Sri Lankan readers suffer from island mindset, says author

June 16th, 2012 - 12:46 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, June 16 (IANS) Islands breed their own kind of somnolence. People would rather stand at their gates watching life pass by than read a book, says contemporary Sri Lankan writer and popular television arts show host Ashok Ferrey of his country.

“Sri Lanka does not have enough people to read. They would rather read to clear the A-level examination than read a book for pure pleasure,” Ferrey told IANS at a recent literature conclave here.

Ferrey, the author of two acclaimed novels “Serendipity” and “The Good Little Ceylonese Girl” as well as two anthologies of short stories, “The Colpetty People” and “Love in Tsunami”, is also the host of the “Ashok Ferrey Arts Show”, branded by critics as a “one-of-its-kind” of arts television programme in South Asia.

Ferrey sees a dichotomy in the Sri Lankan literary scene. The country has over the years produced formidable Anglo-Ceylonese writers like Michael Ondaatje, Shyam Selvadurai, Shehan Karunatilaka, Gertrude De Livera, Romesh Gunasekera and Nira Wickramasinghe among others. But Ferrey feels “the awareness of reading as a means of entertainment, knowledge and creative past-time has not been allowed to foster”.

The 30-year civil war in the country has destroyed the culture of reading that existed in the 1970s with its legacy of fear, violence and short attention spans - caused by trauma, the writer believes.

Television acts as a stepping stone to generate interest about arts and literature among youngsters because they find it easy to relate to visuals, says Ferrey.

“I interview painters, writers and singers - mostly young talent who form Sri Lanka’s emerging post-war arts fraternity. The shows are humorous. I use unconventional styles to interview my guests to grab eyeballs and draw new segments of audience to culture,” Ferrey said.

Comparing the literary consciousness in India and Sri Lanka, he said: “In India, books are important; but in Sri Lanka they would rather buy a fast car. Most people have no books on their shelf… They might have a radio. Call it the small island mentality. Life is supremely satisfying. All that you are looking forward to is your next meal… It is that general feeling of being laid back.”

There are other points of departures with India as well.

“Life is hard in India… Life is hard in the west. It is rigorous and disciplined. You are interested in brain food. It influences the literature of the two countries,” he said.

One reason why Sri Lankan literature has not been able to evolve into a refined art is the education system of the country, which the writer says “was creaking at the joints”.

“Education is free and the system can’t cope. Some groups of people oppose private universities. But these groups send their wards abroad. Once they go abroad, they don’t come back.”

The maverick writer, like all other young men of his generation in Sri Lanka, went to a boarding school in England and studied pure math at Oxford, but says “he chose to return home in 1988 to write in English like a colonised master”.

Ferrey, who has put in fingers into a variety of odd jobs, likes to describe himself as “failed builder, indifferent mathematician, barman, unpaid film extra and personal trainer to the rich and famous”. He builds his brawns (muscles) and abs in leisure.

Ferrey’s new collection of short stories , “Love in Tsunami” published by Penguin Books in May, is a chronicle of death and hope brought by the 2004 killer waves.

“Very few writers have written about the tsunami. It involved somebody’s mother, somebody’s aunt…I think it is the real reason I wrote the book. Everyone had a story to write about the man in combat. All the stories in the new book have death featuring in some form. It is a ghost of an idea,” he said.

Ferrey has been one of the early protagonists of Galle Literary Festival - Sri Lanka’s official fine print carnival.

“Five friends conceived it in my home three years ago and an eccentric English millionaire based in Sri Lanka, Geoffrey Dobbs, agreed to pump money - under severe opposition from everyone including the Sri Lankan academia because it felt threatened,” the 50-something Ferrey (he refused to divulge his age) said.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at

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