Post Colonial Literature in English: Canada

Responses in prose and verse to "The Cinnamon Peeler" by Michael Ondaatje

Assembled by Lilijana Burcar, University of Ljubljana

Against the backdrop of some of the points elucidated in my essay, "Mapping the Woman's Body in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, " students were asked to contemplate Ondaatje's poem "The Cinnamon Peeler" and elaborate on the way the woman's body is streaked with the inscriptional marks as purveyed by the male lover. The students could relate, or were at least in agreement with their schoolmates, that a woman's identity is always established in relation to that of a man (e.g. the lime burner's daughter, the grass cutter's wife and the cinnamon peeler's wife) and when coaxed into the open as her own, it is mediated through the fragmentation of her body as induced and orchestrated by the lover's searching gaze as well as his burning touch. It is only after these fragmented parts have been soaked in the smell or fragrance of the cinnamon peeler (which of course bespeaks of his identity only) that a woman can be galvanised into social existence and recognised as being in possession of internal, but in fact very much distorted, coherence, when weaving her way round the bastions of homosocial fabric (e.g. when walking trough the market among the vendors, in whose eyes she would be acknowledged as a viable social entity providing she can be claimed as somebody's proprietorial extension).

The students were then invited to lend the woman a voice and possibly unearth and pursue the convoluted maze of the woman's thoughts that would either reflect her ruminations on having been subjected to this kind of treatment or lead to an articulation of a liberated retort. The students were not expected to merely evoke and reiterate the already dissected pattern of the way a woman's body is colonised and mapped so as to be able to cast her in a rebellious posture (although this kind of approach had yielded some interesting results see Section A). Instead they were supposed to embark on the search for the way in which the woman's emerging sense of her reclaimed identity could be at least glimpsed at or even retrieved by delving into her realisations about the way her self-awareness has been affected and shaped under the impact of specularly imposed meanings (Section B). In the long run, a hope was entertained that the woman in the students' written responses might not only return the glance, revert the gaze and question the authority of the male gaze as the expression goes, but probe into the possibilities of refashioning the existing framework of social relations by taking on the image of male body/identity, emptying it out of its purported originary and incontestable meanings and investing it with her own projections that would point to either ironical or serious attempts at staging a true countercolonisation. No such approach had been taken for obviously it would have been a rather hard nut to crack.

The Responses in Prose and Verse

W(oman): Who are you talking about?

CP(eeler): Well, I'm talking about you.

W: And who am I?

CP: What do you mean?

W: Well, who am I? What is my name?

CP: I don't know your name.

W: Then how can you talk about me if you don't know me, if you even don't know my name? Don't bother answering, I'll answer instead of you. You don't know my name, because inside, in your mind, you are still one of us. You are no better than other Indian men even though you camouflaged your hands over smoking tar. Women are for you, and will always be, just someone's wives. Even in your Western world you see women in the same way our men do, without their own feelings and brain the grass cutter's wife or the lime burner's daughter, they don't have a name either. And a name is not really important, isn't that so? Why bother with names if all you want is a wife and a dancer. All you need and want is a nice body dancing for you, and even then you don't notice the face or the eyes of your dancer, but just her ankles, thighs, a belly, breasts and shoulders and hands. What is a woman to you? And you are right, I will never be able to walk through the markets without being noticed. As you said, the blind would stumble certain of whom they approached though I might bathe under rain gutters. For them I will always be the cinnamon peeler's wife. They also don't care whether I am Maya, Sarita, Indira or Vandana. (Maja)

If I were a cinnamon peeler's wife,
I would join my hands with water
in repulsion against the yellow bark dust.

Ah, all the efforts I would make
to clear my mind of who I am,
to put myself on top
and get rid of you instead.

For I may be your wife,
but my intelligence
breaks the boundaries of your yellow bark dust.

The act of love,
sending shivers down my spine,
not giving pleasure even to the bed,
sends me off to softer arms.

So you see, my poor and little cinnamon peeler,
your days are over.
I am my own ruler.

Here I am. You made me yours, you possess me, with my life I depend on you. You had cut me into pieces and thus I lost my own personality. I lost the control over my body. I am known among strangers only because of you, everyone knows me because of you. Where is me in this mess? You marked my breasts and shoulders, the upper thigh, my hair, my back, your smell is all over me, I am scared and my words were lost in the act of love. You pretended and foolishly thought that bodies are free? Why? Did you do this only for your pleasure, because of your egocentric nature, to show me that without you I am worth nothing? And what am I supposed to do now; how will I find my lost identity? I am not grateful to you for what you have done, for my dependence on you. I will leave you, I will wash your cinnamon smell off me, I will cut my hair, hide my breasts and shoulders. I will go back to my family who are people like me and not strangers like you. I will listen to the songs and voices of my country, of my youth. I will look at the faces of people who have the same history as I do and who do not want to possess me. I will look at familiar mountains, rivers and trees. You will no longer smell or touch me. For you I am lost.

However, this is not the only result of my liberation. I will not be satisfied with a mere escape to the other parts of my body, I will not be satisfied with returning to the relics of your devastation and with what you forgot to mark or what you simply considered not worthy of your attention. This is only the first step. I will fight back. I want to get everything back that you have taken although the things will never be the same as before.

I slept. As I was dreaming, wrapped up in a green illusion, my nose was poisoned with the smell of cinnamon. Its fragrance stupefied me, the dust of the yellow bark stuck to my moistened lips. I licked my lips and swallowed the dust. It was sweet. It tickled and seared my throat. I changed. I knew your desire, I wished your fingers to touch my ankle. I wanted you to breathe my new cinnamon breath. My supple skin yearned for your glance. You touched my thigh in water and looked at me impassively. I didn't shiver with excitement. My body stiffened. It was then I knew you were my master.

I touched my belly to your hands and said I was the cinnamon peeler's wife. I am naked. You have peeled off my skin. All that is left over is muscles, bones and blood. My eyes are blind with the smell when I look at you I buried my heart in cinnamon and it stopped beating. You [became] my mind, my soul, my life. Without you, the cinnamon peeler, I was nobody I followed the yellow path and got lost in the yellow forest.

Postcolonial Web Canada Michael Ondaatje Gender Matters