Kip is the only character of color in The English Patient, and Ondaatje constantly draws attention to Kip’s identity as a Punjabi Indian. According to tradition, the oldest son in an Indian family joins the army, and the second oldest, like Kip, becomes a doctor. However, when World War II begins, Kip joins the army, but his older brother adamantly refuses. Kip’s brother will not “agree to any situation where the English have power,” and he is thrown into prison for his resistance. India did not gain independence from British rule until 1947, so when Kip joins the army in 1939, he fights for the British. From his turban to his long hair and dark skin, Kip is always an “other,” first among the British soldiers with whom he fights and then again among the ad-hoc “family” that develops in the Italian villa. Kip’s experiences in the novel eventually allow him to see the lie at the heart of British Colonialism: that though he might conform he will never be allowed to fully join the British world, and, further, that in the eyes of the white world he and people like him will always be an “other,” and will always be treated as inferior.
When Kip initially joins the army, he is willing to completely assimilate to Western culture and ways. This willingness reflects Kip’s sense of the correctness and goodness of the British cause in the war, but it also (without Kip’s realizing it) indicates the power of British colonialism to erase Kip’s native identity. While in the army, Kip listens to American music from the AIF station and is constantly humming English songs he learns from his close friend and comrade, an Englishman named Hardy. Yet Kip does not recognize at this point that in conforming to Western life by embracing American and English culture, he is ignoring his own. Kip loves English tea and stands “dutifully in line at the crack of dawn” each morning during the war just to get a cup of the tea he loves so much. This ritual, though, carries heavy symbolic weight. The English colonized India—and became wealthy doing so—in large part because doing so gave the English empire access to a population of Indian indentured servants to raise tea on “tea estates.” Kip’s adoption of tea might seem simple, but it is an adoption of a pleasant ritual that is connected to the British exploitation of India for more than a century. Later, at the abandoned Italian villa, Hana “imagines all of Asia” through Kip, although she notes he has “assumed English fathers” during the war and follows their orders “like a dutiful son.” Even Hana, who loves Kip, sees him as exotic, as an other. No matter how Kip tries to assimilate and conform, Hana and the army see Kip as someone who does not completely fit into their Western world.
The novel also shows how, despite Kip’s desire to assimilate and conform to Western ways and culture, he is still met with a fair amount of overt and explicit discrimination, which reflects the racism of colonial era society. When Kip applies to be part of Lord Suffolk’s experimental bomb squad at the beginning of the war, Kip breezes through all of the entrance exams and senses “he would be admitted easily if it were not for his race.” Kip is smart and qualified for the job, but he feels he will be discriminated against because of his identity as an Indian. Surprisingly, Kip is selected for Lord Suffolk’s squad, and while Suffolk himself is kind and accepting of Kip, Kip is ignored by most of the men. As a person of color in an overwhelmingly white army, Kip becomes “the anonymous member of another race, a part of the invisible world.” Kip fights for the British, but they continue to sideline and marginalize him. As Kip’s intelligence and capability guide him through the ranks, there is “always hesitation by the soldiers to call him ‘sir.’” Most of the soldiers in Kip’s unit are Englishmen, and they can’t easily bring themselves to show Kip, an Indian who is beneath them according to their racist standards, the respect his station has earned him. But perhaps the most profound instance of racism in the novel occurs at the villa, precisely because it is less overt. The others at the villa like and admire or even love Kip, but they never see him as being English, despite being a subject of the English empire. In contrast, the English patient—who they all think of as being “the English patient”—is easily accepted as being English by the residents of the villa simply because of his accent. But in fact the English patient is Austrian, a nation that fought against England in the war. Because he is white, the “English” patient is accepted. Because he is not white, Kip never entirely is.
Kip comes to realize his position relative to the other residents of the villa—and to the British Empire and white society more generally—near the end of the novel, when he hears of the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan. These bombs, the single most brutal destructive force brought to bear in the war, were used not against the Germans, but the Japanese. In this moment, Kip (who worked in the war to protect Allied soldiers from German bombs) realizes that the Allies “would never have dropped such a bomb on a white nation.” Kip realizes that even despite the fact that a war has ravaged Europe, that white society will always treat non-white people even worse. As Kip puts it: “When you start bombing the brown races of the world, you’re an Englishman,” Kip says as he levels a rifle at the English patient. “You all learned it from the English.” Kip then leaves the villa, abandoning Hana, whom he loves but also recognizes as being part of the white society that will always treat him as an inferior. He returns to India, where he becomes a doctor as his cultural tradition dictates. Realizing that he can never truly be a part of white society, he reconnects with the traditions of his own. Meanwhile, no one at the villa can deny Kip’s anger after the bombing. Shortly before Hana returns home to Canada, she writes her stepmother a letter. “If we can rationalize this,” Hana says of the Japanese bombings, “we can rationalize anything,” and this indeed appears to be Ondaatje’s overarching point. The racism and Western superiority that led to British colonialism has also led directly to the annihilation of two Japanese cities full of civilians. In a story about love torn apart by jealousy and passion, and Europe torn apart by nationalism, Ondaatje makes clear that the racism of white people toward non-white people is even more powerful, pervasive, and destructive.
British Colonialism and Racism ThemeTracker
British Colonialism and Racism Quotes in The English Patient
He sits with his hands below the table, watching the girl eat. He still prefers to eat alone, though he always sits with Hana during meals. Vanity, he thinks. Mortal vanity. She has seen him from a window eating with his hands as he sits on one of the thirty-six steps by the chapel, not a fork or a knife in sight, as if he were learning to eat like someone from the East. In his greying stubble-beard, in his dark jacket, she sees the Italian finally in him. She notices this more and more.
At lunch there is Caravaggio’s avuncular glance at the objects on the blue handkerchief. There is probably some rare animal, Caravaggio thinks, who eats the same foods that this young soldier eats with his right hand, his fingers carrying it to his mouth. He uses the knife only to peel the skin from the onion, to slice fruit.
If he were a hero in a painting, he could claim just sleep. But as even she had said, he was the brownness of a rock, the brownness of a muddy storm-fed river. And something in him made him step back from even the naive innocence of such a remark. The successful defusing of a bomb ended novels. Wise white fatherly men shook hands, were acknowledged, and limped away, having been coaxed out of solitude for this special occasion. But he was a professional. And he remained the foreigner, the Sikh.
The ends of the earth are never the points on a map that colonists push against, enlarging their sphere of influence. On one side servants and slaves and tides of power and correspondence with the Geographical Society. On the other the first step by a white man across a great river, the first sight (by a white eye) of a mountain that has been there forever.
He looked back at the others, peered around the room and caught the gaze of the middle-aged secretary. She watched him sternly. An Indian boy. He smiled and walked towards the bookshelves. Again he touched nothing. At one point he put his nose close to a volume called Raymond, or Life and Death by Sir Oliver Hodge. He found another, similar title. Pierre, or the Ambiguities. He turned and caught the woman’s eyes on him again. He felt as guilty as if he had put the book in his pocket. She had probably never seen a turban before. The English! They expect you to fight for them but won’t talk to you. Singh. And the ambiguities.
He was accustomed to his invisibility. In England he was ignored in the various barracks, and he came to prefer that. The self-sufficiency and privacy Hana saw in him later were caused not just by his being a sapper in the Italian campaign. It was as much a result of being the anonymous member of another race, a part of the invisible world. He had built up defences of character against all that, trusting only those who befriended him.
He will sit up and flip his hair forward, and begin to rub the length of it with a towel. She imagines all of Asia through the gestures of this one man. The way he lazily moves, his quiet civilisation. He speaks of warrior saints and she now feels he is one, stern and visionary, pausing only in these rare times of sunlight to be godless, informal, his head back again on the table so the sun can dry his spread hair like grain in a fan-shaped straw basket. Although he is a man from Asia who has in these last years of war assumed English fathers, following their codes like a dutiful son.
I grew up with traditions from my country, but later, more often, from your country. Your fragile white island that with customs and manners and books and prefects and reason somehow converted the rest of the world. You stood for precise behaviour. I knew if I lifted a teacup with the wrong finger I’d be banished. If I tied the wrong kind of knot in a tie I was out. Was it just ships that gave you such power? Was it, as my brother said, because you had the histories and printing presses?
My brother told me. Never turn your back on Europe. The deal makers. The contract makers. The map drawers. Never trust Europeans, he said. Never shake hands with them. But we, oh, we were easily impressed— by speeches and medals and your ceremonies. What have I been doing these last few years? Cutting away, defusing, limbs of evil. For what? For this to happen?
Before light failed he stripped the tent of all military objects, all bomb disposal equipment, stripped all insignia off his uniform. Before lying down he undid the turban and combed his hair out and then tied it up into a topknot and lay back, saw the light on the skin of the tent slowly disperse, his eyes holding onto the last blue of light, hearing the drop of wind into windlessness and then hearing the swerve of the hawks as their wings thudded. And all the delicate noises of the air.
He was riding deeper into thick rain. Because he had loved the face on the ceiling he had loved the words. As he had believed in the burned man and the meadows of civilisation he tended. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Solomon were in the burned man’s bedside book, his holy book, whatever he had loved glued into his own. He had passed his book to the sapper, and the sapper had said we have a Holy Book too.