Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The Good Little Ceylonese Boy

Among image conscious Sri Lankans, Ashok Ferrey’s penchant for tight t-shirts and tighter jeans sees him often mistaken for a Sri Lankan Beach Boy, purveyors of everything from ornamental sea shells to full-body massages for German tourists with beer bellies. Quite appropriate in that it’s exactly the sort of small-mindedness that has led to Ferrey becoming one of the brightest stars of a literary renaissance that has taken hold on the Island nation over the past decade.

Ferrey’s short-story compilations – ‘Colpetty People’ (2004) and ‘The Good Little Ceylonese Girl’ (2005) – have become the biggest selling English titles in Sri Lanka, winning over fans and critics alike for their hilarious take on societal prejudices. The two books cover an eclectic range of issues – from the peculiar travails of Sri Lankans living and working abroad to touchy issues such as homosexuality and adultery; the eternal quest for social ascendancy; government power and cronyism to most hilariously, the hypocrisy and elitism that dogs life in Sri Lanka – and holds up a critical mirror to Lankan society.

Born in Sri Lanka, 48-year-old Ferrey grew up and in East and West Africa before being packed off to a Benedictine Monastery in Sussex, England aged 8. After boarding school, Ferrey won a place at Christchurch College at Oxford to study Pure Maths, graduating with a rather mediocre 3rd. For a while he worked as an actuary before switching to property development and doing up Victorian terraces in South London during the 1980’s.

By the end of the decade however, feeling restless, he upped and returned to Sri Lanka at a time when the Marxist JVP, Leninist LTTE, Hindu IPKF and the abstruse President J R Jayawardena were trying to one up each other, and thousands of sane Sri Lankans were making their way over to London. The strife meant Ferrey’s dreams in paradise were slow to realize and towards the end of the 1990’s things came to a head when his father was diagnosed with cancer. Whilst trying to prop up a faltering business and caring for his father, the artistic floodgates opened. In spite of his limited prior experience, Ashok threw himself into writing full time in 1998, completing the manuscript for Colpetty People in 2002.

Ferrey’s travels, his myriad incarnations and his experiences in Sri Lanka have provided him with rich source materiel and he explores all aspects of Sri Lankan life with a sense of humour that is at times jarring, insightful and sensitive and always compelling. His satire has a very British feel to it and the prose is wonderfully textured and fluent making for two hilarious reads. ‘Ice Cream Karma’, is a fantastic fable about two returning Sri Lankan expat ladies, one’s funny and easy-going husband, a property endowment gone wrong, an upcountry ‘Kumarihamy’ with an intriguing double life, a wicked servant boy, a chicken curry and a puppy. The characters interact with hilarious results while the story plays on the treachery that sometimes lurks beneath Sri Lanka’s fun-loving, nonchalant veneer.

‘Jiggy’ tells the story of an ordinary man with a tedious life and a doppelganger living life on a slightly faster lane and how their lives overlap to comic effect. The humour however, masks a human tragedy and Sri Lanka’s continued search for a common identity. Ferrey also makes excellent use of Sri Lankan (South Asian?) foibles - our jealousy and distrust of those who are happier than us and those who hold different opinions; our petty personal politics; our frivolous attitudes to everything from a wedding proposal to a funeral; the conceit of expats on holiday in Colombo (or New Delhi?) and our unrelenting quest for social ascendancy.

While they may have a Sri Lankan flavor the stories contained in ‘Colpetty People’ and ‘The Good Little Ceylonese Girl’ have a definite South Asian resonance and Ferrey is a worthy successor to the great Carl Muller himself.
- Vijitha Alles