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The man without a badge: Geeta Doctor reviews ‘The Unmarriageable Man’ by Ashok Ferrey

Learning to live: A busy street in Colombo.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ IStock

Sri Lankan author Ashok Ferrey can be called the uncrowned king of Colpetty, having animated and immortalised this multi-ethnic Colombo neighbourhood in his smash-hit debut collection of stories, Colpetty People. He is also many other things — a personal trainer of ‘the rich and infamous’ as a meme would have it; a builder-architect who has created his own opulent retreat in the Sri Lankan capital, having learnt the trade during his coolie years in London slumlands. However, he is most celebrated as a writer, specifically one with an unending fascination for the ‘aunties’ of Colpetty.

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Tasty bites

As Mrs. Herath, a Colpetty Aunty in the story, ‘Ice-Cream Karma’, warms to her theme: “‘Let me tell you the Sad Story of my Life,’ she began, and everyone immediately stopped listening.” Ferrey, on the other hand, glides shark-like into the warm waters of post-colonial turmoil, takes tasty bites of every conventional trope about losers and winners in the battle of survival, and swims away with all the prizes. Helping him in this endeavour in his latest novel, The Unmarriageable Man, is protagonist Sanjay de Silva, who begins life in Colombo but migrates to 80s’ London, as Ferrey himself did.

Free the spirits

In The Unmarriageable Man, Ferrey appears like a cross between Prospero of The Tempest, who could famously control the

The man without a badge: Geeta Doctor reviews ‘The Unmarriageable Man’ by Ashok Ferrey

spirits of his tropical island with a clap of his hands, and Trevor Noah, the comic show host from South Africa, with a baby face and a caustic tongue. He is both a conjuror of daily dramas and a wisecracking wit.

There is also the ebullience of a young Hanif Kureishi and his adventures with the ‘beautiful launderette’ in Sanjay’s attempt to ingratiate himself with the layers of immigrant life in early Thatcher-era Brixton. However, unlike Kureishi and definitely unlike Noah, who capitalise on their religious and racial otherness, Ferrey, or Sanjay, does not wear badges identifying himself or asking for recognition in a foreign land.

Going by stock definitions, the story is a coming-of-age saga. In Ferrey’s hand, Sanjay’s journey becomes a process of ‘setting the spirits free’. As Sanjay learns while rebuilding a crumbling house with a mixed bag of skilled migrant workers, we are all immigrants at some point or the other. As such, you might as well learn to live with the dictionary of epithets that includes such terms as Asian-Indian, Paki, darki, black, wog, woofter, and worse.

The spirit of Sanjay’s father, Louis de Silva, animates the novel at many levels, levitating across countries. Sanjay’s tormented relationship with him can be traced back to Ferrey’s own experience of looking after his father when he was sick with cancer. After swinging between the last days of Sanjay’s father’s decline into infantilism and decay and Sanjay’s own quest for redemption in the arms of the luscious Janine, we get what might be called a Netflix nirvana ending.

Never mind, Ferrey is still a brilliant storyteller.

The Unmarriageable Man; Ashok Ferrey, Penguin, ₹399

The Chennai-based writer is a critic and cultural commentator.

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 10:51:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-man-without-a-badge-geeta-doctor-reviews-the-unmarriageable-man-by-ashok-ferrey/article34279330.ece

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