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Immigration, insurrection, and the elephant in the room: Ashok Ferrey gets serious

Given the continuing success of his two Gratiaen-nominated story collections, Colpetty People and The Good Little Ceylonese Girl, Ashok Ferrey’s first novel could fairly have been described as ‘long-awaited’… if only anyone had known it was coming.

But then that’s not how Serendipity works, is it? And now all of Colombo is chattering about the story of Piyumi, the Clapham-bred Sri Lankan returnée; Marek, the Polish-plumber-turned-history-teacher; and Mr Percy ffinch-Percy, the affably befuddled Headmaster of the International School – all of whom find themselves at once embroiled in a tussle over a family home and a plot to blow up a minister.

And where better to discuss the tale of the remigrant Piyumi and her Colombo 3 pile than in a Colombo 3 pile with the remigrant author (the return Ferrey, so to speak)? ‘One thing’s for sure,’ the author says: ‘it’s not what people expected of me.’ But length and breadth aside, this is classic Ferrey territory, a riff of gentle (and not-so-gentle) Colombo-centric satire with low-key socio-political jibes as standard.

The pseudonymous author refuses to be drawn on which bits of the novel are based on which real people. But he’s more than happy to highlight the aspects of his own personality found in various of his characters. ‘There are 20 characters in Serendipity, at least, and every one of them has a little bit of me, even the elderly aunty!’

Of course, some of his targets are more obvious than others. Politicians, for instance. ‘The powers-that-be are a big part of our lives here – though I stress that I’m not referring to any particular party or person.’

In his defence – literally, and literarily – Ferrey has prefaced the novel with his own formulation of the traditional author’s caveat that neither the characters nor the events therein should be taken as gospel. Serendipity is an imaginative kaleidoscope, he writes, ‘now forming a pattern, now not.’

‘And I’ve written the novel in a similar way. It’s very fragmented. If one compares writing to art then this is the cubist face with the nose stuck on the side! The overall impression is what I wanted to portray. Because to pin down what life is like here is very difficult. It’s not homogenous, it is very fragmented.’

This idea is a central theme in Serendipity, questioning whether any one person has (or ever could have) a grip on The Truth About Sri Lanka. Ultimately, Piyumi concludes that she needs about 20 years to figure out what’s what. ‘I wrote that because I’ve just finished 20 years back here and I’m still only just beginning to get a grip on things.’

But would someone who had always lived here have a complete understanding?

‘Actually, I sincerely doubt it. It’s like that Sufi story of the elephant: one person has the tail, the other person has the legs… If you’ve been born and bred here you get very complacent and think you have the whole elephant – ’
‘Only with no other animals for reference.’
‘Precisely. There are five or six stories going on, but they’re in miniature, they’re not stories about tanks rolling in to Wherever – there’s no grand design.’

Which does invite a question. Serendipity is set in the mid ‘80s, a time which, in Colombo especially, is synonymous with only one thing: ethnic violence. And yet there’s very little of it in the book.

‘Yes, it’s quite downplayed. I hate it when people wear their sentiments on their sleeve. I came back to Colombo at the height of the JVP insurrection in ‘88, but we didn’t all sit around saying, “Oh, I can’t listen to Beethoven because the JVP will cut my ears off”; we just got on with it. That’s what I’m trying to convey: that life carries on regardless.’

First and foremost, though, Ferrey is a humour-writer, and quite aside from the general problem of being entertaining while making any serious point, I wonder about the (in)delicacy of even trying to be funny about Sri Lanka’s turbulent history.

‘Do you know, I was going in that direction and I stopped. I don’t think any of us are ready for it. Perhaps in 50 years’ time someone could be killingly funny about it [for once, the pun seems unintended], in the same way that Mel Brooks can make a musical about Hitler. But it’s too soon. I do understand that if you are not continuously reminded of these things then there is a danger of forgetting – the Holocaust in Anne Ranasinghe’s poetry, for example – but I am not that sort of person. I feel one has to get on with life. It’s a survival tactic, I suppose.’

This is borne out in Ferrey’s style: light prose, a carefully controlled air of superficiality, and no are-you-Tamil-or-Sinhalese? elephants lumbering about in the room. ‘I think in Serendipity the elephant is not only not in the room, it’s outside the garden wall! That is not to say you shouldn’t be aware of its presence. But frankly all that 2000-year-old conflict stuff is too complex for any one person to say, “this is the solution”.’
‘Or even “this is the story”?’
‘Yes – the narrative which represents it. I know I can’t do justice to it, and I’ll bet you that there’s not a single person alive who could. What you would get is a very simplistic tale, where people weep and laugh in the right places…’

I mention a best-selling Sri Lankan novel, recently translated onto the big screen. Ferrey glances at the dictaphone: ‘I didn’t say it!’

‘My great problem is that I don’t want people to take offence. I don’t want them to say “Well, he’s on this side or he’s on that side”. There are four or five points of view expressed in this book, and I am on nobody’s side. I’m not telling them it’s X who wins the race, or Y. Because nobody wins the race.’

Several, in fact, don’t even finish.

‘Exactly. Which is why I think people will find this book a puzzle.’

For Hi!! magazine

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