“Only man is vile”: Review of The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons by Ashok Ferrey
Entertaining for the most part, Ashok Ferrey’s novel steers its course through England, Italy, the US, and Sri Lankabooks Updated: Apr 29, 2017 08:17 IST
I was born ugly. That’s what my mother always said.” This startling confession begins a novel which swings across countries and continents – Sri Lanka (the narrator’s homeland), England, Italy, the US, and Sri Lanka again. True to its title, demons weave in and out of the narrative, as does the archetypal Devil himself. A postmodern Devil this, drawn to “Ceylon” one autumn morning as he sits shivering in Oxford’s Christchurch chapel, ruing the state of a world in which “people were just not interested in being evil any more…[and] even less interested in being good…All they worshipped was capitalism…” While in this introspective mood, the Devil hears the words of Bishop Heber’s ‘From Greenland’s Icy Mountain’ fall on his ears (What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle/ Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile…) and is convinced it was time he headed there.
Kandy and the Mahadewala Walauwa, the narrator Sonal/Sonny’s ancestral home, now become the Devil’s preferred stomping ground and it isn’t long before he puts his scheming mind to work, quickly choosing his first (and only, as it turns out) recruit, the slimy garden-boy-cum-chauffeur Pandu. The walauwa is queened over by the widowed Clarice, its “Kumarihamy” and Sonny’s mother, Sonny having gone to Oxford where his stay is memorable for entirely non-academic reasons: his eccentric roommate Tom (“Possibly the cleverest person I ever met… a figure straight out of the middle Europe of the early twentieth century”) and Luisa Palazzi who teaches English at the Banbury Language School.
Scenarios shift rapidly and Ferrey’s nuanced prose can seize a moment in all its variety. London could be a metaphor for all megacities: it “seems to have so much to offer… So much is written about… current affairs, about who did what to whom and when…The debate rages so strongly in the secondary sources of the media that we the public fondly imagine we have a say in all this moving and shaking. We are forced to have opinions about people we are never likely to meet, talk intelligently about events we have never witnessed, and have great confidence that our opinions are somehow managing to shape the future as it unfolds…”
When Sonny meets Luisa’s parents in the US their talk of the Met Ball and season tickets to the Opera makes him want to shout his resistance till he realizes they were not trying to impress him. “The money had hardened in their arteries, rich and salty, calcifying their attitudes, turning this rigid live performance into a sort of kabuki theatre for the very rich enacted by the very rich.”
The Sri Lankan rat-catcher knows when to stay silent under provocation: “He did not do irony or sarcasm. He was a rat-catcher not a writer.”
Relationships are uniformly dysfunctional. Clarice, an astrologer’s daughter, marries “above” her when the heir to the Mahadewala Walauwa sees her and falls in love. Humiliated as a bride by her husband’s family she spends widowhood triumphing over her sherry-guzzling sisters-in-law, exorcising imaginary demons from her house, or having its floors dug up in search of buried treasure. She is convinced that a demon had possessed Sonny and her ambivalence towards him continues even when he grows up and leaves for Oxford.
The maid Sita is forced to steal priceless antiques from Clarice’s home to pay for her diabetic father’s treatment and is raped repeatedly by Pandu who has discovered her secret, while her father conceals the fact that he has a job and that such desperate measures are unnecessary.
Sonny nearly loses Luisa when he callously implies that her unborn child may not be his, forcing her to abort the foetus. When they do marry and return to Sri Lanka he thinks nothing of seducing Sita even though Luisa is pregnant again. Even Luisa, “the mature one”, visibly gloats when Clarice forces Sita to visit an abortionist. It is hardly surprising that the Devil is flummoxed by all the goings-on, especially when the tsunami of 2004 takes him unawares and the unaided evil of men and women looting corpses drive home his redundancy. Eventually it is only Sita who emerges a survivor, all ethics abandoned as she wangles one last sale which nets her a million rupees, giving her a chance to escape and train as a nurse abroad: “She shook her fist at the sky, black now as the devil’s mouth. ‘Thank you!’ she said. ‘Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!’”
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Entertaining for the most part, Ferrey’s novel steers its course through the diverse worlds it portrays. The Oxford phase feels like an enjoyable stopover, a never-ending series of tea-parties peopled by floods of “very attractive girls… fanning through the courtyard like a flock of brightly coloured birds of paradise.”
Sonny’s first lunch with the Palazzis in the US reminds one of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Nikhil (The Namesake) meeting his girlfriend Maxine’s parents in New York, except that while Nikhil had been overawed by their New World chic Sonny’s take on the “buttoned-down, dinner-jacketed attitude of the East Coast” is irreverent and cynical.
It is when Ferrey goes native that it all begins to come somewhat unstuck (though it is possible that an East Coast reader would see it differently, in reverse) and the humour and satire feel somewhat iffy. Stereotypes proliferate as just about everything that enhances local colour is bunged in, including a thovil – an exorcism ceremony described over several pages. The Kumarihamy loses her comic essence, and even the jokey Devil deteriorates into a hoity-toity Western Orientalist who disdainfully recommends nail spas to local demons.
While Ferrey’s light-hearted feints hold our interest there is a growing sense of something missing – characterization perhaps?
Vrinda Nabar is an author, critic and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University.