In Graham Greene’s 1938 classic Brighton Rock, seventeen-year-old Pinkie Brown finds “Heaven was a word: hell was something he could trust”. Pinkie is a callous murderer and a Catholic who abhors smoking and drinking and finds any kind of sexual gratification sinful. He is a walking contradiction and highly aware about his damnation; being evil is a role he has to take up, he knows no other way.
Pinkie marries Rose under the pretext of love to prevent her from testifying against him. Rose, a devout Catholic herself, is pulled into Pinkie’s callow ideas of sin and damnation and believes “…if they damned him they’d got to damn her, too” because love, the eternal means of salvation, would perhaps save them both at the end. She is confronted about the farce that her marriage is and Pinkie’s true nature by Ida, a believer in moral right and wrongs than in heaven or hell:
I know one thing you don’t. I know the difference between Right and Wrong. They didn’t teach you that at school.”
Rose didn’t answer; the woman was quite right: the two words meant nothing to her. Their taste was extinguished by stronger foods- Good and Evil. The woman could tell her nothing she didn’t know about these- she knew by tests as clear as mathematics that Pinkie was evil- what did it matter in that case whether he was right or wrong?
Rose wonders, does morality stand any chance in the conflict between good and evil? Are the rights and wrongs rudimentary manifestations of good and evil? Is there a clear dichotomy between them? Perhaps they are not mutually exclusive. Can evil exist in tandem with goodness within a person?
Sri Lanka-based writer Ashok Ferrey counts Graham Greene as one of the writers he looks for inspiration, among R.K.Narayan, Muriel Spark, and Evelyn Waugh. He finds inspiration in their simple prose and specifically, “…their constant attempts to wrestle with the qualities of good and evil that exist side by side in every man.” This co-habitation of good and evil forms the crux of Ferrey’s latest work of fiction, the onomatopoeically titled, The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons.
The protagonist Sonny Mahadewala grows up with a “great burden of ugliness” on his shoulders and possessed by unknown evils, a belief reinforced by his mother. A bad bout of throat infection is mistaken for a demon possession.
“Those days, there were many demons said to be flying about the hillsides of the walauwa and I had a big mouth, so it was quite possible that one had just slipped in while it was open.”
So at the age of six, Sonny Mahadewala goes through an extravagant exorcism ritual and his mother’s indifference.
Clarice Mahadewala Kumarihamy is Sonny’s mother, the matriarch of the Mahadewala Walauwa of Kandy in Sri Lanka and a believer in demonry and necromancy. She is the anti-heroine of the story whose wickedness runs to the core of her being. For her, like Greene’s Pinkie, it is a role essential to be played for the world to make sense:
“The Kumarihamy recognized it was tough being wicked all the time—but someone had to do it. If wickedness and evil did not exist, you would be forced to invent them, if only to highlight and burnish that much duller alternative, the concept of good. Good without evil was like day without night; in other words, no day at all. Where would we all end up if we went round drooling goodwill at each other out of the corners of our mouths?”
The Kumarihamy grips hard at the tethers of a fading glorious past, while her only offspring, Sonny, goes off to Oxford to wrench himself from his Kandyan roots where “conventional religions were happy bedfellows of prehistoric rites”, escape the demons inhabiting him, and be away from his mother’s dubious affections.
But demons are not hard to get way from. Lurking in the hallowed chapels of Oxford is the Devil himself sent Upstairs on a recruitment drive, for the affairs of Hell were going astray. He chances upon the hymn “From Greenland’s Icy Mountain”:
What though the spicy breezes blow o’er Ceylon’s isle
Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile.
He overhears a conversation of a young couple about Kandy and decides to try out his evil prospects in the midst of the tropical climate of Sri Lanka. In all his stories, Ferrey follows a circular plot: coming back to where it all begins, the karmic circle. Unwittingly, Sonny hands over his fate to the Devil.Although, he flies off to Oxford, fate brings him back to Kandy, in the eye of the storm. The Devil unleashes his macabre schemes on the Kumarihamy’s grand and crumbling household, much to the chagrin of Lord Bhairava, the “true ruler of evil” in Kandy. They clash, the hoof-footed dressed-in-red Devil from the Old Testament with his sardonic manners and the colorful four-headed and ill-tempered Bhairava from the Vedas.
Suffused in Ferrey’s ironic humor, The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons is perplexing as the central character Sonny himself. Sonny is caught between the old and the new: his English life with his privileged American wife and the ancestral home back in Kandy, the one he tries to run away from and yet yearns for. He tries to reconcile the concept of good and evil of his adoptive country and the country he left behind: a Western detached nuanced idea as opposed to a clear segregated demons-and-angels idea of the East. Unlike Rose in Brighton Rock, Sonny’s ideas of good and evil, right and wrongs are convoluted:
As for this question of evil, I had been taught by the Church that you never achieve a good result through evil means. This worries me deeply; was it worth shooting one man to save the lives of a hundred others? If not, then how could you justify war? [ … ] And how about the reverse: could you, with the best of intentions, end up accidentally committing evil? If so, did the evil of the deed rub off on you, did your Teflon-coated goodness leave you pure even if the deed itself were dire?
The truth Sonny learns is far from beautiful; it is as ugly as the untruth. Ferrey’s characters show, it is not just the inherently wicked who are culpable of wrongdoing. However, unlike real life, they find redemption and perfect poetic justice prevails. That’s fiction for you.