Midweek Review
A builder returns to his roots to write
by Ayesha Herath

Most of the Sri Lankan writers of English are an unfortunate lot, destined to be born and wither away in the wilderness, despite the fact that Sri Lanka can boast of begetting a Booker Prize winner. However, to our solace, the international community has fortunately recognized the value of such writers as Michael Ondaatje and Romesh Gunasekara, both of whom have brought honour and glory to the country, the former having bagged the Booker Prize for his masterpiece 'English Patient' while the latter's fiction has been short listed for it. But unfortunately, whether one accepts it or not, it is a generally acknowledged fact that such writers are hardly known at home.

Within the span of the past two decades, it is obvious that there is an influx of writers in English in Sri Lanka, most of whom seem to have sloughed the stigma attached to writing in English as a cultural treason'.

Obviously, there is a mushrooming of such writers in the contemporary literary scenario. However, they do not seem as fragile as mushrooms. Instead, most of them are profoundly confident and subtle in their thematic strands as well as techniques.

If one scrutinizes the profile of Ashok Ferry alias Suresh Mudannayake, one can observe that the most dominant feature in his writing is his epigrammatic terseness.

Ashok Ferry was born on Sep. 01, 1957. His father being in the diplomatic service, at an early age, his family moved to Somalia, where its wilderness and dark people provided a wealth of experience for the ever inquisitive young Ashok.

Ashok's desire to write ripened, when he was in school in England and at Oxford, studying for his degree in Mathematics. But quite unfortunately, for the young man whose heart was set on becoming an actuary, the obsession of learning literature as a subject was only a dream-like desire, for which he had to struggle. Recollecting his early days he says, "I had to fight for it because the school seldom allowed students to follow cross over subjects."

However, as he could never resist his desire to write, he jotted down various incidents either that happened to him or he had observed.

"I keep the story in my head for three or four months. It's a lazy man's way of writing. I never make a conscious effort. After writing, I put it away for sometime," he says about his writing.

England, Africa, Italy and Sri Lanka have provided background and inspiration for his writing. His first volume of short stories, the Gratiaen Prize winner in 2002, 'Colpetty People' and his second volume, 'The Good Little Ceylonese Girl' published a couple of years later, both deal with man's entanglement in the web of life; struggle of young men who have been offered life abroad; the obscurities and incongruities of people; the cultural clashes faced by the expats etc., ect.

Ashok Ferry has been many things from a barman, a labourer, a failed builder down to a lecturer of Archaelogy. Now having returned to his roots, he leads a leisurely life, mostly dealing in literary work. He is the invisible hand behind the hugely successful Galle Literary Festival.

However, given the trouble one has to undergo in getting a book published in Sri Lanka, he was in a way fortunate to get his book published without much trouble. The  very first publisher, Perera-Hussein Publishing House, welcomed it with open arms, surprisingly enough, without ever knowing it had bagged the Gratiaen Award. That, itself bears testimony to the quality of his writing!

"I was nervous for one week" recalls this failed builder turned writer of his early experience.

He, in the second volume gently stresses the behaviour of people in socio-religious contexts. 'Perhaps one generation later people may begin to realize that we have to make way for others, he says. He has a strong admiration for our historical heritage like 'unmatched Sigiriya'. Yet, he seems to have an abiding concern that a conservative society like ours should give way a bit for other ideologies too.

Ashok will continue to write and the third one of his literary progeny will most probably be a novel.


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