Selvadurai’s debut novel, Funny Boy explores a Sri-Lankan Tamil boy’s life and his transition to adolescence as he comes to terms with his sexual identity. Set against the backdrop of the Sri-Lankan civil war, the book explores themes like homosexuality, nationality, identity, and violence. Selvadurai masterfully connects Arjie’s life story with the politics of post-colonial Sri Lanka which was steeped in ethnic rivalries, political tensions, and communal violence between the Sinhala and Tamil communities.
The plot of Funny Boy revolves around the early years of little Arjun Chelvaratnam aka Arjie, who undergoes the realization about his true sexuality during his formative years. Buildungsroman novels explore the character’s premature years where they go through physical and moral transformation. The German word ‘Buildungsroman‘ means ‘novel of education’. So it can be estimated that such novels contain a prime character who is generally a young one, gaining knowledge and education in his/her early years. In Funny Boy, Arjie is in the midway of childhood and adolescence when he realizes certain secrets about his life. He
realizes about his homosexuality when he befriends another queer boy Shehan in his boarding school.
Arjie, the 7-year-old protagonist, is the narrator, and we see the story through the innocent eyes of a child. Others, especially his father and elder brother, see him as a ‘funny boy.’ Arjie prefers the company of his sister, and female cousins. Dressing up in a sari, and playing ‘bride-bride’ during spend-the-days at his grandparents’ home excites him more than roughing it out with the boys. As he grows, he comes to terms with his sexual orientation.
Arjie is a sensitive and observant child, and becomes his mother’s and aunt’s confidante. Being in close company of adults, and eavesdropping often, he is privy to matters which his siblings aren’t aware of. This exposure increases his understanding of the world of adults, and makes him conscious of his race, troubled relationships, political loyalties, and the underlying tension. In this novel, Arjie is referred to as a ‘Funny Boy’ because of his queer behavior. Even though he didn’t understand well about the reason behind the elders’ conduct during his childhood years, he finally gains the maturity to realize it. Homosexuality was considered as a taboo in the society back then, hence the elders regarded him as ‘Funny’ which meant to be a joke in the society. Arjie spent his childhood evaluating this confusion before he could attain maturity to fully accept the truth.
Arjie’s perspective makes the readers question their hypocrisies and thought processes. It is through Arjie’s clean slate mind that we realize how ridiculous societal norms are. As a child, he feels stifled when these norms are imposed on him, he refuses to exist in heteronormative binaries. Arjie is never personally confused about his identity. He however fails to understand why society wants to push him into rigid categories. Arjie finds a friend in his father’s sister, Radha aunty, who takes him to drama practices and movie theatres. Arjie
becomes an accomplice in his aunt’s secret love affair when she falls in love with a Sinhala boy. His aunt is forced to keep it a secret from her family because Sinhalese killed her grandfather in the fifties’ language riots. The affair comes to an abrupt end when Radha aunty is brutally injured in a riot and realizes that despite her wishes, she cannot marry a Sinhalese. This event makes Arjie understand that history dictates the present reality, and that love isn’t enough for two people to be together.
Suggested Reading :Significance of the Title Funny Boy – Detailed Answer
Arjie’s romantic understanding of love and marriage is shattered when he learns of the tensions in his parent’s relationship. He soon finds himself in the middle of a clandestine affair between his mother and her old lover Daryl, a journalist with mixed ancestry, who returns to Sri Lanka from Australia. When Daryl uncle, half Portuguese, is killed in Jaffna, Arjie’s mother is scared and anxious. On the one hand, she wants to bring justice to her lover, but on the other, she is concerned about her family. Scared that a police investigation will
draw unnecessary attention toward her Tamil family, a minority in Sri Lanka, she is forced to stop her investigation regarding Daryl’s mysterious death. The story ends with Arjie’srealization that there exist forces bigger and more powerful than him, or his family. Each chapter signals an end and a beginning in Arjie’s life, as he learns new things about his world and realizes that it is not as simple as it had seemed when he was young. Arjie’s growth also becomes visible through the narration. As he ages, his understanding of the world shifts from naive and inconclusive observations to nuanced realizations. He forms his opinions and soon begins to understand why his family used to call him a “funny boy.”
In Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, the child narrator draws readers into the characters and problems that we can recognize in any family. The child’s point of view offers a simple writing style and understanding of the novel, yet the reader is able to uncover complexities revolving around the novel. The personal and the political are intertwined in this novel as the recognition of Arjie’s own sexuality, is linked with the political tensions of Sri Lanka during this time. Funny Boy breaks boundaries in it telling of the homosexuality of the young protagonist, Arjie. The story follows Arjie’s awakening as a homosexual living in Sri Lanka. There are many things that Arjie does not know throughout the story, and just as Arjie is learning of these things, so is the reader. The child’s curiosity is privileged here as the lessons from his father on racism and the tensions between the Tamils and the Sinhalese allow for the reader to understand the background information in the formation of Arjie’s character. Selvadurai, while feeding Arjie’s curiosity in response to the things he is uncertain about, is also addressing the reader and bridging the gaps of Sri Lanka’s history and the social realities during the time. Arjie’s realization that his lover, Shehan, is a Sinhalese is the moment when the reader is aware that he has diminished some of the boundaries that society has put in place. The innocence of Arjie as a child in need of explanations in order to understand the world around him allows for the reader to be presented with essentially both sides of the historical, political, social and cultural aspects surrounding the situation. The first explanation we receive of the differences between Tamil and Sinhalese is when Anil brings home Rhadha Aunty. When Rhada Aunty tells her mother his name, her mother immediately responds that
he is Sinhalese and that she shouldn’t be seen with him for what people might assume. Although Arjie is aware of this conversation, by following his desires, he is breaking boundaries of the political, cultural and social and weakening his relationship with his family by being with Shehan. The recognition that Shehan is Sinhalese occurs in the journal at the end of the novel, where Arjie is no longer a child and has experienced the world to makes adequate choices for himself knowing the consequences of his action. The reader is aware
of Arjie’s sexual confusion at the beginning of the novel, yet Arjie himself is unaware of this. This is characteristic of children, they know what they want, yet they do not know why they want it. Arjie knows that he wants to play with girls rather than boys, yet he isn’t exactly sure why in the beginning of the novel.
Arjie’s sexual awakening finally happens at Victoria Academy, an elite all-boys colonial-style school. His father, the patriarch of the Chelvaratnam family admits him to this new school because Arjie’s “feminine tendencies” threaten the dominant hetero-patriarchal social order. However, rather than confronting this, the book reestablishes the social order. His father believes that at Victoria Academy Arjie will finally “turn into a man.” For Arjie’s family, his “funniness” is just a phase that he is taking time to outgrow. Interestingly, in the book Arjie doesn’t come out to his family. His sexual identity is never explicitly stated by the author, but
the word “funny” is used to hint at it. This may have been because homosexuality was, and still is a criminal offense according to Article 365 and 365 A of the Sri Lankan Penal Code with up to ten years of jail. Through Arjie, Selvadurai expertly expresses the anxieties surrounding gender non-conformity in Sri Lanka’s patriarchal society.
Arjie quickly realizes that practices falling outside of normative gender boundaries are subject to punishment. As a child, Arjie finds himself aligned spatially and bodily with the feminine. He reflects, “Territorially, the area around my grandparents’ house was divided into two […] The second territory was called ‘the girls’, included in which, however, was myself, a boy.” (Selvadurai 3). Within this space, Arjie performs a gendered identity that falls outside of the expected boundaries of “male” and “heterosexual”. His participation as the title subject in the game “bride-bride” involves his marriage to a hypothetical groom and cross dressing in order to embody a female. These “queer” activities, however, make Arjie the object of shame once his queerness becomes visible to his adult family. He details the experience of being discovered by his family, saying: “They gazed at me in amazement as if I had suddenly made myself visible, like a spirit […] I lowered my eyes. The sari suddenly felt suffocating around my body, and the hairpins, which held the veil in place, pricked at my scalp” (13). Here, the clothing Arjie uses to transcend the boundaries of gender is, quite literally, confining as the material embodiment of shame: his cross-dressing is the target of ridicule by his family.
Following this incident, Arjie is “banned” from spaces designated to be female: particularly his mother’s room, wherein his ritual of watching her dress and apply makeup is denied (16). This shaming results in Arjie’s personal trauma: he experiences confusion and humiliation because his actions fall outside “acceptable” identity boundaries.
Later, Arjie physically transgresses the boundaries defining ideal gender and heterosexual identities. This time, however, his desires align him with another male body. He begins an illicit love relationship with his classmate, Shehan. It is important to note, as well, that this relationship also transgresses boundaries of ethnic identity: Shehan is Sinhalese while Arjie is Tamil, and their desiring relationship occurs within a national context wherein conflict between the two ethnicities is heightened. Arjie experiences his sexual awakening
through his relationship with Shehan, in which his desires for a relationship outside of heterosexual boundaries can be realized. He says, “The difference within me that I sometimes felt I had […] it was shared by Shehan. I was amazed that a normal thing – like my friendship with Shehan – could have such powerful and hidden possibilities” (256). Though Arjie is aware of the ridicule he faces for entering into such a relationship with Shehan, Arjie is excited to explore the site of “difference”- a queer solidarity- that he and Shehan share.
Unfortunately, the pressure to perform heterosexual norms under national prerogatives of state maintenance cause Arjie shame because of his illicit desire. Following their first sexual experience, Arjie is anxious that his family will discover their behaviour and he reflects later, “[I was] torn between my desire for Shehan and disgust at that desire” (266). Here, Arjie reflects that within the discourses of acceptable performance in Sri Lanka and his family unit, queer desires are shameful.
Adding to this trauma at the hands of gendered boundaries is Arjie and Shehan’s ultimate separation due to ethnic difference. At their final encounter, prior to Arjie’s diaspora to Canada to escape Tamil persecution at the hands of Sinhalese, Arjie says “”I dreaded our parting so much that, for fear of pain, I had withdrawn from him” (310). Here, Arjie’s personal trauma is a result of the ethnic boundaries of identity that separate he and Shehan. Thus, Arjie’s performances outside of what is considered acceptable heterosexual, masculine and Tamil behaviour results in his personal traumas of being separated from his love relationship,
excluded from particular spaces, and shamed at his queer desires.
Arjie questions many things throughout the novel, things that the novel suggests as acceptable for only children to question, yet at times this is even problematic. Arjie’s question to his father about racism shows that it isn’t something that should be questioned, rather it is something that has been put in place, and society is to adhere to its ideals. Arjie’s father says when asked about racism, “It’s too hard to explain. You’ll understand when you’re older.” (Selvaduri 61) This statement suggests that children do not have the capacity to understand complex issues, yet it is juxtaposed through the child narrator in which readers are able to see the world through a different, more objective perspective. By questioning such ideals and notions, Arjie is enabling the reader to do the same thing. It would seen almost unacceptable for an adult to questions something such as racism, as they are aware of the way society enables the individual to ‘accept’ the notions that have been put in place, however, the curiosity and innocent nature of the child is an appropriate means to asking such questions. A similar thing happens when Arjie asks Amma why he can’t play with the girls. Amma answers, “Life is full of stupid things and sometimes you just have to do them.” (20) Arjie is weakening theses boundaries without even realizing it. The reader is able to recognize Arjie’s attempts to understand the world around him as breaking down the boundaries that have been imposed through the political, historical, cultural and social systems. We see Arjie’s breaking boundaries during ‘spend-the-days’ when his extended family gathers at his grandparent’s house. Arjie is the only boy in the family that does not play cricket with the boys, rather he prefers to play dress-up with the girls. Unconsciously Arjie is refusing social order and rules, moving towards imagination and the freedom of choice.
At thirteen, Arjie is sufficiently quick-witted to understand the relationship between Amma and Daryl Uncle. He is receptive to the hints the Police Inspector drops and, more so, quite mature and patient in empathizing with Amma’s situation. In fact, there is no reaction whatsoever on Arjie’s part, upon his realization of Amma’s closeness to Daryl Uncle. He is also equally perceptive to Jegan’s (probable) homosexual status – to the one hesitant pause Jegan makes in an entire chapter, where he refers to a friend tortured by the state militia, to whom he was “close”. In none of these instances is Arjie found to be sentimental or judgmental, and thus demonstrates a curious and abnormal state of mind for a young adolescent. This, in spite of Arjie, in general, being an emotional and receptive young person.
The most powerful moment of Selvadurai’s novel is the relationship between Shehan Soyza and Arjie: a relationship which is often reduced by readers’ glossing over the sexual dimension it represents (which, to be fair, is a rudimentary mention of a deeper portrayal). There is a very strong and memorable life-like halo to the origin, the development and the abrupt falling apart of that relationship, which makes it one of the high points of Selvadurai’s achievement. Arjie also develops a more complex moral outlook during the book. Although the book ends with Arjie’s move to Canada at a relatively young age, he sees and experiences a lifetime’s worth of turmoil and injustice during his youth, which clearly instills in him both a sense of moral purpose and an instinct for pursuing that moral purpose carefully and realistically.