A coming-of-age story revolves around the growth and development of a protagonist, from adolescence to adulthood. There are many themes that distinguish this sort of story but one of them is the theme of exile. Funny Boy is such a coming-of-age story. It follows the protagonist Arjie’s growth from a boy of seven years into his late teens. It is a story about exiles on several levels. The novel’s author Shyam Selvadurai uses the term much more literarily and the turning points in Arjie’s life are much more multifaceted than in a traditional coming-of-age story.
The novel is so much more than an individual personal journey. Arjie is a boy who is trying to come to terms with his own homosexuality in the context of Sri Lanka, a country that is full of ethnic tensions between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, as well as in the context of his own very traditional patriarchal family. He gets exiled from the world of the girls and “the free play of fantasy” (3) which forces him into the world of the boys, a world which he cannot come to terms with. The conflict between the two different ethnic groups also causes him to go into exile, together with his family, to Canada. Thus, Selvadurai chooses to focus on more than the protagonist’s lost childhood and innocence. He lets the novel, and Arjie, explore conflicts and issues concerning racism and sexual identity, both within the family and within the country. In other words, it is a multifaceted novel with many crucial turning points, both in regards to sexuality and ethnicity, and the two are equally important in order to understand the world and life of Arjun “Arjie” Chelvaratnam.
Before Arjie is even aware of the repercussions of his “tendencies,” any un-stereotypical gender inclinations he may have are discouraged by his family. His parents (particularly his father), out of fear that he will turn out “funny,” forbid him from playing “bride-bride”. However, when playing with the boy children proves equally problematic because of his “girlie-boy” (25) status, thus separating him from the possibility of being either a girl or a boy. Gender stereotypes imposed by his family explicitly demarcate the separate worlds of boy and girl, leaving Arjie “caught between the boys’ and the girls’ worlds, not belonging or wanted in either” (39). Within these early episodes, Arjie’s sexuality is negotiated solely within the confines of gender, male and female. His exclusion from both the boys and girls suggests that Arjie himself inhabits some third space in between these two, but that third space is merely described as funny and never named. Just as the space Arjie occupies between male and female is not clearly defined, so too are the words employed to describe this space vague and shifting.
Set in the author’s native Sri Lanka, the novel follows the progress of a boy named Arjie from
childhood through adolescence in six chapters that work like interrelated stories. The first, entitled “Pigs Can’t Fly,” centers on a pageant the children call “bride-bride,” in which 7-year-old Arjie dresses in a sequined wedding sari. While the other boys are busy at cricket, he reveals in the “free play of fantasy” this game allows him. “I was able to leave the constraints of my self,” he explains, “and ascend into another, more brilliant, more beautiful self.”
In a family where the men, including his father, are distant and business-like, a capacity for
intimacy and an appreciation of beauty are feminine attributes. Arjie feels closest to his mother when he watches her dress up for parties, making herself as elegant as the cinema goddesses he adores.
But the little boy’s idyll, like all states of innocence, must come to an end. And it’s not long before the older members of Arjie’s family try to force him to take up more masculine pursuits. The results, as one might expect, are sometimes amusing, sometimes sad and always futile. By the book’s end, Arjie may have left behind his dreamy childhood fantasies, but he’s well on his way to accepting himself as a homosexual. He has also become a confirmed rebel against all forms of hypocrisy.
Yet “Funny Boy” is a great deal more than a gay coming-of-age novel, for Arjie’s loss of innocence is as much a political process as a personal one. The action takes place in the 1970’s, when Sri Lanka, a land of breathtaking tropical beauty, has become bitterly divided by ethnic tensions between the Tamil community, descended from Hindu tea-plantation workers brought from India in the 19th century, and the Buddhist Sinhalese, who outnumber the Tamils almost five to one. Though wealthy and close-knit, Arjie’s Tamil family cannot insulate itself from the hatred politicians are stirring up against this vulnerable minority. For some of Arjie’s compatriots, ethnic identity has become a death warrant.
In one story, he watches helplessly as his vivacious young aunt’s love for a Sinhalese man is
destroyed by community prejudice. In another, violence disrupts his mother’s relationship with a reporter investigating abuses of Government power. Seeking to learn whether her lover has been murdered, she discovers that a police official, a man who plays squash with her husband, is one of those responsible for the torture of suspected Tamil dissidents. The extent of the upper class’s ignorance about the plight of the poor — who are the Government’s main victims — becomes clear when Arjie and his mother are chased out of a peasant village. Seeking information about the reporter, she has inadvertently risked exposing the local people to brutal violence.
In the book’s longest story, political and personal issues become tightly interwoven as Arjie’s
father enrolls him in an elite colonial-style school that he hopes will make a man of his son. It
does, in a way: Arjie, now 14, falls in love with a Sinhalese boy and suddenly finds himself caught up in the bitter political tensions that divide both students and teachers. When the sadistic headmaster tries to make Arjie a pawn in his own power struggle, Arjie plots to defeat him and at the same time save his friend from persecution. For a brief moment, love triumphs over ethnic strife, but reality soon sets in. Outside the school walls, mobs are approaching Arjie’s beautiful home with torches blazing. What’s left of his innocence goes up in flames.
Throughout “Funny Boy,” Shyam Selvadurai writes as sensitively about the emotional intensity of adolescence as he does about the wonder of childhood. He also paints an affectionate picture of an imperfect family in a lost paradise, struggling to stay together in troubled times. Arjie’s parents and relatives may not be able to understand his inability to fit into a conventional sexual identity — but he learns that despite this, he can always count on their love.