Source : DNA – Just Before Monday
Ashok Ferrey writes from experience. It is why he started writing quite late in life – in his early forties, with Colpetty People (2005) and The Good Little Ceylonese Girl (2006). He knows that he would have written much differently had he started writing at a young age. “When you’re young, you have a fresh outlook on life, but you can’t really gauge what you’re seeing and so aren’t able to interpret it well. But, when you get to this ancient age of mine [61 years], you understand things better, and [often] have an easier time writing,” he says, chatting with this writer on the sidelines of Tata Literature Live! in Mumbai last month.
Writing, for Ferrey, is a cathartic process, literally so – The Perfect House, the first story in Colpetty People, wrote itself in 30-35 minutes. “I was so stressed out [at that time] – my father was suffering from cancer, and I had accompanied him to a suburb in Colombo in a tuk-tuk only to come back and have him collapse on the bed. I went to the next room, picked up a pencil, an exercise book and the story just came out. It has absolutely nothing to do with him – it is just a funny story about renting a house,” he recalls. The author compares writing to a medical condition, one that manifests itself as a physiological urge: “it occurs whether you want it or not. It shows that all of us have a good book buried inside that just needs something to pull it out.”
A gifted writer with an uncanny sense of humour drawn from his colourful life, Ferrey won accolades for his writing early in his career. Both Colpetty People and The Good Little Ceylonese Girl were shortlisted for Sri Lanka’s premier literary award, the Gratiaen Prize. “I was bullied into putting it out for an award!” His third book, Serendipity, was shortlisted for the State Literary Prize. The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons is a book that aims to explore “who is utterly good or utterly evil – and who, indeed, is the devil?” through the life of the young, and “ugly” Sonny Mahadewala.
Ferrey is also a man of many facets. Apart from being an author, he is also a builder/architect (he built his own colonial-style home in one of the Colombo’s toniest neighbourhoods), lectures at the Sri Lanka Institute of Architecture, and hosts an arts programme on Sri Lankan national television, The Ashok Ferrey Show.
He also is a fitness trainer to the “rich and infamous of Sri Lanka,” and admits to be a patient trainer. “I don’t fix goals for my clients – I believe in letting them take their time.”
One way Ferrey juggles all his jobs is that he doesn’t write every day. He can’t, he confesses. “I am lazy when it comes to writing. I don’t write continuously.” He extols the calibre of fellow writers like Shyam Selvadurai, who don’t rest after finishing one text. “He starts working on his next book the very next day! Never in a 1,000 years can I practice that,” he says in awe.
Ferrey, in contrast, likes to let his ideas brew. “What I do is take a two-year holiday, but it isn’t exactly a holiday. Maybe I will not think of anything for the first six months, but after that, little ideas come in, and then it’s like a crystal growing in a chemistry lab,” he says. And then he writes. His kind of writing, he says, needs to resonate with him. “Ultimately, I am writing to please myself. It is catharsis – laying to rest certain ghosts.”
Over the last two years, Ferrey has been working on his next book. “It is a comedy. Every day in the newspapers, there are reports of some old woman digging her garden because she thinks there is a treasure hidden there.”
The book is set among workers in Brixton, which used to be a very poor part of London in the 1980s. “That is a life I knew since I was a worker on a building site in that part of London.”
Despite Ferrey’s success, it is not easy being a writer in the island nation of Sri Lanka. “We don’t have a proper publishing house – just one or two maybe. One of our other problems is that we don’t have a massive population [like India], so we also lack the economy of numbers,” he says. The author also feels the Sri Lankan publishing industry lacks good editors. “There is a lot of talent, but it might never come to life because we lack the machinery – we don’t have the publishers, editors, proofreaders. Your [Indian] writing industry is 20 years ahead of us. We need to pull up our socks.”
In the meantime, there are always readers to lap up his books in India.