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March 19, 2018

His Theatre Of The Absurd: In Conversation With Ashok Ferrey

Text by Riaan Jacob George

Known for his uncanny sense of humour, Ashok Ferrey is many things to many people — builder, personal trainer and writer. We spend a balmy Colombo afternoon indulging in a freewheeling chat with one of Sri Lanka’s most adored authors

“That dog you see running around my front yard is quite a naughty fellow,” says Ashok Ferrey, pointing out to his pet canine (a rescue dog from Galle, brought home only a day earlier). “He just chewed up my trainers and as a result now the sole is flipping off the shoe. So if you see me jogging around downtown Colombo with trainers that have flipping soles, don’t be shocked. I’m probably just setting a new trend.” And our ensuing conversation is peppered with his firebrand yet self-effacing sense of humour.

Before I meet Sri Lanka’s much-loved author Ashok Ferrey at his Colombo home — for tea, only because afternoon tea is such a sacrosanct ritual in Sri Lanka — I am told by our common friends that his home is as conversation-worthy as his books. I soon find that to be true as I drive into the front yard of Ferrey’s stately colonial bungalow, situated in one of the Sri Lankan capital’s toniest neighbourhoods, just off a leafy green thoroughfare. Interesting observation though, there’s a massive tree right in the middle of Ferrey’s front gate and my car has to make a series of complex manoeuvres before being able to drive up to his porch.

A Man of Many Roles
Interesting to note that Ferrey exercises — pun intended — not one but three parallel professions. He has been a builder/architect, is a practising fitness trainer and, of course, in his most popular avatar, is an award-winning author. Walking around his gorgeous living room, dotted with antiques and nostalgic bric-a-brac, I ask him to give me a brief history of this colonial home. “It’s quite difficult to explain because I have three different professions. This house is very much part of my builder life and, at the same time, it is difficult to detach it from my writer’s life. I was a builder in London, though I always wanted to come back to Sri Lanka and told myself that I’d do it by the age of 30. By the looks of it, there were no signs of me coming back. Finally, two months before my 31st birthday, I returned home, in July 1988. I bought this house five years before I did so and started to restore it. Oddly enough, this house used to be the Pakistan Embassy — I had to pour in a lot of money to make it livable.”

His life is interesting, spans as it does several continents. Ferrey was born in Sri Lanka and lived in Colombo till the age of eight. “I then moved with my parents to East Africa for a few years, after which I was packed off to England, where I attended boarding school. Post that, I was at Oxford where I read mathematics. I started off as a mathematician and then because I did not have a visa to stay on in England, I ended up doing a lot of bum jobs and worked as a builder on a construction site.” His time spent there inspires his hilariously heart-warming book The Professional, about a young immigrant in London who ends up becoming a gigolo in order to earn money.

A Bon Vivant
He did not start writing till he was in his early forties. “It’s much easier at that age because you always have something to say. You have a more distinctive voice. I remember that I started writing as a sort of catharsis, when I was attending to my father who was a cancer patient. The words that were in me just began to flow out. My first book Colpetty People came about that way. And the first story in this book literally wrote itself in eight minutes.” I draw a parallel between Colpetty, a plush, relatively-Westernised neighbourhood in Colombo and Mumbai’s Bandra. Ferrey’s book speaks of gossipy neighbours, church aunties and complicated social dynamics. “Neighbourhoods like Colpetty and Bandra exist in most South Asian cities, where you’ll find this unique subculture. The novel is basically full of humour because Sri Lanka is full of absurd people. My book Serendipity, for instance, is a completely absurd novel.”

Many would say that Ashok Ferrey leads a rather idyllic life on an idyllic island. “Come hell or high water, I must have my copious lunch of rice and curry every day, followed by a long afternoon snooze. And nothing can disturb me during that,” he says, reminding me of a time when he did actually turn down a meeting with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, because she had arrived in Colombo during his nap time. “For me, every day is different, because being a personal trainer, my schedule depends on my clients and their timings. I may be up by 5 a.m. or even later. I sometimes go for a run around the local park. I don’t have breakfast so I’m usually quite ravenous by lunchtime. If I’m writing a book, I usually write in the mornings before lunch because after my morning training sessions, I’m pumped up and full of endorphins. It’s the best time for me. I sometimes have training sessions in the evenings, too. Colombo is a very social place, so in the evenings I’m usually attending some event or party.”

On his creative juices he adds, “Right now, I am at this lovely phase where there’s a book inside me, but I will start writing only in seven or eight months. I will try and keep it inside my head as much as possible. Many writers will tell you that they sit at their computers without fail and do their 300 words a day. I try to stick to that too. If you write more, the quality goes down. There’s a physical tiredness, which hampers your flow of thought. Be that as it may, I sometimes find that when words and thoughts start coming out of me, they just flow like toothpaste from a tube, and I can’t stop.”

Ferrey’s next book, which is on the verge of its launch, is a collection of humorous essays about Sri Lankan society. “People are going to read it and kill me. And because it’s actually non-fiction, I cannot make up things. But it is generalised, I don’t pick on anyone in particular. It is as I see us, and I maintain that we are one of the most complex races on the planet.”

Ceaseless Chatter
This afternoon tea has gone on quite endlessly and the sun has set without us realising it. But our conversation isn’t over. So I extend an invite for dinner, which he graciously accepts. Ferrey gets into my car as we drive to the Shangri-La Hotel Colombo and he tells me of his rather questionable driving skills. “I’m a terrible driver; my car is full of scratches and dents. I drive a Nano and it gets me to Galle and back. I travel to Kandy quite often because I am restoring my house there, but I never drive down. I couldn’t bear the thought of driving for four-and-a-half hours. I just hop onto the train.”

Ferrey and I dine at the newly opened Capital Bar & Grill, where we enjoy a glass of New Zealand red and some prime cuts of meat, grilled to perfection. Our discussion then takes on a more existential note, and he tells me more about his writing as the chefs lavish us with cuts of meat that resemble, in his words, tomahawks. “People often tell me off for writing about the elite circles of Colombo and the Colpetty people. But that’s the milieu that I know and frequent. I can’t write about village girls skipping through paddy fields because I don’t know much about village girls skipping through paddy fields. Then people expect me to write about the Lankan civil war, but I don’t know enough because I wasn’t on the frontline. There are a few peripheral references to the war in my books, however.”

What, then, is the quintessential Sri Lankan novel, I ask? “We have this idea that the great Sri Lankan novel will be about the poverty, the tsunami, the Civil War and more. We have this idea about what we need to write. I like it when we let go of all this heavy baggage. We need to see Sri Lanka in a natural state as opposed to this hyped-up one, constantly performing for cameras.”

Our conversation continues in a leisurely manner and it can itself become the topic of a longer work — for Ferrey is a man of many dimensions, with many stories to tell and, of course, his scathing sense of humour leaves me asking for more. At the end, I have a signed copy of his most recent book The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons, and I eagerly open its covers to dive into the fascinating and absurd literary magic conjured up by Ashok Ferrey.

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