Interview: Ashok Ferrey, author, The Unmarriageable Man
Ashok Ferrey, in his stories and novels, captures the lives of Sri Lankans with characteristic acuity — and levity, his trademark. His latest novel, The Unmarriageable Man, is the story of a Sri Lankan, Sanjay de Silva, — south London’s first Asian builder — in London in the 1980s, “twisting and hurtling through those glorious, bluerinsed Thatcher ’80s, breathing fire on everything we looked at, conquering all, scorching all, on what was to be the ride of my life.” Like his previous novel, The Professional (2017), it is also an exploration of the nature and meaning of love, of loss and grief, of time and memory. Excerpts from an interview:
The Unmarriageable Man is the story of a young Sri Lankan man, Sanjay de Silva, making his life as a builder in 1980s Thatcher-era London, and, in the parallel, alternating narrative, coping with grief after the death of his idiosyncratic father, whom he loathed in his life but longs for in his death. In all your stories and novels, you have mined the personal elegantly. How was writing this novel different?
In this, too, I have mined the personal: but to dig up and re-examine that grief, even after 20 years, was more painful than extracting teeth. In the middle of writing this book my mother passed away, so it was a double whammy! Closure is not something you can achieve easily, not when it comes to grief: because grief never really goes away. In contrast, my time on the building sites was a joy to remember and re-create: as with Sanjay, it was a time when I was able to reinvent myself, free of the baggage of previous lives.
How did you work on the delicate, complex and troubled father-son relationship in the novel? What kind of relationship did you share with your own father? Also, are there some works of fiction exploring father-son relationship that have particularly resonated with you?
My father was the kindest, nicest man imaginable — not at all like the father in the book! But, in general, we South Asians have difficult relations with our families: they want so much from us, and feel they have the right to dictate how we achieve this. It is incredibly difficult to creep out from under the shadows of the Asian family, and with some it never happens. Of course, there is a great strength to this, too: in family businesses, the knowledge is able to pass down through the generations. But this comes at great expense — to one’s own personality and individuality. Perhaps this is what I wanted to explore. Sanjay goes to England to re-invent himself, something he could not have done staying in Sri Lanka. And even when he does, his father wants the credit! I didn’t draw this from any particular work of fiction — at least none that comes to mind.
At its heart, The Unmarriageable Man is the story of Sanjay’s absent mother — an Englishwoman, who married his father in the Sri Lanka of the 1950s. Her story, as the narrator, Sanjay, writes, forms “the central thread of this narrative — metallic gold, lucent, lending a certain brilliance and strength.” How did you work on her invisible presence in the novel?
She is, in many ways, the main character of the novel. Her invisible presence is the elephant in the room. Sanjay spends his entire time trying to find substitutes for her — the Satellites of Love, then Janine — but they are never enough, they all end up letting him down in some way. It is almost his mission in life to find out what happened to his mother, even if he cannot admit this to himself. So it is doubly surprising then that when he does find her, he commits that final act of treachery — “it is a terrible thing to take revenge upon the dead.” So, then, we come to the million dollar question: can we forgive him for this or not?
How vital to the narrative were the other women, including the cabal comprising Myrna, Phyllis, Kamala, Rani — who were his father’s “Satellites of Love” — and, more importantly, Janine, the erstwhile Hooker by Royal Appointment?
Women are incredibly important to Sanjay — while he is in the UK he longs for the Satellites, the only women he ever knew (“5,000 miles away there existed a cabal of women watching my back”). Their femininity is a counterpoint to the incredibly strong Janine, old enough to be his mother, who acts like a man, thinks like a man, and is, in fact, more than a match for any man in the way she fulfils her desires and wants. Sanjay is the ingénue, wandering open-mouthed and visa-free in this land of the grown-ups. It is almost a necessity for Janine to betray him in order for him to grow up: to lose his innocence and purity and join that club of adults — with their corroded personalities, their ruined childhood dreams.
Your previous stories and novels are celebrations of humour and sarcasm, hilarity and levity. They seem to come naturally to you. Was it equally easy to come in this novel that’s predominantly about grief and closure? For your narrator, there is no closure. “Closure is fiction existing only in the mind of the man who invented it... All that exists at the end is the sheer animal act of forgetting, and the act of forgiving ourselves for forgetting,” he tells us. Does he echo your own thoughts? Have you arrived at closure after your parents’ death?
Sadly, I do feel exactly as Sanjay does, that closure is a piece of fiction that exists only in your analyst’s mind. Literature and films teach us that everything has a happy quick ending — by the end of the film or the novel everything is wrapped up neatly; this is probably our way of attempting to impose order on what is in reality a messy and chaotic life process. But don’t be fooled: nothing could be further from the truth than that quick clean ending. 20 years on and I still don’t think I have got over the deaths of my parents; though I can kid myself.
How did you arrive at the idea of Louis’s ghost following Sanjay to Brixton, appearing at will, watching over him, saving him for impending tragedies? What does the occult, the mysterious way witchery operates let you achieve in the novel?
This is a good question, to which I’m not sure I know the answer! Having explored the ‘light’ side of evil in The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons, where the Devil is almost a comic hero, I was determined not to bring the occult into this new novel; as you can see I wasn’t successful! One of the reasons is that among all those old houses I worked on in Brixton, there were at least two where I felt the presence of evil — you never knew who had died there and how. And one month I remember, there was this whole series of accidents on the building site, any one of which might have killed me, but didn’t. Was I imagining this?
England is one of the most ‘rational’ places in the world. As I write in the book: “It was curious how we immigrants seemed to have imported this other preternatural world of shadows with us, planting it in the stony ground of rationality.” I think what I am trying to say is that in all our lives there is an element of the unknown — be it good or evil — that moves us like pieces on a chessboard. Take, for instance, my capricious and irrational decision to come back to Sri Lanka at the age of 30 (irrational because the money was so good at the time, I had to tear myself away): no sooner had I done this than the London property market peaked, completely crashing by the end of that year. Had I stayed I would have gone bankrupt. As I say towards the end of the book, “All those events . . . were an integral part of this richer, grander, more complex design. My job perhaps was simply to submit to the will of this design with the best grace I could muster.”
You are an indefatigable chronicler of the lives of modern Sri Lankans as they navigate worlds between Colpetty and Colombo and the capitals of the West. In your stories, you deal extensively with their eccentricities and alienation as émigrés, their dualities and dilemmas. Your writing is steeped in the pain and pathos of immigration, the poor taste of the nouveau riche, the misery of the underclass and the sordid realities of our lives in general. What is about these themes and the “journeys of characters seeking something beyond the barriers of nations and generations” that speak to you as a writer?
I guess I’ve had a fairly peripatetic existence — having lived for fair lengths of time on three continents. What this brought home to me was how the quirks and oddities of one man are simply the norms of another. When I first went to England at the age of eleven, I was the sole Black boy in a school of 450 White ones: I was definitely the quirk and oddity there! It taught me at a young age how easy it is to be judgmental about others when you know nothing about them and are not willing to learn.
So, I have always taken care to view the different narratives you mention from the bottom up — taking a certain perverse pleasure in being the underdog, never letting on that I might know just a little bit more than I appear to. It is a great way to understand those other worlds, while remaining yourself unobserved. For me, it is the supreme pastime. Chronicling these various narratives subsequently by putting pen to paper is merely a pleasurable secondary occupation!
You famously straddle several roles, including that of a builder, and a personal trainer in your spare time. We know that these roles inform your writing. Do you think you would have been a different writer if you were not one or any of these? How do, for instance, architecture and mathematics come into play behind the shape of your sentences?
Do you know, I am not even sure I could have been a writer had I not had all those other careers. Writing takes a lot out of me. It is pure pleasure then for me to escape into those other worlds of the gym or the building site. Someone once asked me what I dream about when I fall asleep. The answer is always rooms and staircases and courtyards — the strange music of their shapes, the curious geometry of their volumes. This brings me to the mathematics. Every one of my novels has a sharp skeleton of mathematics at its core. My job is often to clothe this skeleton with enough flesh so that you the reader are not aware of the bones underneath. The hard edges of the maths would ruin the soft art of the story: because it seems to me that the whole point of art is that it should seem completely spontaneous and natural, whereas in fact a great deal of forethought has gone into its creation. Yet those bones underneath are absolutely necessary for the novel to be able to stand on its feet, to walk away from you: this mathematical abstraction is what remains with you long after the soft furnishings of the story are forgotten.
Sri Lanka, in the last few decades, has seen the emergence of some very fine storytellers — from Gunesekera to Shehan, Shyam and many more. How do you look at this flowering? What do you find fascinating — both in terms of form and themes — about modern writing around Sri Lanka, especially in fiction?
I am amazed at this flowering, and filled with wonder at the sheer variety of its output: each of us seems to play to different strengths. It just goes to prove what I have always maintained: that Sri Lanka is easily one of the most complex countries in the world, like a fish whose many scales reflect myriad ever-changing colours, no two the same. What you see is so not what you get. Anyone who fondly imagines that this is India Lite had better beware!
Nawaid Anjum is a poet, translator and independent journalist. He lives in New Delhi.