The chattering demons unfold

Ashok Ferrey moderating a session between Indian authors Tabish Khair and Manju Kapur
Ashok Ferrey moderating a session between Indian authors Tabish Khair and Manju Kapur

Ashok Ferrey is an author who has, over the course of three volumes of short fiction and three novels, made an indelible mark on the Sri Lankan literary landscape. Known for lighthearted humourous fiction centred on urban Sri Lanka, his captivating prose demonstrate craftsmanship in contemporary writing that speaks of a hand endowed with the prowess for masterful marshalling of the pen to speak to readers in impeccable English. It is not an attribute every Sri Lankan can claim, nor every Englishman for that matter. His success as a Sri Lankan fiction writer in English has steadily grown to gain readerships beyond our shores.

His latest novel The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons was launched recently in Colombo. Through special arrangement with Penguin Random House India the Sunday Observer will feature three sets of excerpts of The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons in the coming issues of Spectrum for the pleasure of readers who may be curious to get a glimpse of what devilry lurks in this latest work of one of Sri Lanka’s most celebrated fiction writers. Ashok returned last month from the Jaipur Literary Festival in India. And in this feature he shares some thoughts about the event and the response at this festival to his latest work.

Q: You attended the Jaipur International Literary Festival. What would you say was distinct about that literary event compared to others you have participated in?

A: The festival is entirely free, so you get a marvellous demographic: not only the ceaselessly chattering, relentlessly glittering classes that you find at any festival, but lots of youngsters too, who actually ask intelligent questions. Interestingly, there were as many men as there were women: compare this to Galle, where it is easily 80% women to 20% men. Audiences are huge in Jaipur, quite often numbering in the thousands. Last year about four hundred thousand people attended in total. I wonder what the figures for this year will be! As an author, you couldn’t ask for a better place to showcase your work.

Q: How in your experience, would Sri Lankan writers benefit by attending prominent literary festivals outside Sri Lanka? What was the response you got from fellow writers in this region at that event?

A: Because we are an island, we tend to be rather lazy and complacent about our art. It is often quite enough for us to be known here at home - we feel we don’t need to venture beyond these shores.

This is wrong. Sri Lanka has so much to offer the rest of the world: there is more to us than the sort of ‘India lite’ that people often take us to be. I myself had a very flattering response from fellow writers. At least nine different authors came up with their copy of Demons to be autographed by me. (Authors are funny people; they won’t go out and spend good money on a book just to make some poor little Sri Lankan author feel good about himself; they’ll only do it if they are seriously going to read the book. So this was very gratifying!)

Q: The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons is your latest novel. It’s published by Penguin Random House India. Was it promoted at the Jaipur Festival? If so what was your specific role in that regard?

A: I had a session on the book moderated by the incomparably witty Sunil Sethi! In the middle of the session I read a funny piece from it which went down rather well with the audience, judging by the feedback.

Q: How do you think writers and readers outside Sri Lanka would relate to The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons as a Sri Lankan novel? Were there any indications of it at Jaipur?

A: Although The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons is ostensibly a novel about a man who falls in love with two women, at its very heart it is a fable about good and evil – and I have written it almost in the manner of a fairy tale, a very dark one.

You as the reader have to decide at the end of the book who is really good and who is really bad in it. And your answer will tell you more about yourself than it will about the book. The good and evil may happen to be painted in the saturated, tropical colours of Sri Lanka, but fables are universal: judging by book sales and feedback from Jaipur, this one seems to be having quite a resonance with anyone who picks it up, whatever their nationality! 

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