Author Ashok Ferrey thinks that the youngsters out there in crisis-ridden Sri Lanka are showing the rest of us the way; and he is proud of them.
“We’re so comfortable, it is almost impossible to get us off our backsides and out there onto the streets. It therefore shows how really bad this crisis must be, for so many to be protesting in the burning sun and pelting rain!” he shares.
One could say that Sri Lanka is currently in mourning. We’re dealing with grief and loss – grief induced by the struggles we’re facing each day just to survive and loss of a time before this time. Ferrey’s most recent book ‘The Unmarriageable Man’ deals with similar themes, albeit in an entirely different context.
In the book, which was longlisted for The Gratiaen Prize 2021, Ferrey says he deals with these themes as truthfully as possible. “Once you write about something and it’s out there in the big bad world,” he continues, “you find somehow you have given it a decent burial; so you never feel the need to visit it again.” To Ferrey, this is better than any counselling or any confessional. To him, it’s the power of literature.
‘The Unmarriageable Man,’ which Ferrey says may be his most autobiographical book yet, is the story of south London’s first Asian builder – Sanjay de Silva. In eight years, de Silva developed and sold 84 flats, cashing in his winnings before the crash of 1988. Before moving to London, de Silva lived in Colombo, with a controlling Sri Lankan father. He lost his English mother at an early age. His father is eventually diagnosed with cancer and de Silva “feels the ground shifting under his feet, the balance of power realigning”.
In London, framed by the Thatcher years, he meets and falls in love with a fellow islander. Janine, his love interest, is “old enough to be his mother and famous within the acid-tongued Sri Lankan community as ‘a hooker of the very highest class, with royal connections’”. The book follows de Silva’s life as he manages to convert an old wreck of a house in Brixton into two flats. “But all is not well with that house. At night there are voices…”
We caught up with Ferrey for a brief chat about his book, the themes of grief and loss, and our island nation. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
Tell us about ‘The Unmarriageable Man’. What was the inspiration behind the book?
We have all had to deal with a death in the family at some point in our lives, and the grief that that entails. But you never know till it hits you personally how traumatic it can be. You get told a lot of soothing nonsense about how easy it is to obtain closure – a few sessions of counselling and hey presto, you’re fine again. Having been through the sheer horror of it myself, I wanted to deal with this topic of grief as truthfully as possible.
You say the book is about grief and closure, and in one particular interview with Hindustan Times, you talk about how it was painful to reflect on these themes. Care to elaborate?
My father died of cancer in 2000. It was the pure physiological stress of that time that turned me into a writer. But this subject was too painful to write about till now, so in a sense it has taken me 22 years to write this book. Then during the writing, my mother passed away. And there I was, re-living the horror again. It almost felt as if by raking over the past I had in some way raised the ghosts again.
This is a story of South London’s first Asian builder who in eight years developed and sold 84 flats, cashing in his winnings just before the crash of 1988. How much of the book is based on your own life?
This part of it is based on my rather bizarre life as a builder in London during the Thatcher ’80s – a never-to-be-repeated time when great fortunes were made and lost in property, when London was like a frontier town during the gold rush. Every girl looked like Princess Diana, though not every boy looked like Prince Charles. I was an oddity because Asians didn’t work as building labourers those days – they were too respectable! Years later I learnt that together with my Irish buddy (Sean in the book) we were known in the South London building trade as ‘The Paki and The Paddy’. It sounded like a pop group.
How do you feel about The Gratiaen Prize longlist nomination?
This is my fifth time, and I feel so honoured. It’s a very solid list this year – of brilliant established writers and hugely talented newcomers!
What was the most challenging part about writing ‘The Unmarriageable Man’?
This may be my most autobiographical book. Yet no one’s life is that interesting, trust me! You have to avoid that tendency towards self-indulgence, somehow abstracting yourself from the picture so that the story has a validity and resonance of its own, outside of you. It needs to be able to stand up and walk away on its own two legs. As I have said elsewhere, in much of my work the truth has to hold good as fiction, not the other way around. Easy to say, difficult to do.
What was the most rewarding?
It’s always the same. Once you write about something and it’s out there in the big bad world, you find somehow you have given it a decent burial; so you never feel the need to visit it again. It’s better than any counselling, any confessional. That’s the power of literature!
The current economic climate in Sri Lanka is troubling to say the least. Is your achievement clouded by this in any way?
On the contrary, it brings home even more how important it is for art to be present – it is such a life-affirming force, almost the entire raison-d’être of the struggle. Without art, you would simply have bread. As the good book says, you cannot live by bread alone!
What are your thoughts on the current crisis Sri Lanka is going through?
We live in such a lush country, the living is so easy, that all you have to do is wait under a tree for lunch to fall. We’re so comfortable, it is almost impossible to get us off our backsides and out there onto the streets. It therefore shows how really bad this crisis must be, for so many to be protesting in the burning sun and pelting rain!
Most Sri Lankan citizens are feeling and exercising a sense of purpose at this crucial time of need in Sri Lanka. What, in your opinion, is the role of a writer or creative person in such a time?
The role of a writer or creative has always been to reflect, give meaning to the often puzzling events around them. Not in a conscious, non-fictional, word-for-word sense — because that is journalism. But to reflect subconsciously, throwing an oblique light on the scene, the way a parable illuminates reality without actually being ‘true’. Or the way a painted portrait might express the personality of the sitter far better than the accuracy of the photograph. This takes time. It is the squeezed out essence of the orange we seek, not the orange itself in all its shiny plastic reality. But I would warn that it is dangerous for any creative writer to try to force this. Art takes its time, it cannot be hurried. What you have now is the front line of troops, the activists. The creatives will take their own sweet time.
Future plans? Any other books in the pipeline?
There’s a sort of book in my head but it’s not ready to come out – not by a long way!
What is your message to fellow Sri Lankans at this time?
This is the first time that so many Sri Lankans are out there, showing their true feelings, exercising their inalienable right to democracy. I’m truly proud of the young – they are showing the rest of us the way! Nobody thought the protests would last this long. I’m sure the politicians were praying it would all go away after a day or two, because up to now that is what has always happened. So three simple words for all of you out there: DON’T GIVE UP!