Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Good Little Ceylonese Girl by Ashok Ferry

After Colpetty People (2003) come The Good Little Ceylonese Girl (2006), Ashok Ferry's second collection, and his own take on Sri Lankan life (at home and abroad). Witty, frank, conversational, slightly dark, full of funny-yet-insightful candour, tongue-in-cheek even, it conveys the great amount of social diversity that exists in Sri Lanka in all its myriad shades.

Playfully provocative Ferry pokes fun at the Lankan elite and their pretenses and foibles... in Lankan English. With his good-humoured writing, local flavour and clever turns of phrases, Ferry serves up almost the right mix of sarcasm and humour that gets their point across yet does not offend. What's more... he even pokes fun at himself. Ferry makes a couple of appearances in this collection. For example, in 'Maleeshya', he appears as Mr. Arishtabotale Pereira, attending his own funeral, to be covered in the very popular high-society magazine, Shuh!! Magazine, so named to differentiate it from its ugly European elder sister, Shah!! Magazine.

Sample this:

"A grey-haired man got out. He saw Maleeshya and immediately sucked in his stomach.
'Ko hearse?' she asked him.
The man looked behind him to see if there was a cortege following. There wasn't.
'And who are you?' asked Maleeshya, switching languages.
The man gave her a charming smile. He had slightly discoloured teeth. 'I'm the author,' he replied proudly.
'You can't be! You're dead.'
He straightened up. (There was not much straightening to do, he was quite short.)"

Conversation between Mrs. Arishtabotale Pereira and Maleeshya (the editor of Shuh!! Magazine):

'Isn't it wonderful?' she beamed. 'He's alive and well!'

'No, it isn't,' said Maleeshya. She could be quite short with people, though these people were short enough already. 'The flowers are paid for, the caterers are setting up the mala batha on the back verandah. You promised me a funeral.'

Ferry's insightful candour runs throughout this collection... and makes their point succinctly and clearly. Here are a few instances:

From: Pig:

Two childhood sweethearts, in time-honoured Sri Lankan tradition, are married off to other people. Nineteen years of clandestine meetings (for one or two days every year - the week before Christmas) culminate in another chance of marriage. Perhaps time does separate.

'In Sri Lanka, the people amongst whom you live, the people with whom you went to school, the people in whose houses you ate, whose jokes you shared - these were not the people you married. ...But if the people with whom you chose to associate were the very ones you could not marry, then the ones you did marry were quite often people with whom you wouldn't dream of associating if you had any choice in the matter.'

From: The Jackfruit:

'An Asian without a visa was guaranteed trouble-free: he did what he was told, he was at your beck and call. He was your creature.'

From: The Indians Are Coming:

I, on the other hand, get to play intellectual parts. Like policemen. The high point of my brilliant career was when I had to lead two thousand people at Maradana Railway Station in a big budget extravaganza. I got up on the podium, shook my fist at the camera, and shouted: 'Gandhi-ji's in the bath!'

And two thousand people roared after me, 'Gandhi-ji's in the bath!' (The actual words were Gandhi-ji zindabad! But I found my version more effective.) This five-minute scene took three days to film, naturally. Well, they released the film at Toronto the other day, and I found they had cut me out almost completely. Though there's this very good shot of the back of my head, so I mustn't complain.

From: Dust:

Father Cruz had read somewhere of the tourist who visited St. Mark's in Venice, and, looking at the sloping floors and thousand-year-old mosaics, had said: 'What this place needs is a level floor and a darned good coat of whitewash.'

Long years and many miles away, Colombo's Father Cruz attempts to rescue a church from parishioners who like to put their donations where others can see them - with plaques to announce their charity. 

'Father Cruz moved slowly from one row to the next. He noticed there was woodworm in the last two rows. The pews would have to be replaced. It was not that the parish was poor; there were more than enough people willing to donate new pews, new floors, new everything. Even stained glass for the windows in the tower. Up till now he had said to each of them: Thank you for your kind offer, but this parish has more pressing needs. He explained to them there were children who needed school uniforms, there were homeless people who had to be fed. But rich parishioners were strangely unwilling to donate to such insubstantial causes. They preferred to put their money where they could see it, or more to the point, where others could see it: in a shiny granite floor or a blazing stained-glass window, preferably with a plaque affixed bearing their name.'

As you can see, Ferry loses no opportunity to poke fun at the elite and their pretenses.

Ferry writes about Sri Lanka and its people, wherever they roam. He writes of the Sri Lankan Diaspora, who seem not to notice that their country has changed in their absence. He writes of the West's effect on Sri Lankans, of its 'turning them into caricatures, unmistakably genuine but far from the real thing'. As you laugh, you are left with nostalgia for a bygone Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans who might have been.

Our Sri Lankan narrator visits his friend Joe in Italy where Joe attends a course in higher studies in women. But Italians - much like today's residents of Colombo - live at home till marriage, death, and sometimes even beyond. A hen and chicken affair of fake fiancés and phony engagements ensues. [Fidanza to Fidanzata]

There's mention of elephant hair bracelets, shark's teeth necklaces and lion's claw earrings. There are enormous ostrich eggs, speckled and shiny, on people's coffee tables. There's Italo, the small purple baby ostrich - no more than two feet high, craning its dusty neck to reach the shoe flowers on the bushes. There are panettones, the fruit-filled Milanese bread, that made their appearance in Mogadiscio one festive season like a flock of gold-and-silver-coloured birds, and everyone gave everyone else one. 'They were nothing like as bad as the ones you got back then: dry and papery, hard to chew, impossible to swallow. Once you got a piece in your mouth all human conversation ceased. It was a surprisingly useful way of silencing your more talkative guests.'

There's Pizza and vadai. There's spaghetti and meat sauce. There's yellow rice and chicken curry. There's karavila. There's curried skins of the loofah, chopped fine with chilli and garlic. There's fried leaves of the murunga crisp like seaweed. All esoteric village dishes... but no mention of Lunu Miris or katta sambole (fish pickle) anywhere

This collection of seventeen short stories is many-layered and enormously wide-ranging: from Sri Lankans working abroad (in England and Africa), to footloose Italians, fading Maharajahs, personal space, human bonding, fortune-tellers and the tsunami, to issues of lesbianism, adultery, cronyism, and of course small-mindedness, facades and elitism. They vary widely in their length too. The shorter ones make for a better read. The longer ones tend to meander a bit. And as is the case with all short story collections, not all of them impress; some are a tad underwhelming. However, the title story is quite engaging. All in all, The Good Little Ceylonese Girl is like a montage of emotions, experiences, insights and observations... on Sri Lankans (both resident and roaming). Much like random brush strokes on canvas. Clearly, the island that lies like a little emerald on the waters of the Indian Ocean has much to offer to the world of literature. 

However, yet again, a glossary of terms is missing-in-action. So the meaning of various Sri Lankan words, terms and references may be lost on some readers.

That said... Ferry's writing, given its distinct Sri Lankan flavour, does take some getting used to. If one is familiar with Sri Lankan society, then his observations and innuendos would be instantly recognizable and amusing, but if one is a stranger to that country and culture, then much of the fun, and at least some of the amusing insinuations and associations, may be lost on the lay reader. And that would surely interfere/dilute the flavour, thereby altering the taste. Result? The fiction-loving epicurean in you might feel less than satiated. However, for those familiar with the Sri Lankan way-of-life... it will be a surprisingly breezy read, a thoroughly enjoyable one at that, due to its eclectic mix. Lunu Miris or no Lunu Miris.

The production value of the book is good. I am discounting the editing errors, putting it down to Ferry's writing style and Sri Lankan English. The book jacket cover is colourful; it depicts a scene from the title story: Suneeta aka 'The Good Little Ceylonese Girl' cuddling Italo, the small purple baby ostrich. Umm, if Ferry can put together his stories... complete with their unique mix of multifaceted humour, irony and pun in his signature gently snarky non-take-no-prisoners style, in a slightly more watertight manner, it will increase the joy quotient. Readers' joy, that is.  

I am going with a slightly generous 3/5 for Ashok Ferry's The Good Little Ceylonese Girl. Ferry isn't a run-of-the-mill author and his commitment towards advancing Sri Lankan literature in English is evident. [Incidentally, both Colpetty People and The Good Little Ceylonese Girl were short-listed for the Gratiaen Prize - Sri Lanka's premier literary award.]

Details of the book: The Good Little Ceylonese Girl/ Author: Ashok Ferry/ Publisher: Vintage Books, an imprint of Random House India/ Binding: Paperback/ Publishing Date: 2012/ Genre: Fiction/ ISBN: 978-8-184-00307-9/ ISBN-13: 9788184003079/ Pages: approx 200 with cover/ Price: INR 299.

Picture: The book jacket cover of The Good Little Ceylonese Girl. Courtesy: link.

No comments:

Post a Comment