My Colombo – Ashok Ferrey

Ashok Ferrey’s latest book, Love in the Tsunami is out now through Penguin. His TV show, The Ashok Ferrey Show, is probably South Asia’s only English-language arts programme.

Years ago, at the height of my brilliant career as a small-time Brixton builder, I decided to come home: to the town of my birth, a one-horse town called Colombo. My friends in London were genuinely distressed.

“Colombo?” said one. “It’s a cultural desert!”

“With two monsoons a year,” pointed out another, rather contradictory.“You’ll die,” said a third, more creative one. “Of Ebola virus, or something.”

Despite their pleas and entreaties, I ploughed on with my funeral arrangements. The Colombo I arrived in had garbage all over the streets. There was dengue fever in the air. And culture? Apart from the occasional brilliant desert bloom, the less said about the culture the better. I continued my job as builder, spending much of my waking life at the Town Hall trying to get building plans passed. The Colombo Municipality was a hotbed of Byzantine intrigue, with corruption on a scale that would have brought tears of joy to Dickens’s eyes. Then again, he might have had to swallow two Valliums and take a nice little lie-down.

So why did I stay? This is a question I keep asking myself periodically. Designing and building houses here is a far cry from Brixton conversions. If you want to make a window, you go to a sawmill and select a log. Then you spend most of the morning getting it sawn and planed to the size you require. Then you bring it home and leave it to season in a shady spot. For the next three months. Not surprisingly, it took me two years to complete each house, and I did six of these in the next twelve years. Those years were about the most creative of my life. And this is the point about Colombo: whatever you do involves creativity, whether you like it or not. Life here has a home-made, hand-hewn quality to it that I have come to love, though I can understand that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. If you like your life to come in beautiful sachets, vacuum-packed and carefully-apportioned, this is not the place for you.

Then there is this strange business of connectivity. Here you must have just about the most connected society in the world, and I don’t mean in the internet sense. Often, perfect strangers stop me on the street.

“Ah!” they say, fixing me with their beady eye. “You must be Auntie Celie’s brother-in-law’s eldest son.” How do they know? Is it my nose? And if they don’t exactly know who you are, they will invent the back story, and in time – repeated often enough – this will become the stuff of urban legend. After all, it’s only creativity in another form. What this means, like it or not, is that people have time for you, even if only out of sheer nosiness. They may never speak to you their entire life: but they will watch you from afar, filling in the gaps of their often sketchy knowledge with panache and colour and originality. We’re all fiction writers here, even if mostly unpublished.

Part of the reason for this curiosity is that people have time on their hands, and this is the reason I love this town so much. Brought up in the West with the idea that you only really live to work, and that once your productive life is over you are more or less ready to die, I’ve come back to a place where ‘productive’ and ‘useful’ are alien concepts. The puritan work ethic is more puzzling to us than Einstein’s laws of relativity. Why would you need to earn more, spend more, borrow more (as they urge you to do in the West)? Here, just enough is quite enough, and sometimes almost too much.

And then there’s the wild life. And I don’t mean night-clubs and casinos, though there are plenty of those too. I mean the animals and trees. Every morning in the garden of my urban house I hear more birdsong than in any European or American forest. For years I had two six-foot long pythons living in the shrubbery, though this is not something I recommend to everyone. And then the trees! There is no other capital city in the world that has such a profusion of trees. There are trees growing up through cracks in the pavement. (Is this the reason most Colombo citizens prefer walking on the road?) There are trees growing out of people’s walls. There’s a tree growing in my roof (I kid you not). Every day I mean to have it cut down, and one of these days it’ll be too late. I can almost see it grow, while I watch with horror and fascination.

Twenty years later this town is much changed, of course: the garbage is collected on time now, the streets are quite beautifully manicured, and there’s even a renaissance in the arts world. But these are not the reasons why I stay. I stay because once you get used to this gentle laid-back vibe, you don’t really want anything else. (You might even say I’m not fit for anything else!)

The last house I ever built had a basement an inch too short – being seven foot eleven instead of the statutory eight feet in height. I suppose I could have hacked the plaster off. The Building Inspector wanted 165,000 rupees to pass it – a good bit more than your average person earned in a year. It completely destroyed me. So, dear inspector, if you’re reading this, sitting in your cosy up-country retirement bungalow somewhere, drinking a cup of the finest Nuwara Eliya tea, remember, that’s my tea you’re drinking. But I also salute you: by crushing me as a builder you unwittingly gave rise to my subsequent career as a writer.

Would I ever go back to my previous life in the West? I don’t think so. In my time here we’ve had Marxist uprisings (human heads stuck on the University railings), dengue epidemics, the odd tsunami and oh, a thirty-year civil war of course. The road I live on is probably one of the most bombed in the world – with four juicy ones in my time. I was on a bus back home when the biggest of these went off. If the bus had been five minutes earlier I would have arrived at the precise moment of explosion. Sixty people died. We found a thumb in the garden.  Years later that thumb worked its way into the first page of the first novel I ever wrote. But wars finish. Memories of tsunami fade away. And we here in Colombo turn the page and continue living: it’s what we do best , and something of a fine art for us because we’ve been on the knife-edge so long. Would I trade it in for a more just and equitable life, in a country with a higher gross national product? The trouble is, the GNP, the justice, the equitability, all come ready-mixed with grey skies and grey people: people who have no time for you because they are too busy being productive and just and equitable.  Any interest they may have in you will be purely professional, with an eye to their main chance not yours.

No, Colombo is the only place for me, I’m afraid. I would happily give up all the GNPs in the world for the sheer pleasure of not having to die alone, cold and unvisited, behind the locked doors of a grey flat. That third friend was more prescient than he knew. This is my home. This is where I will die.

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