Summary – Chapter Seven, ‘In Situ’
The narrative travels to Westbury, England , 1940 and begins with Kip (who is referred to here as Kirpal Singh) remembering his training for the bomb squad under the direction of Lord Suffolk, his mentor. He recalls that he admired Lord Suffolk and learned a great deal about English customs and culture from him. Living in the unit with Suffolk, he began to love the English and their ways and was devasted when an explosion killed Lord Suffolk, his secretary, Miss Moden and some other members of his group. After this occurrence, Kip was offered the leadership position; He did not want to accept this promotion and fled to Italy.
Different types of bombs are then detailed, as is the way they explode. The most dangerous ones, we are told, are those that are dropped from low altitudes. These would later explode when disturbed. In 1940, by the time of the Blitz, there were 2,500 unexploded bombs to be dealt with and this rose in September. New bomb squads were set up, and ‘life expectancy in these units was ten weeks’.
Lord Suffolk had 12 men under his command and Kip (who is referred to as Singh) was one of them. For most of the week they were based at Richmond Park, London and weekends were spent at Exmoor. Lord Suffolk was an autodidact and an inventor and Kip adored him. He volunteered to join his squad as he had decided ‘that in a war you have to take control’. After he passed the selection process ‘he stepped into a family’ like the returned prodigal.
Kip tells Hana about the explosion in Erith when they are alone in his tent. It was a 250-kilogram bomb that exploded as Lord Suffolk tried to dismantle it. It also killed Miss Morden, Mr Harts (their driver) and four sappers. Kip went to Erith thinking there must be another bomb there, and that it must be something new to have killed Lord Suffolk.
Once there, he opened the back of the bomb case and did not know how much time he would have to defuse it. He ripped out the fuze pocket and knew most of the danger was gone now and that he ‘only’ risked taking off his hand. Because it was heavier than usual, he discovered there was a second ‘gaine’ inside. The discovery of this knowledge gave him more responsibility with the death of his mentor, but he (Kip) was never interested in ‘the choreography of power’. When the news of the deaths sank in, he re-enlisted ‘into the anonymous machine of the army’ and joined the Italian campaign.
At the time of defusing the bomb, he knew he could ask the other men for anything and they would do it. Ordinarily, they would not cross a crowded bar to speak to him. He came to prefer being ignored in England in the various barracks he was in. The self-sufficiency and privacy that Hana witnesses in him has its origins in the time before the Italian campaign.
The narrative cuts back again to explain how he discovered that the second gaine delayed the explosion for an hour. Kip also contributed to the solution of defusing it, and said how they should not touch the fuze at all.
He then compares how bombs were scribbled on in yellow chalk and how he and others enlisting in Lahore were also scrawled on with this. He says his elder brother would have challenged this, whereas he did not like confrontation. His brother also broke with tradition, as he refused to join the English army and was taken to jail.
Kip keeps remembering ‘one thing’: the time he worked on the bomb on the white horse. He was sweating and stuck on the problem, and Miss Morden came down to him and gave him eau de cologne on a handkerchief to refresh him. She also gave him tea and cake. He remembers the scent from when he was a child and had a fever as someone had brushed it on his body.
Kip continues to tell Hana about his family. He explains that as the second son, Kip was expected to be a doctor but the war changed this. He joined a Sikh regiment and was shipped to England. He volunteered to join a unit of engineers to deal with unexploded bombs.
Analysis – Chapter Seven
This chapter is devoted to Kip and goes some way to explaining his background and how racism has kept him apart from others. His negative experiences in the British army have led him to maintain a reserve and distance.
This portrayal of Kip and the racist treatment he received while risking his life for Britain also offers a critique of the British Imperial power and the racism that is entangled in its enforcement. The hypocrisy of those he works with is explored, as when he defused the bomb he is accepted by his white comrades but in a bar the same men would not cross over to talk to him. By giving Kip such a significant role in the novel, Ondaatje highlights both the divisive effects of colonialism and imperialism, as well as the racist treatment of those fighting for the Allies in order to combat fascism.