The Unmarriageable Man hits town | Sunday Observer

The Unmarriageable Man hits town

4 April, 2021

A household name among fiction readers in urban Sri Lanka, Ashok Ferrey needs little introduction to the readers of the Sunday Observer. A much loved and celebrated Sri Lankan writer of novels and short fiction whose works are characterised by humour and sarcasm, Ferrey has now unveiled his latest novel – ‘The Unmarriageable Man’ published by Penguin Random House India. This bestselling Sri Lankan author gives insights into what can be expected by readers when they reach for Ferrey’s The Unmarriageable Man, in an interview with the Sunday Observer.


Q: You had a reading and the launch event of your latest novel? How was the response and attendance at the event, given that these are times that do not seem encouraging for many to congregate?

A: The Sarasavi Bookshop at One Galle Face is huge and fabulous! Although there was a big crowd, there was ample room. Sarasavi sponsored the event: the food was delicious and the wine great; so none of the Aunties had rumbling tummies which might have drowned out the readings. I signed over 100 copies of the new book and a fair few of the old.

Q: What is the theme and premise of the new book?

A: The book is ostensibly about a young Sri Lankan builder in London in the 1980s. It was a crazy time: the age of Mrs. Thatcher and unbridled capitalism. There were young children driving around in red Porsches bought with the money they had made in their first year of work. Every girl looked like Princess Diana though not every boy looked like Prince Charles. Then there was little old me in my blue dungarees with dirty great holes in them, driving a battered Ford Escort van. The book is about that time. But running parallel to that story is one about the death of a young man’s father, about his grief and his inability to cope.

Q: How much research went into it? Were any real life figures you know that inspired any of the main characters or events that readers will find among the pages when they get to read your new novel?

A: The research was easy: I was there at this amazing time and able to view it from the bottom up – being part of the underclass, the only Asian builder/workman in South London at the time. There were plenty of Asian waiters, Asian shopkeepers, Asian petrol pump attendants; but the building game was almost all Irish and West Indian.

It was a unique perspective which I felt deserved to be recorded. As for real life figures, every character is drawn from real life in the good old Ashok Ferrey style. But I’ve cunningly mixed everyone up so you’ll never recognise yourself, I guarantee that! For instance, the protagonist, Sanjay, is made up of bits of me. That monster of a father, however, is not my father – who was in real life the sweetest, kindest man imaginable. Even the “Hooker by Royal Appointment” existed – though she’s probably a little old woman in a floral print dress now, being pushed around in a wheelchair.

Q: Have you made any conscious attempt to make the story exotic to readers outside Sri Lanka?

A: This is a good question. This accusation is thrown at so many writers I know including myself. The fact is, Sri Lanka is made up of so many heterogeneous people – some who have lived abroad their whole life, some like me who’ve come back after twenty years and some who never went away.

There are aspects of Sri Lanka’s life which are strange to some of us, that are normal to others.

In other words, “one man’s exotic is another man’s banal.” Added to that, I’m a satirist: it is in my job description to find humour and bizarreness in other people’s normality. Though I have never consciously exoticised my observations, others will surely find them strange. It’s like the accent I speak with. I went abroad at the age of eight, came back at 30. Naturally, people here will find my hybrid accent exotic: I don’t do it on purpose to exoticise myself; it is just a sad fact of my banal existence!

Q: What would you say are identifiable popular themes and elements that readers will encounter in this book which makes it a distinguishably ‘Ashok Ferrey novel’?

A: Oh lots. Alienation, immigration; tales of the underclass in the lands of the rich; the bleakness of our existence, underlying which is this strange sensation that someone up there is pulling the strings, that our job is merely to surrender to the will of this greater power; and of course the witchery and weirdness we Sri Lankans somehow manage to conjure up wherever we go, even in the heartlands of other people’s capitals!

Q: How relatable do you think the story in the new novel will be, to a Sri Lankan audience?

A: When I wrote that first book, Colpetty People, I thought there’d be a maximum readership of about two hundred Sri Lankans who might have something in common with those characters. That book has since gone on to become the best selling Sri Lankan English book of all time. I’m hoping the new book too will have appeal; and not just in Sri Lanka.

Two years ago, I was on board a ship, when I was set upon by a Vietnamese millionairess, who told me with shining eyes that I had described precisely and perfectly the life they led in Ho Chi Minh City. I am guaranteed one Vietnamese reader at least!