ASHOK FERREY facts and fiction

Saturday, 5 October 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

With his latest book being published recently, Ashok Ferrey seems to have settled into his role as an author quite comfortably. Having lived in Oxford during his younger years and then moving to Colombo, Ferrey has faced an interesting change of course in his life. Originally guided to study mathematics in order to become an insurance officer in Britain, Ferrey faced a crisis during the 1980s when he was labelled an illegal immigrant. Later he discovered that it was a mistake by the authorities, who had mixed up the year he had moved into the country with the year in which he completed his studies. This led him to seek employment as a builder as that was the only job they would offer an illicit dweller during the Thatcher era. This accident in life gave him the necessary moulding in getting out of his sordid lifestyle in Oxford. Following are excerpts of an interview with Ferrey by the Weekend FT   By Sarah Hannan     Q: Your new book has been labelled erotic fiction. How would you describe ‘The Professional’ to someone unfamiliar with your work? A:  It was never my intention to make this book particularly erotic – merely descriptive and lyrical; the eroticism just happened along the way! In any case, I feel that the eroticism is very mild, and if you read it for that alone you will be very disappointed! I would rather you considered the literary quality of the prose and the slightly unusual storyline. ‘The Professional’ revolves around two eras: one, the Thatcher era of the 1980s, which has as its protagonist a young Sri Lankan called Chamath; the other, an old man living in present day Colombo. Chamath gets dragged, through no fault of his own, into a rather desperate and sordid lifestyle simply to make ends meet. My years after Oxford were a particularly dark period of my life, when I had to face visa issues and live the life of an illegal immigrant in England: all this was inspiration for this story. I remember how I drifted effortlessly down – from Oxford maths graduate to casual labourer on a building site: the sort of career path that would have killed any self-respecting Asian parent – certainly mine, had they only known about it! But no regrets; eventually all those life-changing experiences formed the material I used in ‘The Professional’. For those who are still to read the book, it is about characters, moments and scenes expressed through two viewpoints, the one in the past, the other in the present. I have attempted to portray certain truths through recreating and replaying these memories – placing them within two timelines separated by 35 years. As I said at the launch, a writer can do anything he wants; even distort reality if he wants. Here, I am putting the reader somewhat in the position of God: for whom all timelines are simultaneous and parallel and self-contained. There is also a kind of circularity to this time: it works rather like rosary beads, where you arrive after a while at the original bead – the point at which you started your prayer – without even noticing. And if you’re as confused by this explanation as I am, don’t worry. None of this is in any way necessary for the enjoyment of the book! Through the book’s four main characters I have also attempted to explore the many different kinds of love there are; and who is to say that any one of them is more valid than the others? You will notice that the young man’s life has its dark and intimate moments in London, whereas the elderly man’s life is absurd and full of déjà vu moments in Colombo. I don’t quite know why the story turned out this way, but it did!       Q: Are you happy with ‘The Professional’ being tagged as “controversial” already? A: The controversies began way before the book was printed. This was during the time I was hosting ‘Colomboscope’ and happened to partner with The Gratiaen Trust. The nominations for the Gratiaen Awards were called and I submitted the manuscript of ‘The Professional’ under the pseudonym Saroj Sinnathamby (the name was borrowed from my good friend Sarojini Sinnathamby, and adapted to its male equivalent). For my good luck the book was shortlisted. I then informed the trust who the actual author was. Big mistake! It caused an absolute and to my mind unnecessary furore. The way I felt, shouldn’t a book (especially in a competition) be judged on its content alone, without the need to know who wrote it? Doesn’t every author have the right to use a pen name? (Interestingly, barely a month after this hoo-ha, JK Rowling also used a pseudonym for her new novel – she said she felt incredibly liberated doing it!) All this only proved to me one thing: as long as you have a good story to tell, your name really shouldn’t matter – on the contrary, a book should stand or fall on its own merits, not on the weight of the person who wrote it. That was the true controversy behind ‘The Professional’.       Q: You have called this a deeply personal book. What inspired you to reach the dark experiences in your life and put it in a book? A: It took me 30 years to put these experiences into a book. Had I written this during my 20s or 30s I would have felt too embarrassed to publish it. With books it is all about timing. I was told one sunny morning in London, in 1980, that I was an illegal immigrant, and given 28 days to leave the country. Later they informed me that this had been a mistake and should never have happened! My life as an illegal immigrant during that time, and my experiences as a builder, gave me all the inspiration I needed. But it didn’t occur to me then to put these stories down, and I must have carried them around buried in the back of my mind. I didn’t become a serious writer until very much later – my father was diagnosed with cancer in 1999, and I began writing to relieve the stress. So this story took a good 30 years to be printed into a book. What makes it personal is that the character Chamath, though he is not me (I have to stress that this is not my story!), has all my characteristics, both physical and mental; he is a 23-year-old youngster who had to go through a dark period in his life exactly the way I did. This actually made it much easier to write the book, because I knew precisely the sort of hell he was going through. I started writing this book during a family backpacking trip through Poland and Portugal. I took a notebook with me, penning down sections hastily before I went to bed every night, revising in the morning before we took off once more on our travels. I always believe that the mind is the best computer anyone can own. Unlike typing your words and thoughts on a keyboard – shooting your words out in a trigger-happy sort of fashion – if you keep your writing as much as possible in your head, you tend to find that your mind has revised and polished your thoughts to a much greater degree by the time you come to write them down. This makes subsequent revisions that much easier.     Q: You have been a jack of all trades and finally settled down to writing books. Do you see yourself as a writer or a builder? A: I was bullied into writing, in the gentlest possible way, by Kamini de Soysa. I still remember dodging her in the aisles of Food City, knowing full well the lecture I was going to get if she spotted me. How hard I tried to avoid those confrontations! I still consider myself a builder. If I am not in the middle of writing a book, the last thing I envision before I fall asleep is building houses – planning where the staircase should go, designing the risers and treads, the returns and landings. In my dreams I walk through courtyards and pools, and I am intensely happy to be inside those volumes: because they are the imaginary volumes I have created inside my head, and can therefore be nothing less than perfect! But life is never simple, and at present I juggle roles as a builder, writer and personal trainer. However, I trained originally as a person of numbers, and the mathematician in me always rears its ugly head in the work – as you may realise while reading this book.       Q: What life lesson would you like to pass on to people in similar circumstances? Any inspiring thoughts you wish to share with aspiring writers? A: However tough or bad your life may seem, all things occur for a reason. Relish your experiences: the negativity in your life may come with positive aspects to it. I turned my dark moments into this story; likewise, anyone can possibly channel the bitter experiences of their life to their advantage. Most young people today think that the odds are stacked against them. What I always say is that every moment, every experience is part of a more complicated pattern, a grander design; one that may not be apparent for years to come, indeed may not make any sense till you are on your deathbed. (I have said elsewhere that the truth is a slow-developing film.) Every life is equal: be it that of a poor homeless person living on the streets or a rich person enjoying all of life’s luxuries; all of us in our own way experience life. The trick is to let these experiences mould us, giving us that gentleness and kindness so necessary to a life well lived: the way a pebble that tumbles in the waves becomes smooth in that eternal process of tumbling. I have observed that in this region of the world people are easily frustrated over petty things. Road rage for instance! If you stop your vehicle at a pedestrian crossing to allow someone to cross the road, the driver of the vehicle behind you will frantically blast their horn. The fact that you are giving way to an ‘unimportant’ person enrages them: don’t you realise that their life is more important than that worthless pedestrian’s? Haven’t you noticed the size of their car? I hope that people can channel these frustrations into less harmful things like creativity. (Anyway, that small vehicle ahead of them that they’re trying to run off the road is probably me in my Nano!) To the aspiring writer I would say: never give up. Write from the inside out and never from the outside in. Write about things you have experienced, things that need to come out of you, and not about some current topic that the latest bestselling novel happens to be based on. You need to have a certain philosophical patience when creating a piece of art. When you do, you find to your shame that it is really not that great, don’t give up. Keep writing. One day you will get there. If an idiot like me can do it, so can you!       Q: How did you get into the habit of writing/admiring literary work? A: I grew up in a society and age where reading was considered a matter of course – sadly this is not so nowadays. I took A Level English as a sort of joke, sitting the exam in one year (my actual field of study was pure mathematics, applied mathematics and physics). In fact at the end of that year, by the time I came to sit the exam, there were still texts I hadn’t bothered to read. (Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, for instance, which I’m ashamed to admit I still haven’t got around to reading!) My writing actually began during my Oxford days. I wrote two stories which were so horrendously bad that I cringe now when I occasionally come across them. When I was a builder I had no time to sit and read books, let alone write anything. But I must have been alive to experiences, storing them away; stuff that later on provided me with the material needed.     Q: Which authors inspire you? A: I draw a lot of inspiration from mid-century-modern authors: Graham Greene, R. K. Narayanan, Muriel Spark and Evelyn Waugh. What inspires me most about their books is the fact that they always attempt to wrestle with those qualities of good and evil that exist side by side in every man; at the same time there is a huge amount of humour; and all written in the simplest, most limpid prose imaginable. As I have repeatedly said, it is the prose that matters most to me: the prose, the prose, the prose!       Q: Your thoughts on Colpetty People and then writing four more books after that? A: ‘Colpetty People’ was inspired by childhood memories. To me, that particular book is the first child for whom I will always have a soft spot. The stories are vivid and immediately likeable in a way that the stories in the second are not. To put this in a slightly facetious way: it is the difference between choosing a burger and fries over dry fish curry and mallung. You cannot have the burger everyday – you would soon tire of it – and though the greens are less appealing, you soon learn to cultivate a taste for them. ‘Colpetty People’ is based on happier, more colourful moments – whereas my second book is full of darker, more complex scenes. The third book was an expressionist novel, written in the last stages of the war, and symptomatic of those times. It is very funny, but the humour rather verges on desperation and hysteria. Luckily for me, I have never been trapped within any one particular style. I suppose I would have trouble pleasing a publisher who would want more and more of the same genre from me. Sadly, this is what I think happens all too frequently in the market-driven West – where a bestselling author gets pressurised into writing yet more of the same thing. The flip side of this is that we individualistic authors have to learn to be happy being poor – because that is all we will ever be! Pix by Upul Abayasekara