05 September 2013

The Professional by Ashok Ferrey

Jolly good

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book is the fact that its two heroes, who are so very different from each other, turn out to be the same person. It was a reminder of a fact we hardly ever acknowledge: that when we tell our own stories, we are actually telling the stories of the many different people we have been at different points in our lives. This device is beautifully done in The Professional.
In fact, this well-crafted and light-hearted book carries any number of such philosophical insights. The essential reality of being a ‘Professional’, for instance, highlights the critical link between our working and personal lives. How much of yourself should you really give? Chamath encounters this complexity in his chosen line of oldest profession in the world. Some of what he thinks and feels could even be adapted into a textbook on sex education:
If he was truly honest with himself, power was one of the reasons he liked his work as a professional so much. He had come to realise that often, sex was the least important part of a client’s requirements. What they really wanted was for you to possess their soul, take responsibility for their actions and inactions, justify their excesses, condone their weaknesses. 
This question of loneliness was beginning to bother him. He had neither less nor more friends now than he had ever had. So why did he feel so alone? The answer came to him. It’s the company I keep at night, he thought, the lives of complete strangers I am paid to inhabit, four hours at a time. It’s addictive. The more I have the more I need. It’s withdrawal symptoms I’m suffering from, not loneliness. And the sex? Is that addictive too? He felt a small stirring. Yes. The sex is addictive too.
Chamath has been educated at Oxford and the resulting manner in which he speaks can be an advantage but it can also be just an oddity. However, it doesn’t stop someone, at a high society ball, from flagging him down: 
“Waiter,” he says. “Waiter! Two whisky and sodas over here, please.” And although you’ve been used to this all your London life, it’s still a knife in your back when it happens.
Colour is just as important in Sri Lanka too: 
“Your brother’s very loud, isn’t he?” said Mr Gunapala.
“He’s not my brother.”
“Quite right,” said Mr Gunapala approvingly. He looked from one of them to the other. “Anyway, you’re much much darker than him. Have you tried Fair & Lovely?
“No,” said Chamath. “Now that you mention it, maybe I’ll give it a go.”
So this book is not just thought-provoking, it’s funny too. A blurb at the back by Shyam Selvadurai tells us that “Ferrey brings the greed and manic energy of the Thatcher era vividly to life.” To me, it was also quite a commentary on the hilarious aspects of the Third World. On our visits to Sri Lanka we see that Sakuntala’s housework was strangely like justice itself: more important that it was seen to be done than to actually be done. The landladies are Bar and Gin, daughters of the erstwhile Ginger Beer King of Bambalapatiya, and their lifestyle and banter as classic and endearing as those of Thomson and Thompson.
Back in London, Chamath visits his MP’s office. Among the stampeding charge of Afghans and Somalis, he tries to maintain a dignified pace, as a result of which he ends up with ticket number 47, ahead of two heavily pregnant women and a blind man with a cane. 
The smoke of yesterday’s immigrants still hangs heavy in the air and the carpet holds the remains of a hundred impromptu picnics. There were rows of benches without backs (Lean back? Just where do you think you are?) and the fifty-odd candidates settled themselves in for the long haul. There were others coming in now, thick and fast, and the ones on the benches looked at them with ineffable superiority. (Even the blind man tapped his cane in a superior manner.)
In another scene, Chamath lies alone on the floor of his most-preferred clients’ sitting room and muses:
In the last twenty-four hours they’ve each warned me off against the other. There’s a turf war going on here. I am a small Third World country over which two superpowers are vying for supremacy, each slightly jealous of the other. I am happy for it to be this way. But I must be careful not to play one off against the other, causing war. There was a smile on his face as he closed his eyes. I could be a metaphor for Sri Lanka itself, he thought.
I enjoyed this book thoroughly and was all set to give it an enormous thumbs-up when, towards the end, it began to disappoint. I felt it was sliding to a horribly predictable end. For a while I tried to talk myself out of the disappointment, reasoning that very often others can see where we are heading before we see it ourselves and this could just be another of the clever strokes by the extremely talented Ashok Ferrey. However, I did feel let down by the ending – though not so let down that I couldn’t declare that I enjoyed this book thoroughly.
One amusing observation in my mind as I read, and even when I finished this book, was the strong aesthetic resonance here with the work of both Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif and Indian writer Manu Joseph, and how very nice it was to have these charming torchbearers of wit in literary fiction for three neighbouring countries that sometimes have their differences.