Demons all over

Demons all over
The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons
Ashok Ferrey
Penguin
2016, pp 287
Rs. 399 
 
The title of the book is intriguing enough and the book cover only serves to pique one’s interest. Author Ashok Ferrey manages to hook you with his opening line, “I was born ugly,” and goes on to offer an introduction to his mother whose presence looms large over the narrative, even in her physical absence.

In the early pages, one is apprised of the fact that the protagonist’s aforementioned mother, Clarice, known as the kumarihamy (mistress of the household) is a believer in sorcery. She organises an exorcism when her son contracts a sore throat, imagining that a demon has entered his body. The process of exorcising is hilariously detailed. Ferrey’s use of humour is understated but keeps surfacing throughout the narrative.

The story moves between Sri Lanka and Oxford, where Sonny, the protagonist, has secured admission for a degree in the Humanities. The dialogue between Sonny and the Dons who are interviewing him is entertaining, as when the professors ask cricketing questions expecting him to be well versed in the game, coming as he does from the island nation. But what secures Sonny his seat in Oxford is not this, but his knowledge of Macbeth and the reason for Shakespeare introducing the three witches in the play. The reader is made aware that this was done to curry favour with King James I, an expert on demonology and from here the link to Sri Lanka’s interest in the subject is established when Sonny explains, “We’re all supposed to be Buddhist or Christian or Hindu or Moslem, but this belief in good and evil spirits goes back much further.”

Oxford is where Sonny meets Luisa, an American of Italian origins, whose doctor parents have made it big in America. After some romantic interludes and a parting of ways over a huge misunderstanding, Luisa and Sonny get back together to become man and wife. Descriptions of student life and pranks in Oxford will have the reader chuckling.

But it is when writing about Sri Lanka that the author comes into his own, providing insights into its society and cultural practices, many of which will appear familiar to Indian readers. Ashok writes, “In Sri Lanka no one moves without the help or sanction of divine providence... couples have been known to plan the precise time of birth of their children, by Caesarean section, in order to give them the best possible start in life.” The combining of both first and third person voices across the chapters makes for an absorbing style.
 
For as long as he can, Sonny succeeds in keeping Luisa away from ideas of visiting Sri Lanka, but is finally forced to cave in, when she becomes pregnant and insists on a trip there. This is when the twists and turns in the plot develop, keeping the reader guessing as to where this is all going to end. The weakness and inconsistencies in Sonny also start showing up in his home country.

We also see a changed Luisa, a confused domestic help, Sita, the exploitative man-helper Pandu and the cruel and overbearing kumarihamy. To add to this cocktail is the surreal part of the tale, with the introduction of the Devil, who first surfaces in Oxford and then decides to take a plane ride to Sri Lanka. He is successful only in a little bit of devilry, in the tempting of the domestic workers and often finds himself at a loss in attempts at evil doing because of the competition.

This is probably the author’s intended message going by his choice of title. Is the threat more from the demons outside (who are feared and all precautions taken to guard against them) or is it the Devil within, which can surface in different ways, playing havoc with the lives of those around? Ferrey does not exempt Sonny, the man-boy protagonist from the machinations of the devil within, which puts him on a poor footing with the other characters who look up to him, as perhaps the reader too.

The internal dialogues of characters like Sita are handled well. All the inhabitants of Ferrey’s novel have shades of grey and whilst some get redemption, others are denied it. Clarice is the antagonist who admits, “A lifetime of wickedness and I find I have quite grown into the part.” 

Though Ferrey may have opted for a simplistic quick tying of loose threads ending, divine retribution is something that South Asians can identify with. So, in a convoluted sort of way, one cannot help but feel a sense of satisfaction in the way that the story pans out.
 
The poetic use of language and the ability to tell a good story certainly makes this book a worthy read. It is no surprise that it has been shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize.

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