Ashok Ferrey: My Sri Lanka
By Cosmo Brockway
Sri Lanka is an island of artists and letters and one of its most celebrated contemporary authors is Colombo-based Ashok Ferrey. His recent novel, The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons, wittily and irreverently portrays the Sri Lankan society in which Ferrey grew up and rebelled against in youth. Educated in Sussex and Christ Church, Oxford, Ferrey has led a colourful life, converting Victorian villas in 1980's 'front line' Brixton and now settled with his wife and two children in a sprawling colonial house in Colombo. He is also a guest lecturer at the Colombo School of Architecture. Here he shares some of his thoughts on the country that he places at the heart of his work and remains fascinated by.
You speak of your unconventional background, what was it like growing up in Sri Lanka?
I lived in Sri Lanka till I was eight, after which my father took us off to Somalia in East Africa. Colombo was a then a town of whitewashed colonial villas and magnificent flowering trees; but there were no pavements and the jungle was never very far away. You left a piece of land for six months and it was a forest when you came back and houses had actual trees growing out of the brickwork. In contrast, Mogadishu (the capital of Somalia) was a proper city, with palm-lined piazzas and pavements, and even triumphal arches (celebrating Mussolini, no doubt). How the fortunes of these two towns have reversed in the intervening half century!
What is unique about Sri Lanka?
This is a country that never ceases to amaze. Just when you think you have it all figured out it manages to wrong-foot you. Normal rules simply don’t apply: for instance, we Sri Lankans are simply not motivated by money, a fact which many other South Asian countries (and much of the West) fail to understand. Having lived on three continents I can confidently say that this is easily the most complex country in the world.
You write movingly and lyrically about local life. Is there a particular place that inspires you?
Sigiriya Rock. To build a palace (or monastery – there are conflicting theories about this!) on top of a 660-feet-high rock with near-vertical ascent is astounding. Who would be mad enough or foolish enough? Just think of the bricks they must have had to carry up! And then to paint the whole thing with the most sublime frescoes of half-naked ladies . . . Though come to think of it, I wonder how archaeologists subscribing to the monastery theory manage to explain the naked ladies . . .
Being a guest lecturer at the Colombo School of Architecture and host of the programme ‘Art and Architecture with Ashok’, design is obviously a passion of yours....where in Sri Lanka have you found some beautiful examples of local design to visit?
Sri Lanka was possibly the most colonized country on earth – for nearly half a millennium. There was much good that the colonial invaders brought. But sadly, the high art that we were famed for throughout our long history (frescoes and medieval bronzes, sculptures in granite and the most intricate wooden roof architecture) all vanished owing to lack of patronage. What we have now instead is a very vibrant folk art: the designs on woven rush mats, the filigree-work on silver, the almost embarrassingly magnificent settings of precious stones, all of which we have in abundance. On top of this, Sri Lanka produced the first school of modern art in Asia (the 43 Group) and the first female moderne architect (Minette de Silva); and of course the inimitable Geoffrey Bawa who inspired a whole generation of young architects with ‘tropical modernism.’ As for works by the 43 group, they are mostly in museums, but if you ever come across one for sale - buy it immediately! Examples are now finding their way to Sotheby’s and Christies and selling for six-figure sums. Though be warned, there are many fakes floating around!
Where would you send a traveller to experience an unforgettable day on the island?
This is a difficult question to answer because though distances are small, travelling can be time-consuming. A day in Galle Fort (the best preserved colonial fort in Asia) and then ending up on a southern beach would be hugely enjoyable. Then again, a trip to Sigiriya Rock and the frescoes of Dambulla is hard to beat (though the travel might kill you!). Or if you are really tough, a day trip to Kandy. The road is murder (they are currently building a motorway), but the train journey though a bit of a bone-shaker is spectacular. I think the railroad to Kandy was the best thing the British ever did for this country!
Do you have a new book in the pipeline and can you share any details?!
I have a humorous non-fiction book,Cut Pieces, coming out early next year. A set of funny articles that attempts to come to grips with the notoriously slippery Sri Lankan psyche! At the same time, my most recent book The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons is coming out in French. This is the first time in 50 years that a Sri Lankan novel by a local writer has been translated and published in France, so I am very proud of it.
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