Detailed Character Analysis of Radha Aunty in Funny Boy

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Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai

Radha Aunty is the youngest sister of Arjie’s father; she is the only open-minded family member, and that is why Arjie loves her the most. Radha Aunty returns from America, and soon falls in love with Anil, who is from the Sinhalese community. She wants to marry him but her family is hostile to the idea, so Ammachi is forced to send her to Jaffna to stay with other relatives. During her journey back from Jaffna to Colombo, her train is attacked by Sinhala fanatics. She breaks up with Anil and marries Rajan Nagendra, a safe Tamil choice.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Act 5 Scene 5 – Macbeth by William Shakespeare

These famous lines uttered by Macbeth when his life is about to end can be used to describe Radha Aunty’s life as well, who in spite of all her struggles against patriarchy, the politics of hate, and sectarianism, ends up being a champion of divisive forces. Though Radha Aunty is seen in only one chapter, in which she is the eponymous character, her significance in shaping Arjie’s life cannot be undermined. Radha Aunty comes into Arjie’s life at a stage when he is grappling to come to terms with himself as a pre- adolescence boy. The first chapter ends in a tragic note as Arjie realises that he is different from everybody else and is a misfit in
the heteropatriarchal society. Before running away from his to the seclusion of the beach, Arjie whispers to himself, “I hate them all” (Selvadurai, Fb, 38). While Arjie thinks that he would not be able to like anyone ever in his life, Radha Aunty changes his perception with her affability.

Even before her Arjie starts build an image of her in his head and in his imagination she is like the Sinhalese actress Malini Foneska. And that is why Arjie is a bit perplexed when he sees her for the first time, when he realises that she is a complete opposite-flat like a boy’-to the actress. The way Arjie imagines her in his head is a manifestation of how popular culture upholds and imputes people with certain beauty standards. That Radha Aunty does not match up to the image of the ideal female beauty is symbolically concomitant to her non-normative nature as well. Upon her arrival, it is learned that her marriage is arranged with Rajan Nagendra, an engineer from a reputable Tamil family, even before her return from America. However, she doesn’t conform to the roles that she is supposed to play and develops intimacy with a Sinhalese man, Anil Jayasinghe. Their relationship is initially not romantic in nature, but when Ammachi objects to their friendship, she gets radicalised and decides to get even closer to him. This non-conformist spirit is what fascinates Arjie about Radha Aunty. Though Arjie is not mature enough to realise it, her refusal to bow down in front of social convention is not merely an act of personal transgression but also carries severe political implications.

Arjie himself admits at the beginning of the chapter that Radha Aunty is different from other adults. He mentions that “[t]here was a cheerfulness about her that none of the other aunts and uncles had…” ((Selvadurai, Fb, 48). And this difference is even more palpable when she allows him to play with her make-up and pottus, and also dresses him up in a feminine way. Her understanding and appreciation of Arjie’s difference is also political act on her part, especially since ‘feminine’ boys are looked down upon by patriarchal society. By allowing Arjie to transcend the normative and oppressive gender identity for some moments, she, perhaps unconsciously, destabilises patriarchy and also sows the seed of Arjie’s future transgressive bodily acts.

Yet Radha Aunty’s transgression of proper gender roles and clothing are two aspects of her character that endear her to Arjie and forge a close affiliation between the two. As Chandan Reddy observes:

Queers of color, as subjects located at the intersection of multiple hailings, thematize the ways in which the conflicting, noncorrespondent, and overlapping constitutive interpellations of race, gender, and sexuality form cultural subjects whose potential lies precisely in their ‘confusion’ or ‘fusion’ of more than one determination within a singular subject.

Reddy’s observation that ‘queers of color’ are located where ‘multiple hailings’ and ‘overlapping constitutive interpellations’ of various identities intersect coalesces on Selvadurai’s description of Radha Aunty through Arjie’s point of view. As we later learn, Radha Aunty pays for her visible difference when her return train to Colombo is attacked by an angry Sinhalese mob at the Anuradhapura train station after a market in Jaffna is torched. Arjie narrates,

I forgot about my errand for a moment and stood listening to him [Mr. Rasiah] tell how Radha Aunty had been assaulted by two men, one carrying a stick and the other a belt, and how he had managed to save her because he spoke good Sinhalese and the men had believed that he was Sinhalese…The scene he had described, the bottles being flung, the beatings, seemed unreal.

As a result of this attack, Radha Aunty’s family imposes a harsh sentence. She is promptly matched and married to a socially mobile Tamil named Rajan Nagendra, as a means of deftly cutting off the clandestine love affair developing between her and Anil Jayasinghe, a Sinhalese admirer for whom Radha Aunty reciprocates romantic feelings. Radha Aunty’s gender transgression, like Arjie’s, comes early in the novel and thus sets the tone as to how the many articulations of violence around language and identity become significant to disciplinary spaces, on the one hand, and heterotopic spaces that challenge the norms of certain areas. These areas range from the yards that lie before and behind the heteronormative domestic sphere of the Tamil home to the national transgression of Jaffna and the northern territories that are claimed by the LTTE. In this context, Radha Aunty’s marriage to Nagendra can be read in the larger purview of the narrative as a heteronormative, nationalist attempt on both sides to reign in transgressive behaviours like
interracial sex and marriage; Radha Aunty’s love for her Sinhalese lover Anil is decisively prohibited and put to an end as a matter of heteronormative family policy

In order to separate her from Anil, Ammachi sends her to Jaffna to her cousin’s house, but on her return journey her train is attacked and she is left physically injured and psychologically scarred. When she returns, much to Arjie’s bafflement, she is a changed woman. Whenever Anil comes to inquire about her he is sent away disappointed. Later when she recovers from her physical pain and joins the theatre group for rehearsals, she doesn’t allow Anil to get close to her. Since Radha Aunty is the one who teaches Arjie the value and essence of being non-conformist, it is disappointing to see the way a violent event inspires her to call off his relationship with Anil. Though Arjie thought that love is the most beautiful and powerful feeling in the world, Radha Aunty’s transformation from a cheerful woman to a harsh, sombre woman teaches him that in this world hatred and violence prevail over love a reality that stays with him throughout the novel. Aries growth alongside Radha Aunty makes him realise that real life marriages are seldom magical, rather they are a compromise, a social contract; and Radha Aunty’s marriage with Rajan, a man she never loved, teaches him this value in a very harsh manner.

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