Last Updated 04 Jan 2023

We Are the World: Nationality and the Construction of Identity in the English Patient

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During WWII, the map of Europe was redrawn. In the West, Hitler expanded Germany to include much of Central Europe. In the East, Japan viciously colonized parts of present day China, Mongolia, Russia, and Korea. As the war came to a close, old borders were reconstructed and new ones were penned. The years following WWII saw the fall of imperialism, leading to changes in maps all over the world: Israel was given to the Jews, India was freed and partitioned, and the Philippines were decolonized.

In his novel, Ondaatje explores the understanding of nations post-WWII, a time when nation-states were tentative, no longer grounded in shared a shared religion, language, or ethnicity. Ondaatje suggests that cultural identities are not a product of artificially created borders, but of lived experience. In The English Patient, Kip conflates nationality and cultural identity, causing him to juggle the Western part of his identity with the Eastern; however, when he attempts to completely disassociate the West from the East, he fails and is forced to reconcile with the fact that his identity is not dictated by his nationality, but is plural, both English and Indian.

Kip believes that cultures are connected to nation-states and, therefore, are mutually exclusive, or binary, meaning he can follow only one at a time. While in Europe, Kip embraces Western culture by distancing himself from his Indian roots. As a young man, Kip rejects his duty to become a doctor as the second son in his Indian family and, instead, chooses to enlist in the British army. Once Kip reaches England, he “assume[s] English fathers, following their codes like a dutiful son” (Ondaatje 217).

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Ondaatje’s use of “father” and “son” suggest that Kip’s relationship with England has replaced his relationship with his family. Instead of following the duty assigned to him by his Indian heritage, he chooses to become a “dutiful son” of the British Army. During his time as a sapper, Kip assimilates into British culture: he “sings his Western songs” and is “charmed by...Western invention[s],” (127, 270). The “Western songs” are modified by the pronoun “his,” implying that Kip is making this part of Western culture his own. Instead of teaching his English comrades his name “Kirpal,” he readily accepts “Kip” and is “thereby translated into a salty English fish. Within a week, his real name, Kirpal Singh, had been forgotten” (87).

Kip’s “translation” into a distinctly English food demonstrates that he, Kirpal, has been consumed and “forgotten” by the West in favor of the new “Kip.” Kip says he “preferred [the nickname] to the English habit of calling people by their surname” even though his “surname” Singh is what identifies him as a Sikh man (88). His preference of identifying himself with an English name instead of the name all Sikhs carry depicts his decision to clear the Indian parts of him from his new identity. When Caravaggio questions why Kip is “fighting English wars,” Hana spills “milk over his [Kip’s] brown hand and up his arm to his elbow...He didn’t move it away” (123).

Caravaggio’s question seems to hide another: why Kip is serving the country that has subjugated India for years. Kip never answers this and does not move his hand as it gets covered in the white milk. He is unbothered by being enveloped in whiteness, whether that whiteness be milk or the West. Caravaggio continues to press to find out Kip’s relationship with India. When Kip mentions how “everyone will finally go home” after the war, Caravaggio asks Kip: “And where will you go?” (268). Kip once more does not grace Caravaggio with a response and simply “rolled his head, half nodding, half shaking it, his mouth smiling” (268).

Kip both nods his head in affirmation and shakes it as if saying no, suggesting his confusion over his home. His ambivalent silence and inability to answer with India, his homeland, suggests that he has been distanced from that part of himself. By making the decision to choose one part of his cultural identity and reject the other, Kip demonstrates a dualistic recognition of identity.

The dropping of the atomic bomb causes Kip to translate his understanding of identity as binary into grouping the world into two categories that he bases on nationality: the West and the East; despite his clear connections with the West, he attempts to position himself as only belonging to the latter due to his birthplace. Prior to the bombings, Kip disproves his brother’s East versus West, Pan-Asian school of thought by arguing “Japan is a part of Asia...and the Sikhs have been brutalized by the Japanese in Malaya” (217). When the bombs are dropped, Kip echoes his brother’s essentialism. He yells at Almásy saying, “Your fragile white island... somehow converted the rest of the world...You and the Americans converted us...listen to what you people have done” (285).

Kip regards Almásy as England’s figurehead, and groups both Americans and the English as “you people,” placing them in contrast with himself. He no longer places any blame on the Japanese for “brutalizing” Indians. When Caravaggio tells Kip, “He [Almásy] isn’t an Englishman,” Kip says, “American, French, I don’t care. When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman” (286). Despite Japan not being a distinctly “brown” country like India, Kip groups it with his own. In actuality, Kip’s position in the British Army makes him more English than the “American[s],” “French,” or “Almásy.” Kip, however, does not recognize his lived experience as a sapper as contributing to his cultural identity, only his birthplace, and thus, sees himself as only Eastern. He constructs the world as binary: the Western, white, imperialist races, which are all like the “Englishman,” and “the brown races of the world,” to which he belongs.

Kip generalizes the West and the East, creating categories based on geographic location. He forgets that Japan is an imperialist country like England; the only difference is that the Japanese are not white. Kip runs away from the villa and the three white people in it to distance himself from the West. Before even eating, he “stripped the tent of all military objects, all bomb disposal equipment, stripped all insignia off his uniform” (287). Kip removes anything that associates him with the English army from his belongings. He believes removing the physical markers of his Englishness will separate him from the West. The narrator states, “His name is Kirpal Singh and he does not know what he is doing here” (287). He no longer associates himself with his given Western name, but his Indian one; when Kip leaves on his motorcycle, he is called “Singh” (289).

Although Kip is able to physically disconnect himself from the West because of his “brown” skin and the removal of English “insignia,” he cannot disconnect himself from his lived experience as a part of the British Army. Because his life has been split between two cultures, his identity is now plural, both English and Indian. Despite his name change, after Kip loses control of the motorcycle on a bridge and falls into the Ofanto River, when he emerges, he is once again an English “sapper” (298). His fall during a storm into the Ofanto, a river “where the sappers had laid the Bailey bridges, nearly drowning in the storm” interrupts his journey to Punjab, “the country of five rivers” (270).

This plunge into the water interrupts his homecoming by forcing him to relive a memory of his time as a sapper, and compelling him to realize the label “sapper” will always be a part of his identity. During his journey back East, Kip “feels he carries the body of the Englishman with him in this flight...the black body in an embrace with his, facing the past over his shoulder” (294). Kip is tethered to England; his past was in Europe and is now “over his shoulder,” but that part of his life stays with him, “embrace[s]” him, and will forever be with him. Although Kip will always be among “the brown races of the world,” his lived experience in the West means he cannot divorce himself from the pluralism of his new identity. Borders can dictate only his geographical location, not his identity.

Ondaatje uses Kip to suggest that cultural identities are not inherently synonymous with nationality; nation-states are a sociopolitical construct whereas culture is a product of a multitude of things—where a person has lived, what they have done, and who they have met. In the age of globalization and mass migration, nation-states are beginning to give way to multicultural states that are a celebration of difference and diaspora. As Western countries see a rise in Nationalism and vote to limit immigration due to fears of losing their culture to different languages and religious traditions, it is important to remember that the world is not “brown” and “white,” but a plurality where both can coexist, even within the same person.

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