A fortnight or so ago, on March 31st, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) hosted a reading session to which I was invited. Among the readers that evening was Ashok Ferry, who read from his novel “Serendipity”. Ashok, of course, is the writer of “Colpetty People” and “Good Little Ceylonese Girl”: collections of shorter fiction that have much appealed to both readers and booksellers. To my knowledge “Serendipity”, which came out in December 2009, is Ashok’s first work of longer fiction / novel.
Opening his act, Ashok was quick to identify that, compared to his earlier work, “Serendipity” has failed to improvise. In his own words, Ashok claimed that, with his new work, he had “lost a part of his audience”. From what I understood, Ashok feels that he made a cardinal error in writing the novel in a “rage”: where he was mastered by negative tempers, making him scathy and wrathful. The effect of these tempers, he judges, is seen in the novel, making it “over-coloured”.
In my view, however, “Serendipity” fails because it, as a whole, comes as too “simplistic” a work. It is true that, as individuals, Ashok – as writer – and myself, as reader, fall into different socio-political circumstances; that we move in mutually exclusive cicuits and that we speak different Englishes. Yet, I locate in Ashok’s “Serendipity” an unmistakable insensitivity to the political context of Sri Lanka, an overmastering class-snobbishness and class-presumption and an improvisation of in-class stereotypes and fantasies. All those – I gage as lapses in the ideological framework of the novel.
Then, from a creative perspective, the novel is watery, it fails to hold reader-interest, and has low credibility. Some scenes, to me, are improbable – such as the threewheeler driver Viraj making out with a hot shot Colombo 7 girl: but, I will rest my pen on that; as the evocation of “improbability” need not necessarily be rested on the side of the mediocrity of a writer. Where his Lankan readership is concerned, Ashok Ferry is clearly improvising on the socio-political tastebuds of an exclusive, top end, fairly uper class Colombo elite.
At the ICES Ashok claimed that he has no audience in mind as he writes; but, the writing speaks for itself. The Knightsbridge setting in London, where the co-protagonist Piyumi is initially located, the shaded avenues of Colombo 7 where Marek takes Piyumi driving, the tight security where the semi-arid Army guy “peeps into the cleavage” of the woman driving her car, Barefoot and the International School circuit, “suddhas” being prospective marriage partners for late teen daughters: these are activities with definite Colombo “middle-upper” / “upper” class connotations.
Ashok’s baptisms, themselves, are very “un-Sri Lankan” to the eye and ear. There is a definite elite resonance in the spelling of Fonseca, Suranganee, Sinnetambe and Celestina. Celestina,for instance, who is introduced to us as a prostitute of Viraj’s “watta”, sounds a far phonological cry from our day-to-day Selesthina. At the other end, we have Somawathie – an international school girl and the daughter of the Leader of the opposition. In my view Somawathie’s baptism is partly meant to highlight her father’s new rich status. But, is that not an articulate elitist a cry: a means of marking out the “godaya” for ridicule?
Maybe Ashok is trying to employ “Serendipity” as an instrument to satirize a sense of crassness and frivolity in the top end Colombo lives. In that sense, the Heraths, the Fonsecas and the Segarajasinghams may be targets of Ashok’s satire. But, the satire itself, at times, becomes unconvincing and stale. Take for instance, the character of Debs: a bi-sexual NGO officer who is running “Women In Want”. Now, perhaps, Debs is Ashok’s instrument of criticizing the NGO circuit of the country. But, then, Debs’ bi-sexuality is so rottenly characterized and her emotional build is shown to be so “fleeting”, that she altogether fails to ground herself as a strong character. Ashok plays with a host of cards in “bisexuality”, “frivolity”, “sexual congruity” and the like; but, his improvisation of them are simplistic, leaving behind a sense of the “hollow”.
Viraj’s portrayal consistently left me wondering. Viraj is a threewheeler driver from a “watta”, who aspires the hand of a immigrant NGO worker, Debs. Viraj’s pre-occupation with a power drink and his gym drills, I felt, was meant to make the snobbish reader laugh. In fact, Debs, who is shown to be more masculine and hefty, casually hangs out with Viraj and even goes to see his family in the “watta”. Viraj’s family, hearing of his interest in a foreign woman are pleased and satisfied.Here, Viraj tries to slip an engagement ring to Debs; and it is at this moment that Debs realizes what was happening and, to everyone’s astonishment, runs away. This entire development, to me, was somewhat unconvincing. This, however, is just one of several such episodes. Take as another example, the middleman-role played by Mr. Skanda for an “unknown” superior in collecting information of political conditions in Sri Lanka. As much as there are / were agents of the sort, the portrayal in question and the unconditional willingness with which Piyumi seals the deal of being a “spy” is weak, “too easy” and unrealistic.
Sex, too, comes “easy”. The first time Piyumi and Marek have sex they have barely known each other for an hour. But, all the same, Ashok very graphically lays out how “[Piyumi] began moving under him, slow circular motions, and instinctively [Marek] tensed his legs and pointed his toes…it was all he could do to stop himself from coming and when he did, he shuddered and stopped, shuddered and stopped, many times over” (“Serendipity”, 28-29). Later on, we see Viraj who is shown to be neck-deep in infatuation with Debs, being “rejected”, shifting his interests overnight to Suranganee and then, Piyumi. Piyumi and Viraj — the niece of Serendipity and the threewheeler man — make it out at the fashion show at Mogombo International School. Earlier, without any warning to the reader, the same duo are seen creeping into a hotel room during the NGO’s trip to Giritale. These come all too easy and are incredible to one’s liking.
Ashok’s snobbish “top end” attitude towards socialism is seen in his caricature of LM Siddhu: Lenin Marx Siddhu. Siddhu is a “spy” working along the same lines as Mr. Skanda. It is Siddhu who works as Skanda’s local “tab” and becomes the medium between Skanda and Piyumi during the latter’s stay in Colombo. Lenin Marx is also one of Celestina’s (note the spelling) customers of old. In exchange for Celestina’s love, Ashok writes, “[Siddhu] gave her communism, shagging her like Che Guevera, pressing her up against the kitchen table, with the urgency of his Marxist propositions. Together they shared the golden showers of her socialism” (145; italics mine). Ashok, thus, feeds the bourgois capitalist insecurity with tasty stuff – the kind of upper middle class consciousness that is trained to despise Marx and communism without even knowing its basic principle. Indeed, it is a joke and I may lack a sense of humour to appreciate it. Just that it is a joke that may be appreciated by a classed readership spreading across a thin layer of Sri Lanka. It is a joke of apolitical arrogance – and it is old.
Likewise, Ashok freely recommends several other class-stereotypes in his work. The “threewheeler hunk” Viraj, as was earlier hinted, becomes a sexual object for the affluent Piyumi. His desire for Debs’ foreign flesh, his pre-occupation with gym weights and power drink all summarize a certain “underclass mindset” which Ashok tries to arrive at. It is the “threewheeler karia” who shifts through the “shaded avenues” of the top end. He is shown as a sexual predetor and a prey – either way. But, Ashok fails to touch on Viraj’s inner consciousness and tensions. The “watta” is there superficially. Viraj, too, drives, eats, does weights, winks, has sex – superficially. Ashok’s inability to go deep into the psychological and human complexity of the people he tries to bring to life, as a writer, costs him a million. One may argue that this is just “satire”; and that “psycho-human complexity” need not be the satirist’s pre-occupation. But, such a line of thought is essentially flawed. The inability to touch the reality-complexity beyond the “shaded avenues” as well as within them has made “Serendipity” a flop.
There are, too, inconsistencies in the correspondence of time and space which steps on our appreciation of Ashok’s novel. The writer comes across as being confused of chronological phnomena. For instance, the political climate of the novel spells an “air” of the late 1980s, with allusions to a power struggle among the LTTE, JVP and the Government. Yet, at the same time, the social circuit resonates a definite 200- note: with the massive election cut outs, speeches on inflation, the foil of the “House of Fashion”, “Hi” magazine etc. But, perhaps, there is some creative basis to this apparent inconsistency – and should not, therefore, be levelled as a drawback of the writing.
Ashok’s self-admitted “drawback” in “Serendipity” need not, as claimed, be a result of his writing the novel “in a rage”. But, the failures could have been minimized had the plot been more purposeful and the writing been more “neat”. That alone may not resolve the issues of class-arrogance and inconsistency which I have raised in this space. But, the latter could only be resolved by Ashok Ferry and how he would position himself as a creator / observer / agent.
[This was carried by the Lakbima News of 2010-04-18; under the heading Why Ashok Ferry’s ‘Serendipity’ was hard on me].