The English Patient
Michael Ondaatje
Contributed by Pearl Vahle
Chapter 6

Kip flashes back to Westbury, England, in 1940. In his Sikh family, he was the second son. The oldest was meant to go into the army, the next brother would be a doctor, and the final brother would be a businessman. But with the outbreak of war, Kip joined a Sikh regiment and became part of an engineer unit assigned to defusing bombs. The life expectancy in his unit was only ten weeks.

Kip’s leader was a man named Lord Suffolk, who took a liking to the young Sikh, introducing him to the customs of England "as if it was a recently discovered culture." Kip thought of Lord Suffolk as the best of the English, and truly adored and trusted him. He arrived in England knowing no one, distanced from his family in the Punjab, only 21 years old. One night, he found that Lord Suffolk had been killed by a 250-kilogram bomb while he was attempting to dismantle it. Singh had been with Suffolk for over a year. He buried his emotions, pretended his mentor was still alive, and went to dismantle a second bomb that had fallen half a mile away from the first. He took no one with him.

Kip arrived at the bomb site and managed to dismantle it, keeping the deaths of Suffolk and the other soldiers out of his head. He wrote down his notes on how he dismantled the bomb and handed them to the officers. Because of his nascent skill, he was promoted, and was expected to become the new Lord Suffolk. Kip, however, was used to being an anonymous member of another race, and didn’t enjoy the attention. He escaped to Italy where he could once again be invisible.

Kip tells Hana about his family - mostly about his older brother who refused to be subservient to England and ultimately went to jail. He tells Hana that he is different, more silent and serene than his firebrand brother. He thinks his father is still alive, but hasn’t had letters from him in awhile. He seems to remember Lord Suffolk much more, as if he is his true father.

In the library, Caravaggio accidentally nudges the fusebox off the counter and Kip catches it before it falls, preventing an explosion. Seeing Caravaggio’s horrified face - a face that reveals that he now thinks he owes Kip his life - Kip merely laughs. Kip flashes back to a time when he was lowered into a pit in a harness to dismantle an Esau bomb. He remembers the frigid pit, how calm he was despite the leaking liquid oxygen, despite all the people watching from outside the pit that he would have killed with a mistake. He remembers that the only person who kept him human during this period was his partner, Hardy.

Hana sits with Kip as he washes his hair. They have a habit of rising at daybreak and eating dinner with the last available light. One night, after blowing out the candle in the Englishman’s room, Hana goes to the library. Kip goes to the library to wait for her, and watches her lying on the couch. Caravaggio, seemingly sleeping in the library, is actually awake and knows Hana is there. Caravaggio gets up, walks over to Hana, and extends his arm towards her, but is grabbed by Kip. Caravaggio, steamed by their game, leaves the room. Kip and Hana make love.

At some point, Hana and Kip sleep for a month beside each other without having sex - a formal celibacy. They are reminded of the delicacy of love - the simple comforts of touching, scratching, mutual affection. Kip remembers when his mother died - how he scratched through the sari, scratched the skin, just as he’s doing to Hana right now.


It’s Kip’s turn to confess, and it’s a confession we eagerly welcome, as he is perhaps the most mysterious character in the novel. Hana, after all, has a clear throughline and clear "need" - namely to remain tied to her patient, to avoid venturing out into the world. But why Kip is here at the villa, why he is so frigid, and why he dismantles bombs still remains unexplained. Here, we begin to get answers. Kip is the middle child of his family, and came to the field of bomb dismantling more or less by accident. But he found joy in the work under the tutelage of Lord Suffolk, who treated him like a son.

If Hana has issues with her father dying, then Kip has them with his mother dying. He seems to have little interest in discussing his father; indeed, he seems to see Lord Suffolk as his father. Much of this chapter, then, is about the coping mechanisms Kip has developed to handle all the pain from his father’s rejection, Lord Suffolk’s death, and his mother’s death. Indeed, as Kip is merely 21, and Hana 20, we can even see The English Patient as a coming-of-age novel in its own right - a story about two young people who aren’t sure how to find peace, and who have yet to come into their own. (This is a reason why watching the film of The English Patient as a substitute for reading the novel is a terrible error. In the film, Minghella recasts Hana and Kip as thirty-somethings, losing the idea that they are simply young, lost, in purgatory.) At the end of the novel, Kip lies in Hana’s embrace, thinking not of sex, but of his mother, and of the comfort he tried to find in her at her death.

Lord Suffolk’s death seems to have a terrible impact on Kip as well. When Lord Suffolk dies, Kip is treated as his replacement - a man of equal stature and vision. It is, of course, quite similar to a son who has to take over his father’s business upon the elder’s death. But Kip can’t handle the attention, the pressure. He is a quintessential middle child, and flees to Italy, hoping to rediscover anonymity. But here in this villa, his problems, his memories, and his fears return - as if alive in this house of spirits - and in Hana he can only find temporary mollification before sex becomes a burden, and the arms of a woman become a place to face the pain of the past and relive tragic memories.

The English patient vanishes here, and we sense that he is losing his relevance in terms of Hana’s arc. Instead, we look to him to guide us through the vagaries, the lessons of love that will soon inform Hana and Kip’s eventual maturity. We’re not sure if they’ll end up together - after all, no love in this novel seems to go without terrible tests - but we do know that they will learn from the English patient, and find in his story a redemption that will guide their own. The real question, however, is that Hana and Kip both seem plagued by the loss of everyone who is dear to them. Hana lost all her patients and her father, while Kip lost his brother, Lord Suffolk, and his mother. All things are in place for either Kip or Hana to die and leave the other to suffer, but the question is who needs the redemption more.

There is also the repeated detail of the dead body that comes again and again in the novel. The English patient makes love to Katharine’s dead body in the cave. Kip holds on to his mother’s dead body and mimics this with Hana. Hana comes to feel more comfortable around dead bodies than around live bodies. The idea of the soul seems foreign to any of the characters - the body is an end in itself. As we reach the climax of The English Patient, let us examine whether the characters change in their attitudes towards the body.

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