Thursday, August 8, 2013

Colpetty People by Ashok Ferry

I have never read Ashok Ferry before, never even heard of him. But Colpetty People (the name, that is) piqued my interest sufficiently enough to want to sample Sri Lankan lit. Sri Lanka, as we all know, is the land of smart wicket-keepers, stylish batsmen, and at least one streaked-haired bowler with a penchant for hurling toe-crushing Slingas. Besides, this emerald island is also well-known for people (incl. cricketers) with incredibly short names, such as: Warnakulasuriya Patabendige Ushantha Joseph Chaminda Vaas. And last but not the least... it is also home to Shehan Karunatilaka - who for some yet-to-be-deciphered reason called his first offering, 'Chinaman'.

However, what not many may be aware of is this: Sri Lanka is also the land of Lunu Miris (made by grinding on a granite grinding stone or pounding in a mortar and pestle [wangediya] to make, like a salsa, a mixture of red onions, dried chilli flakes, maldive fish, sea salt and lime juice). If maldive fish cannot be found, dry prawns or shrimp will do. It is the katta sambole that is famous throughout Sri Lanka. We may call it fish pickle. It's spicy. But imagine making pickle out of fish. That is pure, unalloyed genius.

Colpetty People, though, does not have any mention of Lunu Miris. But let me not digress.

Ashok Ferrey: Sri Lanka born (in Colombo), raised in East Africa, educated at a Benedictine monastery in the wilds of Sussex, Ferrey read Pure Math at Christ Church Oxford, ending up in Brixton, converting Victorian houses during the Thatcher years. He describes himself as a failed builder, indifferent mathematician, barman and personal trainer to the rich and infamous of Colombo.

However, with five books to his name, he is now an established author. [Though his sales aren't as high as he might like here, Ashok is a well-known face in Sri Lanka.]

In recent months, he's added 'nomad' to the list. Ferry has been doing some traveling on the literary circuit, visiting Bhutan, Leipzig and Brunei. Where his books are not on sale, he carries them himself in a suitcase, bringing the empty container back after having met with many enthusiastic readers. He's excited about the response his books will garner in the much vaster Indian market, thanks to Random House.

Ferrey's first collection of short stories, Colpetty People, was short-listed for the Gratiaen Prize, Sri Lanka's premier literary award, in 2003. It remains the top-selling book in English by a local author writing in Sri Lanka till date. His second collection, The Good Little Ceylonese Girl, was published in December 2006. It too was short-listed for the Gratiaen Prize. Serendipity, his third book and a novel, was short-listed for the State Literary Awards last year. Love in the Tsunami followed this. The Professional is his latest book.

Today Ferrey continues to design houses, besides being a guest lecturer at the Colombo School of Architecture and the host of his own TV show, The Ashok Ferrey Show, an arts program on national television. In his spare time he is a personal trainer to the rich and infamous of Colombo.

Colpetty, or Kollupitiya, Bazaar is a thin strip of land which lies alongside the Galle Road in Colombo. Full of shops, the Colpetty Bazaar and the Galle Face Hotel, a Victorian-styled architectural gem where royalty and famous writers have resided... make this one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of Colombo. Scarcely two decades ago the Colpetty (now its Kollupitiya) market was virtually the only place in Colombo for people to do their grocery shopping. Now though options have expanded, the Kollupitiya Market remains a fascinating place.

Colpetty People, the author's debut collection of short stories, is an assembled bouquet of 18 short stories, each one different from the other and with its own unique flavour, comprising characters that are 'serious and fine and upstanding, and infinitely dull'. The stories, all 18 of them, vary in length. There's one that is all of 2 pages, another all of 3 pages, and while some take up 14-15 pages, yet others run through 20 or 24 pages. However, none of them fall victim to lyricism, which is good... it makes the readers' journey easier.

This collection brings together a motley bunch of characters - Sri Lankans at home and abroad (in Africa and England): social-climbing Sri Lankans, the pathos of immigration, Colombo's nouveau riche, hoity-toity returnees, old-fashioned aristocrats, and the poor mortals trapped between them. There's the forever to-ing and fro-ing Mr. And Mrs. Herath, and the latter's friend, Mrs. Sarath - who ensured that there wasn't a single poor man in Chislehurst who hadn't suffered from her charitable ministrations; Upali - who wore Ralph Lorensz and was expected to cook, clean, look after the dog and do the odd bit of gardening, such as helping out Mr. Herath with his sweet potatoes; the Oxford couple - Marion and Harry, Frankie - who checked out of Oxford halfway through his math degree and became an apprentice carpenter under Ernie, Maya - Frankie's better half; Dev (aka Dave) and Olivia, the Filipino vendor, Potente Militante Aguacaliente aka O-ping; Quentin (not Tarantino) - Colombo's most eligible bachelor, Themis - who cooked watery curries, and so on. Ferry's first-hand experience of all these worlds comes across both in settings and tone. His depiction of life lived by the Sri Lankan upper classes in Colombo come wrapped in gentle sarcasm and authentic Lunu Miris humour. The stories and characters (happy-go-lucky playboy-cum-part-time-model-cum-lazybones Jiggy, the English teacher-at seventeen: Romesh, Catherine de silva - whose one great desire was to visit the Imperial Capital, the diffident Professor Jayaweera - who finds sterile freedoms caged in the 'unbending, straight lines of Western Justice', the little Kumarihamy at the walauwa, the nanny-cum-cook, Agnes of God - who stuffed a crab better than others; Mrs. Badugoda - with a flair for the dramatic, the long suffering Auntie Charm (aka Auntie Chamari) and her capricious better-half, Uncle Sid, at whose funeral the place was crawling with ex-wives; Kapila - who bought and sold old furniture, Arul - a big bear of a man who had the patience to put up with everything including Surangani's 'Prayer Clinic'; Max Kohlmeyer and his little heartwarming victory, the tough old Kandyan from the mountains who bequeathed his kavichiya - his very elegant ebony couch with Grecian lines - to Ashoka, and even the stuffed pigeon-and-eel-eating orange tabby cat - Arabella) leave the reader with the distinct feeling that Ferry knows most of the characters that people his book. In fact, Ashok himself is one of the eclectic characters inhabiting several stories.

I enjoyed the style of writing, the malice-towards-none Sri Lankan English and the author's gentle snarkiness that says: laugh with me. The Sri Lankan English is a big USP. Why would anyone want to read about life in Sri Lanka or about SL expats written in Indian English or even in Queen's English? That would have interfered with the flavour and quaint charm that runs throughout this book. Instead, Ashok accurately portrays Sri Lanka in all its diversity.

Ferrey serves his readers with vignettes of a social order that thrives on gossip, appearances and dwindling fortunes. There is a mélange of emotions: funny, witty, mystery, black humour, wry and dry humour, sad, generous, absurd, uncanny, romance, philosophical, profound, pathos, old age, dark, eternity, coming of age... all effortlessly look through the external appearances. There are sharp observations about human frailties, emotions, ceremonies, the past and present; the world of natives and of those who have crossed the oceans... and yet haven't been able to sever the bonds with the land of their birth.

Here are some snippets for you to savour:

From: A Few Days After Eleven:

"The Italians talked till you were blue in the face, then they smoked at you, then they talked some more. Those were the days when talking and smoking were the Italian national pastimes.

When John-John reached for the sick bag the third time, though, there was a momentary hush. Sri Lanka one, Italy nil, he thought victoriously.

But the Italians struck back at lunch - liver, the great equalizer. Those were the days an airline could serve you liver for lunch and get away with it. John-John left it untouched. His sick bag was full anyway."

From: Ice Cream Karma:

'You can call me Kumarihamy,' said the Kumarihamy.

'Committee Mary? What a charming name!'

The Kumarihamy gave up and led them into the house, leaving her slippers ostentatiously on the veranda and walking in barefoot. The others, unsure of what to do, did not follow suit.

She paused. 'Of course, we do make exceptions, for people like you who would find that difficult.'

'How wonderful, Karate Mummy, how ethnic!'

From: Agnes of God:

"I was to be found at all hours of the night walking up and down, up and down the veranda, while the baby practiced scales. He was particularly good in C sharp minor."

All Devi's friends were there, dressed in black, the colour of choice that year for young nannied couples. The nannies themselves were out in the garden, decorously drinking orangeade under the avocado tree.

Avril, just to be bloody-minded, was in beige, Gucci or Pucci or whatever."

My Two Pence Worth: The production value of the book is good, barely any editing errors. The book jacket cover is colourful with an ethnic touch. Colpetty Bazaar, maybe? The title story has a supernatural twist. And though all the stories appear uniformly simple on first read, I intend to re-read the collection soon... to delve beyond the surface. My favourite? Honestly, I can't choose.

The only thing that's missing is a glossary of terms so that readers can understand the meaning of various Sri Lankan words, terms and references.

I am going with a 3/5 for Ashok Ferry's Colpetty People. Must say that literature is alive and well in Sri Lanka and I look forward to reading 'The Good Little Ceylonese Girl' next. 

Details of the book: Colpetty People/ Author: Ashok Ferry/ Publisher: Vintage Books, an imprint of Random House India/ Binding: Paperback/ Publishing Date: 2012/ Genre: Fiction/ ISBN: 978-8-184-00306-2/ ISBN-13: 9788184003062/ Pages: 194/ Price: INR 299.

Picture: The book jacket cover of Colpetty People. Courtesy: link.   

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