursed him back to life.
What delighted me was that Polly ‘passed’ in the same sense that light-skinned brown people may pass as white. I saw no injustice in the fact that a woman was not allowed to fight alongside her brothers. No, the delight lay in her ballsy disguise. The tanning of her skin seemed especially clever, and using her dead brother’s clothes was shocking and wonderful. Polly had everyone fooled, which made her far more powerful in my 7-year-old mind than if she had struggled for and obtained her rights. That would only have meant she was like everyone else.
Of course I didn’t know then that disparate elements in Polly’s story were in any way political. My mother certainly wouldn’t have wanted to see it that way.
For me, it was about secrets. How someone could slip into a no-man's-land and emerge in the glare of noon to join the ranks of those who have no idea what she is.
Secrets can allow you to be two things at once.
Secrets can keep you safe.
Everyone has a secret life.
Everyone is a universe.