Funny Boy Summary by Shyam Selvadurai
An Introduction to Funny Boy:
Funny Boy is a coming-of-age novel by Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai. First published by McClelland and Stewart in September 1994, the novel won the Lambda Literary Award for gay male fiction and the Books in Canada First Novel Award.
Set in Sri Lanka where Selvadurai grew up, Funny Boy is constructed in the form of six poignant stories about a boy coming to age within a wealthy Tamil family in Colombo. Between the ages of seven and fourteen, he explores his sexual identity, and encounters the Sinhala-Tamil tensions leading up to the 1983 riots.
Background History of Funny Boy:
Funny Boy is the first novel published by openly gay Sri Lankan writer Shyam Selvadurai. Of mixed Tamil and Sinhala heritage, Selvadurai joined his family in their decision to immigrate to Canada in 1983 in the wake of rioting stimulated partly by the racial divide, essentially pitting his own multiculturalism against a full-blooded ancestry. Selvadurai’s decision to live openly as a homosexual also places him at odds against the conventional views of Sri Lankan society.
This outsider status doubtlessly informed his first novel and perhaps was also partly responsible for the extent to which the stories which comprise the book resonated among those who saw fit to honor Funny Boy with the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award. In addition to that honor, Funny Boy was also recognized south of the border with the Lambda Literary Award and by the American Library Association’s choice to name it one of their Notable Books of the year.
Funny Boy is suggestively informed by the autobiographical similarities of the life of its author; its narrative takes the form of six self-contained yet linked stories about a boy growing up in a wealthy Tamil family coming to terms with his own sexuality as well as the political turmoil surrounding him as he matures from a pre-pubescent 7 year old into a teenager. These coming-of-age stories lead inexorably toward what was also a defining historical moment in the life of the author: those 1983 explosion of simmering tensions between Sinhala and Tamil ethnic cultures into full-blown violent rioting which came to be known as Black July. Black July has come to be marked as the commencement of the Sri Lankan Civil War, which Shyam Selvadurai managed to escape along with his family.
While Funny Boy covers issues directly related to the known facts of the life of its author, including homosexuality and Black July, Shyam Selvadurai has consistently rejected attempts to situate his novel firmly within the realm of thinly veiled autobiography-as-fiction, insisting that the specific factual incidents of his life are markedly different from those of his novel’s protagonist.
The Story of Funny Boy:
Funny Boy is a story about a seven year old boy Arjun (Arjie) who goes on to experience not only the ups and downs that accompany the discovery of one’s sexuality but also the harsh reality of the real world. Told by the point of view of Arjie, Funny Boy is not just about the taboo topic of homosexuality in a close-minded society, it is also a story that tells how political and regional conflicts affect people’s lives. Though Arjie’s homosexuality and how he understands it and deals with it are some of the important themes in the story, the political conflict between the Tamils and Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka where Arjie resides with his family also play a very important role in shaping the story. It tells the readers about the sufferings of people from both sides since Arjie is from a mixed Tamil/ Sinhalese family and since the narrator is Arjie himself, we get a personal view of these conflicts affecting innocent people caught in the crossfire.
Divided into six chapters, the first few parts capture Arjie’s childhood and recall the various episodes that introduce the whole family and the protagonist Arjie himself. The later chapters start to focus on the political tension brewing up in the nation and Arjie’s discovery of his own sexuality.
The first story, “Pigs Can’t Fly,” takes place during the “spend the days.” The grandchildren of the family are playing a favorite game of theirs called “bride-bride” where Arjie is always the bride and the girls love it when because he plays the part so well and see nothing wrong with it. However, the peace is soon disrupted when Arjie and all his female cousins are playing, but Tanuja, nicknamed Her Fatness, refuses to let Arjie be the bride. The rest of the girls take Arjie’s side and shoo away Tanuja which leads to Tanuja’s mother, Aunty Kanthy to come to see what was the matter. She sees
Arjie dressed up in a saree and cruelly drags him to the living room where everyone is gathered. Seeing Arjie, a boy, dressed up in saree and playing a game meant for girls, his parents are embarrassed. An uncle calls Arjie “a funny one.” His mother explains that he cannot play with the girls anymore because “the sky is so high and pigs can’t fly, that’s why.”
In “Radha Aunty,” Radha Aunty has returned from America. Though she is not all what Arjie had imagined her to be, she and Arjie quickly become close, and are involved in a performance of The King and I. Rajan Nagendra, an acquaintance of Radha Aunty proposes to Radha, but she is reluctant to accept. She becomes friends with Anil Jayasinghe, a Sinhalese who is also involved in the play. The family tells Radha to end her friendship with Anil, and Radha leaves for Jaffna to forget about Anil. On the train back home, she and several other Tamils are attacked by Sinhalese violent crowds, and soon after, Radha is engaged to Rajan. These events lead Arjie’s afther to explain to Arjie about the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict and Arjie comes to realize how serious the matter is.
In “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” Uncle Daryl returns to Sri Lanka from Australia. Arjie’s father is in Europe on a business trip at this time. Daryl aims to investigate assertions of government torture. Arjie slowly becomes aware that there is something going on between his mother and Uncle Daryl. Arjie gets sick, and Amma takes him to the country where Uncle Daryl visits them. Daryl also goes to Jaffna, where there are violent events taking place. Arjie’s mother requests Daryl not to interfere but Dayl continues on his way and goes missing after. Daryl’s body is found on the beach. They are told that he drowned, but Arjie and his mother suspect that he was murdered first. Arjie’s mother tries to dig deeper about the death of Uncle Daryl, but the lawyer states that there is nothing she can do. He references the three wise monkeys and suggests that she behaves similarly.
Arjie’s father’s friend Jegan begins to work with him at his hotel in the chapter “Small Choices.” Jegan was know to associate with the Tamil Tigers, but claims that he broke all connections long ago. Jegan also befriends Arjie, who starts to notice his homosexuality for the first time. The political tensions in the country continues to build, and Jegan is accused of plotting to assassinate a Tamil politician. His room at the hotel is vandalized, and Arjie’s father fires Jegan, who may go back to his violent past after all though it is not told with certainty.
In the next-to-last chapter, “The Best School of All,” Arjie’s father becomes suspicious about Arjie’s sexuality and mannerism and decides that Arjie will be transferred to Victoria Academy. He says the school will school Arjie into becoming a man. There Arjie meets Shehan and also the school principal. Arjie is warned by his own brother about Shehan’s sexuality claiming that Shehan is gay and to stay away from him. But Arjie and Shehan continue to spend more time together, and Arjie becomes more and more attracted to his friend. The school principal asks Arjie to recite several
poems at an upcoming school event. “Black Tie” says that these poems are important because they will plead with the government not the reorganize the school. Arjie is nervous, and fails to recall all the lines of the poem. The principal punishes Arjie for not being able to recite poems perfectly and also beats Shehan for not helping Arjie memorise his lines. However, Arjie realises that this punishment was metted put to a certain crowd of students, those like Shehan and Arjie, the not so “manly” ones. One day, Shehan kisses Arjie, who begins to understand and acknowledge his own sexuality. Soon after they have their first sexual encounter, in Arjie’s parents’ garage. Later, Arjie is deeply ashamed and disgusted by himself, and believes he has failed his family and betrayed their trust. Still later, Arjie purposefully messes up his poem recital again after Shehan breaks down because of Black Tie’s frequent beatings.
In the final story in Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, “Riot Journal: An Epilogue,” the tensions between the two sides, the Tamils and the Sinhalese, in Sri Lanka has arrived to a head. Rioters ravage the area, burning down the Tamil houses and businesses throughout the town of Colombo. The family runs for safety, and hides in a neighbour’s house. They go into hiding after an angry mob comes to burn down their home. Soon after that, their hotel is burned down, and Ammachi and Appachi, Arjie’s grandparents, are killed. This is finally the moment when the family decides to leave the country. Arjie and Shehan make love for one last time, before he is forced to say goodbye, never to see his friend and lover again. Then Arjie and his family leave their country, their homeland Sri Lanka and move to Canada.
A Detailed Summary of Funny Boy:
Pigs can’t fly
The family keep one Sunday a month for a spend-the-day when the adults are privileged to free themselves “from their progeny” throughout the day. Arjuna, his brother Varuna, and his sister Sonali are driven to their grandparents’ for the spend-the-day of that month. The ancient setting of the house with its long and dark corridor, its ancestral photographs on the walls, and its high ceiling inculcate fear in the hero Arjuna. Ammachchi and Appachchi (Grandma and Grandpa) enthroned in their large, reclining chairs represent an alien generation, aggravating the fear in Arjuna and Ammachchi’s kisses reach his face with physical pain. Both the adults and the children benefit from the spend-the-day arrangement. The children take leave of the parents “without even a pretence of sorrow” to be free from “parental control,” “ever watchful eyes,” and “tale-bearing tongues of the house servants.” Yet they are in the care of Ammachchi and the housemaid Janaki. Ammachchi is like earth-goddess in fairytales and any disturbance of her peace would invite a catastrophic earthquake.
The children have their own strategies of preventing conflict “territoriality and leadership.” Under territoriality the premises are divided into two as the boys’ area and the girls’ area. In the boys’ area there are two leaders, Meena and Varuna alias Diggy. In the girls’ area there is one leader, and that is Arjuna. The boys always played cricket but the girls played more creative games like “cooking-cooking,” “Thumbelina,” “Cinderella,” or “bridebride.” Arjuna is popular among all the girls and his leadership is rewarded with the role of bride in “bride-bride.” The girls loved the game and Arjuna in his saree is considered “an icon, a graceful, benevolent, perfect being upon whom the adoring eyes of the world rested.”
The popular bride-bride game ends in a disheartening manner. Auntie Kanthy comes back from abroad with her husband Uncle Cyril and their daughter Thanuja. The children call Thanuja “Her Fatness” because of her obesity. No sooner they have settled down in Colombo, Thanuja joins the girls in their games. Thanuja accepts the role of the bridegroom in the game “bride-bride” on two consecutive spend-the-days and on the third spendthe-day everything changes. All adults gather there and stay for lunch as it is Ammachchi’s birthday. As his mother is supposed to wear a sari, Arjuna’s family usually get late to leave home. Arjuna enjoys watching his mother dressing herself. Here it is clear that he is led by his libidinal feelings. Auntie Kanthy seems to be a cynical woman. Carried away by Thanuja’s lies, she questions Arjuna, the leader of the girls’ games, as to why her daughter is not taken for games. The boy escapes from her, as grandmother gets holds of him to kiss. Auntie Kanthy seems to capitalise on the sympathy the others hold for her for having a tough time when she was abroad. Meanwhile Thanuja attempts to attract the other girls’ favour with her exotic foreign dolls. However, she fails to prevent the others from their involvement in the bride-bride. All girls laugh at Thanuja dressed as the bride groom. Thanuja in her groom role violates the rules and conditions of the game by assuming a dictatorial mood. When the others try to quieten her she demands the role of the bride. She challenges Arjuna’s enactment of the bride role being a boy. Failing to win over the other girls, she calls Arjuna names “Pansy”, “faggot”, and “sissy”. The other girls call her in a chorus, “Go away you fatty boom boom.” She breaks away from them and runs to her mother leaving her clothes.
Auntie Kanthy comes to the porch, threatens the girls for calling her daughter fatty, gets hold of Arjuna in a tight grip, and pulls him along the corridor into the drawing room where all the adults have gathered. All the adults laugh at him calling him funny. Embarrassed by the disgrace, Arjuna’s parents remain upset. When the parents are at home, the father blames the mother for allowing Arjuna in her room while she gets dressed. Usually, Arjuna with his keen eyes feasts on the mother’s figure in her underskirt and blouse. He enjoys the perfume smell of her jewellery. The technique she uses in wearing her saree fascinates him. “You should have been a film star,” he remarks while admiring her beauty. But after he gets caught in a saree, his mother does not allow him in her room while dressing herself. Since he hears the word “funny” being uttered by a number of adults, he has been wondering what it means. The mother keeps aloof of him. He feels it.
The mother, on the next spend-the-day, orders Varuna that Arjuna should be included in his cricket team. When the two boys protest against this, the mother declares, “If the child turns out wrong, it’s the mother they always blame not the father.” The mother does not show any sympathy for their pleading. Arjuna imagines how Thanuja will take his place, and plans to escape from cricket and manoeuvre the game of bride-bride. He stealthily takes the saree with him in his sister’s bag. While in the car, when Varuna asks the mother, why Arjuna cannot play with the girls, she replies, “The sky is high; and pigs can’t fly.” When the mother leaves the children at the grandparents’, Varuna tries to take Arjuna into his cricket team. But the others reject him. Everybody calls him, “Girlie Boy.” Arjuna wants to use it to his own advantage. In deciding the batting order, the players have to select one out of a column of hyphens drawn against a column of numbers that are covered at the moment of selection and that represent the positions that players would occupy by luck. Arjuna acquires number one position in the batting order, but he is not given it. He protests against Murugesu taking over his position. The boys try to negotiate with him but he persists in his protest. Then he is chased out for his stubbornness
. Ultimately, he goes to join the girls. There Thanuja has already taken control. She shouts at him, “Go away!.. Boys are not allowed here…” Finally, he offers to play “the groom” in the bride-bride and manages to join them. But he cannot join them in the cooking. Being creative, he uses his office-employed groom position to have fun and one by one the girls leave the cooking and start operating at his commands as the officer. Unable to tolerate this, again Thanuja wants him out. Then he threatens her not to give the saree for bride-bride. Thanuja who has already picked it up from Sonali’s bag challenges that he does not have it. She allows him to search for it but laughs at his failure. Finally, she runs away with the saree and he tries to grab it from her by pulling her by the hair. The saree gets torn and the children retaliate this by tearing her blouse. Even the dominant Janaki feels helpless at the sight of her howling. Ammachchi comes to the scene with the sternest look on her face. She seems not considerate about his explanations but wants to punish him. So he shouts at the old woman, “I hate you old fatty.” He runs away and ends up on the beach. He finds no refuge there but goes back to the grandparents’, expecting a severe thrashing. He glances at the torn saree again, and ponders on his deprivation of entering the girls’ world. He feels that he does not belong either to the boys or to the girls. Arjuna’s life changes drastically after this.
Auntie Radha is the youngest sister of Arjuna’s father. Auntie Radha and Rajan meet in America and get impressed by each other. Later on Rajan informs his parents and gets them to make a proposal for Auntie Radha. The old Mr Nagendra, Rajan’s father, is a contemporary of the grandfather and everybody in the family is happy about it. The young man is known as an engineer working for an American company, neither an alcoholic nor a womaniser, hailing from a family of healthy people. Arjuna is thrilled by the idea of attending a real church wedding in the family with a real bride. He visualises the saree, the confetti, the cakes, the pala haram, and the jasmine garlands that would go for the wedding. Influenced by romance and marriage in Sinhala films and Janaki’s love comics, he tries to figure out how Auntie Radha looks and imagines her to be like the famous film star Auntie Malani Fonseka, plump with rounded hips, fair complexioned, khol rimmed eyes, wearing her straight hair into an elaborate coiffure on top of her head, in a Manipuri saree with a gold border. Arjuna eavesdrops when the adults are talking about Auntie Radha.
He is now not allowed to move with the other children since he has fought with Thanuja, and is to do some work in the house ordered by Ammachchi. Now and then he receives a knock on his head for his silly mistakes. Janaki who has taken pity on him allows him to be in her room and read through her Sinhala love comics. He finds a book on two lovers – Manilal and Sakuntala and imagines the story of Rajan Nagendra and Auntie Radha. Day by day, his enthusiasm about the on-coming wedding in the family keeps growing. He waits for Auntie Radha to come from America. Only a week after her arrival at home, Arjuna gets an opportunity to visit her. He notices Auntie Radha playing the piano at home, but disagrees about it within himself, expecting her to have an exciting romantic relationship with Rajan, shopping, going out with him, cooking and cleaning the house for him. Arjuna’s imagination of Auntie Radha is different from the real. She is pitch dark brown and does not look like a film star of Malini Fonseka’s calibre. Her hair is frizzy; she is thin; she does not wear a saree, but a top, strange trousers, and odd shoes. She appears totally different from his imagination.
As usual Ammachchi gives Arjuna his day’s assignment. This time he has to dust all the brass ornaments in the drawing room. Arjuna is conscious of Auntie Radha’s mistakes in playing the piano, but does not laugh at her as she is friendly towards him. She kisses him and starts playing a romantic tune. While dusting the brass items, he feels cheated by Auntie Radha. What he expected in her is not there. When Ammachchi shouts at Arjuna with a punitive correctionism, Auntie Radha openly criticises her, “You treat him like a servant boy.” Later she speaks to him politely and enquires about his not playing with the others. She differs from the other adults in the Chelvanayagam family as she does not have their cynicism. She invites him into her room and allows him to play there. He starts examining the cosmetics on her dressing table. Auntie Radha decorates his face by rouging the cheeks, putting a pottu on his forehead, colouring his eye-brows etc. etc. She enjoys doing it and shares the pleasure of it with Janaki, but the latter warns her against it. She does not mind it though, and allows him to play with her knickknack the whole afternoon. He develops a boldness to talk to Auntie Radha about her on-coming wedding. Auntie Radha is amused by his knowledge about Rajan Nagendra. He makes suggestions for the wedding such as wearing a long veil, deploying ten bridesmaids to hold it, and having seven page boys and seven flower girls to accompany her. He offers to be a page boy but does not want Thanuja to be a flower girl. He even suggests costumes for the entire bridal party. Because of her indulgence, Arjuna considers Auntie Radha to be his most favourite aunt. In the meantime Thanuja comes in her costume for bride-bride and tries to run Arjuna down, expecting to find envy in his eyes. But Arjuna returns a glance of contempt and shows off his fingers so that she could eye his nails coloured with cutes. When she sees the coloured nails, her face becomes clouded with jealousy.
Auntie Radha gets a role in the theatrical production of “The King and I.” As the director Auntie Doris, a family friend, is looking for child actors to play the children of the King of Siam, the mother offers Arjuna a chance. Arjuna likes theatre because of make-up. He asks the mother whether the King marries the English Governess at the end of the story, and the mother says, “No”.
Arjuna imagines that every meeting between a man and a woman ends in marriage. The rehearsals take place at St Theresa’s convent, and Auntie Radha and Arjuna go there together. Auntie Doris the director of the play calls on them. She remarks Arjuna with such tender features should be a girl. Auntie Radha joins a group of people including Anil who are discussing some song. Auntie Radha wins over everybody with her rhetoric over a joke connected with her and Anil as a rose and a bee respectively. “I would rather wither and drop off my stem than be pollinated by a bee like you.” She cheers up everybody including her opponent Anil who has already developed an interest in her. The other girls comments on it annoy Auntie Radha. After the rehearsal, Auntie Radha and Arjuna happen to enjoy a lift home by Anil in his car. They get down at the road top by Anil in his car.
Ammachchi is surprised by their quick return home. Auntie Radha shares a secret with Arjuna, telling that they got a quick bus home. Ammachchi is too mature to fool. In no time she catches Auntie Radha with the truth through a banana seller at the road top, she finds out all about Anil Jayasinghe and expresses her concern over his being a Sinhalese.
Arjuna wonders why it causes so much consternation in the family as they live, study, work, and associate with the Sinhalese people. He later gets to know that someone in the family had been killed by a Sinhalese. Auntie Radha seems to be very broadminded about the subject and argues that history is no reason to hate all the Sinhalese people. She is against racism. Arjuna learns from the father about the Sinhala-Tamil rift for the first time, while getting the word “racist” clarified by him. The father elaborates on the riots caused between the Sinhalese and the Tamils on making Sinhala the national language of Sri Lanka in 1959. Arjuna learns about the Tamil Tigers in Jaffna after this description. Ammachchi, an uneducated middleclass Tamil, sympathises with the Tamil Tigers, but the father, an educated middle-class Tamil, disapproves of their activities. He brings up the children in exposure to Sinhala. The children are educated in a Sinhlala-medium school to make them adaptable to the national requirement. The SinhalaTamil rift in the school became more and more significant in the light of his knowledge obtained from the father.
Ammachchi is a real schemer. She visits the Jayasinghe’s and stops Anil giving lifts to Auntie Radha. Having known this, Auntie Radha becomes upset, and, that afternoon, her plan is to meet Anil and apologise him for what happened. She visits him with Arjuna and meets him along with his father. His father considers the remarks made by her mother an insult, and declares that his wish for his son Anil is a Sinhalese wife. His father loses
his temper but the tension subsides when his mother comes in. Anil remains polite to her throughout the meeting. He reveals his knowledge of her engagement to Rajan, but she expresses her uncertainty about it.
Arjuna’s learning process speeds up in exposure to these conflicts. He considers Anil with his boyish features too young to be a lover. At the next rehearsal Auntie Radha tries her best to avoid Anil, but, under various circumstances, they happen to meet. However, Auntie Radha declines all his offers. The other boys tease Anil for being specially concerned about Auntie Radha. They laugh at Anil congratulatingly. Auntie Radha is overtly angry, but could not help laughing. Anil speaks to Auntie Radha out of curiosity, But Auntie Radha responds curtly. Finally, Anil manages to foot the bill at the Green Cabin. He proposes marriage to Auntie Radha and says that he can get his father’s consent if she likes it.
When they arrive home that evening, Auntie Mala has already come there. She and her husband had seen Auntie Radha and Anil at the Green Cabin, and have come to discuss the matter with Auntie Radha. A medical doctor, Auntie Mala wants everybody to calm down. However, there is great dispute at the dining table. Ammachchi slaps Auntie Radha on the face. Auntie Kanthy casts cynical remarks about her. Auntie Radha leaves the dining room in tears, while Ammachchi tells about sending her to Jaffna. When Auntie Mala comments on the slapping, Ammachchi tries to assert that she is right as a mother. Auntie Mala talks to Auntie Radha privately in her room. Arjuna manages to walk out on the pretext of going to urinate, and eavesdrops the conversation between Auntie Mala and Auntie Radha. Auntie Radha divulges that she loves Anil. She even says that, like the other SinhalaTamil couples, they can live in harmony. Auntie Mala talks about the determination of the Tamil Tigers, but Auntie Radha abhors separatism the Tamil Tigers work with. Auntie Mala cannot deny Auntie Radha’ position.
Ammachchi’s plan to keep Auntie Radha away from Anil receives a setback. Auntie Doris stands in her way. Finally, they come to a compromise. Appachchi drives her to the convent and Auntie Doris lets her off for a few weeks so that Amachchi could send her to Jaffna. At the next rehearsal, Anil is not there as it is for the King of Siam’s Wives and Children. Auntie Doris tells Auntie Radha about the demerits of mixed marriages, taking her own marriage as an example. She explains how she was ostracised by her father, which left her at a great disadvantage. She missed the funerals of both her parents, and when she found free access to her sister, it was too late as they had git used to her absence. Since her husband Paaskaran died, she has been alone. Auntie Doris tells all that as a warning in keeping with the compromise she has made for Ammachchi.
Arjuna thinks about Auntie Radha’s situation and calculates how her destiny will be, if she marries Anil. Already Arjuna believes that Aunty Radha is his only friend and is very concerned about the person she should marry. Auntie Radha meets Anil outside the rehearsals despite the turmoil in the family. Arjuna remains Auntie Radha’s most faithful ally and, together with him she meets Anil at the zoo. Auntie Radha becomes very close to Arjuna for protecting her secrets. In the mean time Auntie Radha discloses her secret to Janaki and confides to her that she would marry Anil soon after her return from Jaffna. After Auntie Radha leaves for Jaffna, Arjuna goes for the rehearsals all alone. Each time he bumps onto Anil, he finds his company very comfortable compared to that of the adults he meets at home.
Troubles break out in Jaffna. Some Tamils set the market on fire. A wave of violence arises throughout the region. Auntie Radha is due to return to Colombo the following day by the Night Mail. That day Arjuna goes for the rehearsals and, after the session has been over, waits for his mother. As his mother does not come, Anil drives him home. The sight of a fleet of cars parked in front of the grandparents’ house and a group of people gathered inside causes fear in Arjuna. They are worried as the Night Mail. coming from Jaffna had been attacked by the Snhalese people in Anuradhapura in retaliation to what the Tamils had done in Jaffna. Anil lets Arjuna out of his car and joins his family. Despite the others’ indifference, Arjuna’s mother behaves politely towards Anil. He learns from her that Auntie Radha is safe and checks whether he could see her on her arrival in Colombo. Arjuna’s mother is sympathetic with him but Auntie Kanthy is adamant that he should not be sympathised with at all, “Don’t start that poor man nonsense.”
Arjuna is confused about communal violence which had started two days before. While everybody is taking lunch, Auntie Radha comes home with Mr Rasaiah, the face swollen and the head bandaged, blood-stained and covered with a scarf. Though Ammachchi tries to sooth her, Auntie Radha protests against it, clinging on to Mr Rasaiah’s arm. In her room, Auntie Mala examines Auntie Radha’s wound and states that she does not need stitches. Arjuna silently commiserates with Auntie Radha. Mr Rasaiah’s account on violent on the train sounds unreal to Arjuna, but he is compelled to believe and wonders how cruel people can be. Concerned about Auntie Radha, Anil comes to visit her, but Auntie Kanthy and Ammachchi virtually chase him. Auntie Radha comes to live for some time at Arjuna’s with Ammachchi and Appachchi. The rehearsals begin. Anil meets Auntie Radha. She turns different after the communal attack on her. Radha disappears from the rehearsals and is sitting in a classroom, crying. Anil comes to see her. Arjuna is sent away. After they have discussed the situation, they agree not to meet any more.
Radha resigns from the play. A few days later Rajan Nagendran comes from America, and Radha is presented to him by her parents. Arjuna observes that, though Radha is not happy, she resembles the Radha he used to imagine at heart. The Nagendrans and the Chelvanayagams meet. A pastor is invited to bless the rings they would exchange with each other. Listening to Janaki pound something with the mall and pestle, he imagines the possibilities created by marriage for the individuals concerned. The “mall
and pestle” action suggests the kind of pounding implied in sex. Arjuna finds a lacuna in the situation. He goes to his bride-bride venue and watches the deteriorated alter. He himself does not know what is missing on the occasion of the engagement. So the reader is meant to imagine that what he has seen in the archetypical lovers in films has not taken place between Auntie Radha and Rajan.
See No Evil; Hear No Evil
A sudden change occurs in the lifestyle of the Chelvanayagams. Arjuna’s parents start associating closely with Uncle Sena and Auntie Chithra. The entire family frequent the Oberoi Supper Club. They start buying fancy foods such as blue berry jam, kippers, and canned apricot at Cornell’s Supermarket, where they start doing the shopping. The two families once go in their cars to the down south of Sri Lanka and stop at a hotel which is still under construction. Only there Arjuna gets to know that the father had quitted his banking job and entered the hotel industry with Uncle Sena. The Paradise Beach Resort looks elegant. The gatekeeper and the manager Mr Samarakoon are very respectful to the family. The stretch of beach seen from the hotel appears to be the most beautiful one Arjuna has ever seen in his
gets thrilled by the information that the hotel is partly his family’s. The father is about to go to Europe to take a holiday as well as to promote the hotel. He advises the kids to order five items to be brought from Europe. Arjuna has been fascinated by the contents in Auntie Nelya’s collection of “Little Women.” Auntie Nelya gives him what she has of them as she is not married and does not have a family of her own. The father remarks that “Little Women” was for girls, but Arjuna wants the sequels to “Little Women” to be brought from Europe.
After the father’s departure the mother continues the lifestyle they had started together. She starts associating with the elite of Colombo, including the Ministers and the former Prime Minister Mrs Bandaranayake ripped of her civic rights. Then, as if to contradict her optimism, Uncle Daryl enters her life. Arjuna takes him for a European white man but gets astonished with his perfect Sinhala. He was a member of the next door family of Auntie Nelya. So Auntie Nelya recognises him as one of the oldest and dearest friends the family had. Daryl who has now returned from Australia after 15 years is a Burgher. When the mother meets Uncle Daryl she gets so excited that Arjuna notices that there should have been a romantic relationship between the two of them.
Uncle Daryl visits the mother the following day too. But that day Arjuna is in bed down with fever. He finds Uncle Daryl to be a friendly person, as he brings him some sequels to “Little Women” from an old bookshop. Daryl has come to Sri Lanka to investigate what is happening in terms of state terrorism. From the conversation, Arjuna learns that the mother is against Teamil Tigers and considers them terrorists but
Uncle Daryl holds a different view.
A European woman journalist had told him about the Prevention of Terrorism Act in Sri Lanka which has led to state terrorism. Arjuna learns that Daryl is a sympathiser of the Tamil Tigers. Anutie Nelya and the mother talk about Uncle Daryl. The mother brushes off Auntie Nelya’s apprehension about Uncle Daryl’s visits. The mother says that there is nothing strange about it. A free economy with the freedom of the press is the mother’s wish.
Arjuna recovers in the mean time. Daryl comes one day and give him the copies of Little Women, Little Men, and Joy Boys. Arjuna is thrilled to have them. He notices that the mother going out in her smartest clothes and feels that something is going on between the mother and Uncle Daryl. Auntie Nelya is often angry with the mother for this; Sonali becomes quiet as if to hide something; and Varuna loses his temper. Finally, Varuna and Sonali both behave rudely towards Uncle Daryl.
After some time the mother takes Arjuna to the country on a short holiday. Uncle Daryl meets them both at the bungalow they reside. First Arjuna feels worried about it but becomes cheerful, remembering his generosity. They get close to each other and Arjuna finds Uncle Daryl more impressive than the father in his figure and deportment.
Uncle Daryl visits them everyday in this bungalow in the hills. As Arjuna is no problem, the mother feels more and more loving and kind towards Uncle Daryl. The final day in the hills, mother and Uncle Daryl have an argument over his plans to go to Jaffna. Mother tries to dissuade him from going as it is too dangerous, but Uncle Daryl is adamant that he should. Arjuna feels like an unwitting accomplice in the Mother-Uncle Daryl affair. While they live alone in the hills away from the family, he fears if a divorce transpires between the mother and the father.
Unlce Daryl leaves for Jaffna. Arjuna and mother come home to Colombo. They are received by the rest of the family at the ort Railway station. Back home they get back to their normal work.
When the school starts after a few months, Ajuna finds it difficult to cope with the “rigid timetables, cantankerous teachers, and irritating boy.” On his final day at school, mother comes to collect him with Uncle Daryl. They seem to have been in a fight.
Mother drives Uncle Daryl home. He tries to touch her but she objects, as he is going to Jaffna again the following day. When they arrive home Aunt Nelya is to ask Arjuna about what happened but he escapes from her. After Uncle Daryl’s departure for Jaffna, mother starts again going with Aunt Chithra out to parties, fashion shows, and dances but not with her early enthusiasm.
On the radio it is announced that Jaffna has been in heavy troubles. A policeman has been killed and a group of policemen have rampaged through a village. The TULF fice and an MP’s house have been burnt down. When mother comes home Arjuna tells her all that and asks about Uncle Daryl.
Mother is really upset. The following day on their way back from school Arjuna and mother go to Uncle Daryl’s place. They find a mess in his room, The news of the day sounds very bad. The Jaffna Library has been burnt down with 95,000 books. When they have come home they speak with Aunt Nelya about Uncle Daryl. But Aunt Nelya’s advice is not to get the police involved in the search. However, mother goes to the police station and makes a complaint. Then a senior police officer speaks to her and takes the matter to the officer inside. After some time mother is summoned to the ASP’s room. He takes down mother’s complaint and arranges a team of police constables to go to the place where Uncle Daryl lives. The police officers search the house. The servant boy tries to run away but he is caught by a policeman. Despite mother’s declaration that the boy is innocent, he is taken into police custody and is taken to the police station.
The ASP very tactfully elicits from mother all the necessary information about Uncle Daryl. He has gone to Jaffna on behalf of a newspaper to investigate police torture of Jaffna Tamils. The ASP tells mother that the police generally do not torture people though some individual policemen take the law into their hand.
That evening father calls from Europe. Mother speaks with him as if nothing unusual has happened. The following day on a call from the ASP mother and Arjuna go to the police station again. The ASP tells mother about his acquaintance with father as a result of playing badminton together. He introduces the boy as a thief and tells that he has robbed some valuables from the room. He later cheekily says, “My regards to your husband. I’m sure he’ll be fascinated by all that’s happened in his absence.” The implication is horrible. The police investigation has probed into mother’s secret relationship with Uncle Daryl.
That evening mother receives a telephone call to the effect that Uncle Daryl’s body has been found. Mother and Aunt Nelya are summoned by the police to the shore to identify Uncle Daryl’s body found by some fishermen. On their return home, mother speaks about the hypocrisy of the police; “Of course, they have witnesses who saw him go swimming.”
She musters up her courage to protest against Uncle Daryl’s killing. Aunt Nelya tells that it would be futile after he has died. Mother, while suffering from a headache, regrets her failure to stop him from going to Jaffna. She really wants to do something against state terrorism that has raised its ugly head but does not know what to do. She laments. Arjuna compares the situation with that in which Beth dies in Little Women.
Mother goes with Arjuna to see QC Appadurei regarding Uncle Daryl’s death or murder. The old man revives some ancient memories about mother and Uncle Daryl. Grandafather sends mother to Kerala with QC Appadurei for a three-month holiday to change her. She relates to the QC everything about Daryl save her private meetings and asks for his advice as civil rights lawyer. The QC’s advice is, “Let it rest, child.” He justifies his position
with the fact that any pursuance of it would invite troubles not only to her personally but to the entire family. Mother leaves the QC. He reveals that all their telephone conversations can be tapped by the police. His advice is related to the three wise monkeys who maintained the stand, “See no evil; hear no evil; and speak no evil.”
On their way home they go to Uncle Daryl’s home and find an old woman in lieu of the boy. The boy Somaratne has gone back to his village. Mother obtains the information and returns home. She realises what the QC said. A click is heard when mother phones Aunt Mala. Arjuna phones a friend and again the click is heard. So they realise that they cannot escape. They are spied.
That evening mother tells she is going to Somaratne the following morning. Arjuna offers to join her. Despite it is Varuna’s birthday, mother has already decided it. After a long drive they arrive at Somaratne’s. The boy’s mother and a few other women start shouting at mother. They refuse to show them Somaratne. Finally, after receiving many insults, they return to the car. They learn from the shouting that Somaratne’s brother had been killed during the 1971 insurrection and this time Somaratne has come with a paralysed arm. When they started returning the villagers hurled stones at them. They ran towards the car. A stone hits Arjuna and he is badly hurt in the back.
In the car Arjuna shouts at mother for taking such a risk as they have been nearly killed in that village. They drive back to Colombo. When they arrive home it is late. Aunt Nelya gives mother a visiting card from a man from Daryl’s paper “Sunday Morning Star.” She warns her not to get involved in this matter as it is too dangerous. The following day the man from the press comes to see mother. He enquires from her about her relationship with Uncle Daryl and about her ideas about his death. She gives very curt responses and the man goes away. She cannot help behaving indifferently towards a colleague of her lover Daryl Brohier.
Arjuna is relieved that mother is cautious. He imagines how they would return to the old life after father has returned home. Father phones mother from England to organise a party to celebrate his return home and his birthday together. The due day the house is visited by about 75 people. Mother looks happy though she has been tired and sad inside. The old lamps in the garden make the people and the surroundings seem insubstantial.
Arjuna’s father receives a letter from his old friend Buddy Parameswaran’s wife. The letter is accompanied by a piece of yellowed paper in which Arjuna’s father had agreed to protect his family under any circumstance by signing in blood. The letter is a request for a job for his son Jagan who is already working as an accountant for a pro-LTTE campaign called Gandhian Movement. Ascertained to himself that if he were a Tiger he would be straight away out, Arjuna’s father makes up his mind to see Jagan. One evening Jagan visits.
Arjuna’s father remains stunned to see him as he looks just like his father Buddy Parameswaran. He readily offers to help Jagan. When Jagan uses the apostrophe “Sir” to call Arjuna’s father, the latter tells him to replace it by “Uncle.” When Arjuna’s mother enquires from him about Gandhian Movement, Jagan replies that there is no policy-wise connection between the Gandhians and the Tigers. His father discourages his mother’s inquiries as he has already decided that Jagan could work for him.
Arjuna remains infatuated by Jagan’s hefty personality. He observes the latter’s arms, neck, and thighs. Arjuna connects his observations with his
puberty. As a teenager he has already undergone some physical changes including his voice. He wants to be a physically attractive and graceful man. Arjuna’s father invites Jagan to stay for dinner. In the mean time he apologises his inability to have attended the funeral of Jagan’s father. Later he tells Arjuna’s mother that he is planning to give Jagan the store room to stay. Arjuna’s mother agrees to this suggestion. Arjuna is very happy that Jagan has come to live with them. The following day Arjuna visits Jagan in his own room in the house that his mother and Aunty Nelya had taken a lot of trouble to clean and arrange. The room is cosy. Soon Jagan and Arjuna’s father become inseparables. They go to work together. By listening to conversations between them Arjuna learns that his father has had a similar childhood as his. Once he learns that he has had a romantic relationship with an English girl working in his university in England. He did not marry her. After coming back to Sri Lanka he came to his senses. The low class is the low class either in England or in Sri Lanka.
Arjuna’s father talks with Jagan about Arjuna’s tendency to play with dollies and read books. He expresses his pleasure over the growing relationship between Arjuna and Jagan as he believes that it would lead to a healthy development of the boy. Jagan sounds sympathetic with the idea and tells that there is nothing wrong with Arjuna. Arjuna feels grateful to Jagan for defending him.
The Government of Sri Lanka is about to hold a referendum to extend its term by another six years without an election. The ballot paper designed for this has two signs – the lamp for proposition and the pot for opposition. The voter who does not want an election crosses the square next to the lamp and the one who wants and election, the square next to the pot. Greedy for power, the Government promotes the lamp by putting up posters everywhere. A man is found putting up a poster on the parapet wall of the Chelvanayagams. The entire household including Jagan come out to see him doing it. Arjuna’s father tells the man that it is illegal to put up posters on private walls. The man does not regard his protest. Jagan intervenes in the situation on behalf of the Chelvanayagams. He assaults the man and tears the poster. The man threatens, “It is government property.” Everybody is panicked by the man’s threatening. Arjuna’s father regrets that Jagan has had an unnecessary fight with the man, but his mother justifies what Jagan did.
As Jagan is an efficient person, he gets promoted to a supervisory rank. Arjuna’s father and Uncle Sena agree that if Jagan does the supervision, they can concentrate on the next hotel project in Trincomalee. The entire family visit their hotel three hours to the south from Colombo. There are many tourists on the beach. Jagan notices the tourists exploiting the poor children on the beach around the hotel and makes a remark about it. Jagan’s father explains that the tourists come to Sri Lanka not only for the beaches but also for fun with other natural resources. The implication is sex.
The following day afternoon there is a dispute between Jagan and the hotel manager. Jagan wants to correct a worker and the hotel manager suggests to him that he conveys the matter to the manager and the manager will take action. Jagan considers this funny and complains it to Arjuna’s father, but Arjuna’s father justifies the manager’s position about it. He explains further to Jagan that the hotel is a Sinhala-Tamil joint business and these things happen in a diplomatic way, as the Tamils are vulnerable in a Sinhlala-dominant area. He draws an example, that, during the racial troubles, the hotel was protected because of its Sinhala partnership. Banduratne Mudalali the biggest hotelier in the area is a racist and killed many Tamil families and burned them. So Jagan ís advised to follow the set procedure and make a good living by working in collaboration with the others. The bottom line is that to be diplomatic is important as otherwise there may be many sensitive issues.
Jagan tells Arjuna about Sinhala violence upon Tamils. The Tamils are tortured to death by the Sinhala military and police. One friend of his was tortured and he left for Canada. Jagan has had a brief stint with the Tigers. But he has now left them. The Tamils live second-class citizens in Sri Lanka under threats from the Sinhalese. Jagan finds Arjuna identical with his friend who left for Canada. He tells about the Tiger camps in India and his friend in the Gandhian Movement.
Back in Colombo Arjuna joins Jagan in jogging in the evenings. His brother Varuna is jealous about this but Jagan is internally happy. Varuna is also a bit arrogant towards Jagan. Jagan accosts a Tamil minister at the Sports Ministry grounds. He has been a schoolmate of Jagan’s but does not want to have any rapport with him. His expensive car has been parked outside the grounds. After this meeting Jagan does not want to go to the police grounds in the future.
One day the police call in search of Jagan. The entire family is in turmoil because of this. When Jagan has come home he is told about it. Arjuna’s father inquires from Jagan whether he has had any connection with the Tigers and Jagan replies that he used to have but not any more. Then he suggests that Jagan goes to the police well-dressed and speaks to a senior police officer in favour of Jagan. Arjuna’s father accompanies Jagan to the police station, and Jagan is kept at the police station for questioning under the Prvention of Terrorism Act. Arjuna’s father comes home alone. This depresses everybody at home including Arjuna.
Arjuna’s father reveals that Jagan has been searched because he has been found talking to two Tamil men at the Sports Ministry grounds. They are Tigers and they have planed to kill a Tamil minister who has been considered a traitor by the LTTE. It is on a tip given by the minister that Jagan has been taken into custody.
The charges are false but it is a Tamil minister who made the complaint. Arjuna’s father comes home the following day. In the papers it appears that Jagan Parameswaran alleged to have assassinated a minister has been found with a hotelier. The entire story with personal names appears in the papers. Following this, Arjuna’s family receives many filthy calls from unknown people.
The hotel is in a mess as Uncle Sena and the staff get many filthy calls. There is a note on Arjuna’s father’s desk accusing him of being a Tiger. The family suspect that it must be the work of a staff member. That evening Jagan comes home on being released by the police. Jagan remains reticent about his interrogation. Arjuna’s father suggests that Jagan takes a holiday for some time, despite Jagan’s denial. His idea is to keep Jagan out of the scene for some time as the newspaper releases have created a mess in the hotel. All Tamil and Muslim members of the hotel staff express their disbelief about Jagan’s allegations but the manager Mr Samarakoon and the receptionist Mr Wickremasinghe keep silent. However, Jagan goes to work the following day but feels very uncomfortable.
Jagan experiences insubordination from a peon who makes a mistake in delivering a parcel. All people take the peon’s side including Arjuna’s father. When Arjuna’s mother comments on the injustice caused to Jagan, his father reveals the danger of taking Jagan’s side. There is a notion that speaking Tamil in public is dangerous and Tamil helping a Tamil in whatever matter is dangerous however reasonable it is. Arjuna’s mother seems to have started considering that the Tigers and their separate state have some meaning in a situation where the Tamils are suppressed by the Sinhalese. His father considers she is mad to think so.
A week later, inspection time comes around. Mr Samarakoon is assigned to supervise Jagan. This time Aunty Chitra, Uncle Sena, Arjuna’s father, and his moth all are going, as their presence will help Jagan. Everybody is vigilant about the treatment Jagan receives from the others. It is decisive for Jagan. The front staff warmly greet Jagan. Inside the hotel it is all comfortable. In the afternoon, Arjuna, his mother, his brother, his sister, Aunty Chitra, and Jagan go out to visit a rock on the beach. They walk along. Some people are found laughing and singing at an open van. They calm down when the group get close to them, but while they are returning they shout, “Ado Tiger.” Jagan gets excited. A little later a bottle falls at him. Following this, the entire group run to the hotel. At the hotel Mr Samarakoon explains that they are the sons of Banduratne Mudalali.
Arjuna’s father and Uncle Sena get the security tightened for that night. After the gathering has dispersed Arjuna’s father and his mother talk about
going to Canada. His father is adamant that he is not going there and expresses his displeasure over the treatment the coloured people receive in America and other countries in
the hands of the white people there. That night after dinner there is unrest in the hotel. Someone has written across a window in Sinhala, “Death to all Tamil pariahs.” This worries everybody in the hotel. Foreign guests in the hotel are too very excited and do all remain gathered around Jegan. Uncle Sena tires his best to calm down them but the guests are very anxious. They keep on questioning what the words mean. Leaving the situation to Mr Samarakoon and Ms De Silva, Arjuna’s father and Uncle Sena leave the hotel with their families. They find Jegan’s suitcase open and his clothes all torn. This seems to have been done by a member of the hotel staff. The writing across the window and the messing of Jegan’s room have a connection. Uncle Sena claims that calling the police has no use as that will harass the innocent and leave the culprits free. In a while Ms De Silva complains that all the guests are checking out as they have received an interpretation of the writing across the window as that the hotel will be bombed that night. Uncle Sena and Aunty Chitra try to salvage the situation. The head house keeper expresses fear to remove the writing across the window. Then Arjuna’s mother does it with Arjuna and Sonali. Arjuna’s mother cleans Jegan’s window and
tells him to be active. But Jegan’s does not know what to do.
The following day Arjuna’s father keeps drinking while the rest of the family join Chitra for a swim. They walk to the beach and Uncle Sena and Arjuna’s father discuss how to remove Jegan. They plan to send him to the Middle East. Jegan is upset about the whole thing. Arjuna is worried about his father’s failure to keep his promise to Jegan’s father. Arjuna notices Jegan. putting the luggage on to the roof rack of the car. He learns that Jegan does not want to go to the Middle East. It is presumable that he wants to join the LTTE instead. Arjuna starts hating Jegan.
The following day the family find Jegan has left the house. When Arjuna arrives home with his brother and sister after school, his mother is found removing the furniture that had lied in Jegan’s room back into their early place. The referendum takes place after Jegan has left. The ruling party MPs get the ballot boxes stuffed with papers marked in favour of their wish. The average voter is intimidated and is not allowed to cast his/her vote. Finally, the results are announced on TV and accordingly, the ruling party is supposed to stay in power for another six years without an election.
The Best School of All
Arjuna’s father decides to transfer him from St Gabriel to Victoria Academy which is attended by Varuna. St Gabriel is run by Catholic priests whereas Victoria Academy by a principal appointed by the Ministry of Education. The punishments imposed on the boys at Victoria Academy are more severe than those at St Gabriel. But the management of Victoria is
a Abeysinghe, the principal, is in a battle with Lokubandara, the vice principal, whose brother is a Minister. Therefore Abeysinghe may have to step down from his post and give way to Lokubandara. Abeysinghe is strict disciplinarian who believes in corporal punishment. He punishes the boys severely even for minor offences.
interfered by politics.
Arjuna cannot object to his father’s decision and is supposed to start at Victoria from January, the following year. Father’s sole idea is to change Arjuna from being “funny” or “girlish.” He trusts that Victoria will mould him as a man. Arjuna already finds the boys at Victoria with their “loud confidence” threatening. So he is anticipating a challenging school life in Victoria the following year.
After the Christmas holidays, Arjuna has to go to the new school. He is very unhappy about it. However, he goes to Victoria with his brother. His brother shows Arjuna the principal Black Tie. He looks old fashioned in his fully white kit and black tie and the sola topee. Then they come to the class that Arjuna is supposed to join 9C. One boy Salgado tries to direct Arjuna and Varuna both to the Tamil Class 9F but Varuna tells him that Arjuna is due to join 9C. Again Salgado tries to send Arjuna to the Tamil class and Zoysa comes to his rescue, saying, “Salgado, you are the guy who wants Tamils to learn Sinhala.” They somehow calm down when the teacher comes in. 4
Arjuna takes an interest in Zoysa and looks at him too often. During Mathematics he uses Zoysa’s protractor and sends him a note of thanks for it. But Zoysa with his long hair does not regard it important. Arjuna is in a dilemma about whether to send a note like that was right or wrong. Arjuna’s observation of him gives more clues to Zoysa’s character.
During PE Zoysa goes out on the pretext of using the toilet and comes back after the interval. His immaculately white ironed clothes have been crumpled when he returns. Once Arjuna goes to the toilet he finds Salgado and a few others harassing Chelliah. Later he gets to know that Cheliah is the leader of the Tamil section and Salgado and he are sworn enemies. He says that Lokubandara backs Salgado’s racism. Lokubandara is considered “a snake in the grass.”
The next day the PE period is taken by a prefect. After a short while one Mr Sundaralingam takes the class. He gets the class to read some lines from ‘The Best School of All’ by Sir Henry Newbolt. The prefect predicts that he is going to rope Arjuna into a theatrical production. Later that morning Arjuna gets summons from Black Tie through Angel of Death. The prefect nicknamed him so because he always brings bad news.
When he goes to Black Tie’s office he finds Mr Sundaralingam seated next to him. Arjuna is given two poems – ‘The Best School of All’ and ‘Vitae Lampada’ – and is asked to learn them and come prepared to give a perfect recital of them the following day. In fact his plan is to get him to recite them at the next prize giving. After the school is over that day, Zoysa catches
Arjuna and asks him ’bout the meeting with Black Tie. He describes what happened and Zoysa is surprised by the distinction.
Varuna meets them together, and after Zoysa has gone Varuna warns him against associating with Zoysa and reveals his sexual connections with the head prefect. Arjuna charges Varuna in return for inventing a story to insult someone whom he likes. He does not believe Varuna at all.
Although Arjuna does not like the poems he manages to commit them to his memory. He finds both poems misinterpreting the reality. The following day Arjuna goes to the principal’s office. He gets Zoysa to check his recitation, trying to recite them from memory. He fails due to being frightened by Black Tie. So he receives a terrible caning. The principal behaves like a brute in the whole scenario. With a cane in his presence, he wants the child to recite two poems. So under harassment he fails to give a proper rendition of the poems. Then, finally, he gets severely punished. His interpretation is that if does not do it at the moment the student will ruin his future.
After the school has been over, Arjuna comes to his classroom ith Zoysa and collects his books to go home. His anger over the humiliation and pain was so much that he tares the sheets with the poems into pieces. Zoysa tries to stop him but it proves useless. Then he tells that the sheets are needed for the following day meeting with Black Tie. They decide to go to the British Council and get the two`poems photocopied. Arjuna and Zoysa become good friends on this matter. They leave each other physically but Arjuna is highly preoccupied with Zoysa the whole night. The dream he has of Zoysa ends with a wetness on his saron.
The following day Arjuna goes ready to recite the poems but in the sight of the cane he forgets everything. He receives a severe caning from Black Tie for this. This time a severe type of caning is served on Zoysa too. Arjuna sees Mr Sundaralingam over this. When he relates everything to Mr Sundaralingam the latter explains that he has to put up with this as Black Tie belongs to a different generation of people. An orphan raised by the former principal Mr Lawson now behaves like that because of various shortcomings he has had as an orphan during his education. “Our principal is a strict man but he is not cruel.” Sundaralingam says to Arjuna.
Through Mr Sundaralingam’s intervention both Arjuna and Zoysa get released by the principal. In acknowledgement of this comfort, Zoysa kisses Arjuna in his mouth and it has a shocking effect on Arjuna. They plan to meet at Zoysa’s place at five-thirty that afternoon. Zoysa recreates that experience in his mind and wants to have it in real (in all its detail and sensation) again. They meet in the evening at Zoysa’s but nothing happens.
When Arjuna comes home in the evening and reveals to his family that he went to visit a friend in the Cinnamon Gardens, they become happy and encourage him to invite his friend to lunch. Varuna warns Arjuna against this connection but in vain.
On Saturday that week Arjuna invites Zoysa to his place. They join
Sonali and her friends in a game of hide and seek. Arjuna and Zoysa hide in the garage and there they have their first homosexual intercourse. After the act Arjuna has a repulsive feeling. They have been rather too long in the garage. When they join the rest of the family, the others are curious as to what they had been doing so long. Arjuna comes to realise that Varuna is right when he recalls the experience. Even Arjuna’s father does not approve of Zoysa. Arjuna feels therefore that he has betrayed his family by getting involved with Zoysa. Thus his weekend ends in disillusionment with him. That night he dreams of Zoysa again. He refers to head prefect. This time the sexual act appears to him in concrete. He becomes conscious that
he likes the act with Zoysa but he has the repulsive feeling about the wet salivary sperms dripping along his legs.
The following day when Arjuna is at school he notices Zoysa to be a different person. His emotions have become more conspicuous than before. He does not vanish from the class during the interval. Salgado also notices this. That day the vice principal comes to the class and snatches him by the ear for not reporting to his office. Arjuna feels sorry for Zoysa. He is concerned about Zoysa’s welfare. Arjuna regrets the way in which he treated Zoysa after realising that Zoysa neither debased nor degraded him but offered his love to him in the garage.
He feels grateful to Zoysa for his being kind to him during his detention on the balcony and wants to befriend him again. Then when Zoysa returns to the classroom after school he speaks to him trying to repair his friendship. But the response from Zoysa does not sound very conducive. After he comes home Arjuna waits for a call from Zoysa but finally decides to go and meet him on his own. He arrives at Zoysa’s and finds him in a miserable state. He talks to him for reconciliation. Zoysa implies that he
has already forgiven Arjuna. Finally, he declares his real worry. He cannot stand constant punishment but that is what he is faced with at school.
Arjuna starts wondering about the power structure in society. The principal and father being adults are the ones who create rules for the others to follow as they are endowed with authority, and he and Zoysa have to follow them. Whether they are right or wrong or fair or unfair, Arjuna could not stand the pattern in which order and discipline are maintained in society. He starts wondering whether people like him or Zoysa will ever have a chance of being powerful.
The following day Zoysa comes to school with a new idea. His mother is in England and is planning to join her with his father’s blessings. Arjuna does not have any idea about it at all, and therefore he is a bit sad. After the second period Arjuna goes to the principal’s office and recites the poems very fluently. The principal is satisfied and wants Arjuna to retain them in memory as they represent some values which are already in the process of disappearance.
Arjuna is supposed to recite the poems at the prize giving as the
principal has decided to write his speech based on these poems. But Arjuna wants to fail Black Tie as that would release Zoysa from his daily punishment, and because any shortcomings at the prize giving would lead to Black Tie’s defeat at his battle with Lokubandara.
For the prize giving all parents including Arjuna’s come to the school. They have already taken their seats in the auditorium. The ceremony starts with the playing of the national anthem. Soon after the national anthem, Arjuna’s recitation takes place. Arjuna receives all necessary moral support from the teachers including Mr Sundaralingam. The principal and his wife are seated in the front row along with the Minister. So Arjuna deliberately confuses his recital of the poems. He does so, in order to work out the expulsion of the principal.
After the recitation, except for Mr Sundaralingam, the teachers recoil from Arjuna, as if he is carrying a contagious disease. Mr Sundaralingam consoles him, “Never mind, Chelvanayagam, you did your best.” The principal starts his speech soon after Arjuna’s recitation. First he charges Arjuna as an example of the deterioration the nation is heading for. People start laughing their heads off, but thanks to the microphone he continues his speech. With an enormous difficulty he ends his speech, and invites the Minister to address the gathering. When the prize giving starts Arjuna goes out of the auditorium and meets Zoysa. Alone with Zoysa in a classroom, he divulges that he deliberately messed up the recitation mainly for the sake of Zoysa. “I did it for you… I could not bear to see you suffer any more…” After some homosexual fun, they leave the classroom and enter the auditorium to attend the school anthem. Arjuna finds him getting away from his mother and holding Zoysa as part and parcel of his life. He meets Zoysa again and again and learns how their bodies respond to each other in homosexual embrace.
Critical Analysis of Funny Boy: Set in postcolonial Sri Lanka, Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy (1994) tells the story of a young Tamil’s (Arjie Chelvaratnam’s) realization of his same-sex desire while studying at a school in Colombo modelled on English public schools and teaching colonial literary texts which promote British values. Arjie’s affair with a Sinhalese boy becomes a critique both of his own ethnicity and of the nationalism that has driven rioters to destroy Tamil property, later breaking out into civil war. Such large-scale violence represents a re-enactment of the sexual and patriarchal intolerance within his Tamil family. The violence is heaped upon the narrator as a “funny boy.” Colonial forces haunt the former colony to construct ideologies of sexuality and gender, defining heteronormativity within colonial discourse.
Funny Boy, told in six “stories” according to the subtitle of the book, recounts Arjie’s life before his family’s relocation to Canada following the 1983 riots that presented a direct physical threat to the 144, 156, 170, 279, 305), Arjie’s
lives of the Tamil minority.1 The novel opens in 1972, when Arjie is seven. The final chapter, “Riot Journal: An Epilogue,” includes diary entries recording the historical communal riots in Sri Lanka. The Tamil/Sinhalese struggle appears as an ongoing cycle of events, culminating in the 1983 riots which end not only Arjie’s memoir but also his relationship with his Sinhalese boyfriend Shehan. Triggered by a Tamil protest against the government’s policy to officially recognize Sinhala as the national language of Sri Lanka, mass killings of Tamils were carried out by “some Sinhalese people” (Funny Boy 59) in 1958, in which Arjie’s greatgrandfather died (59), followed by the pogroms of 1971, 1977, 1981, and the outbreak of civil war in 1983 (Funny Boy
personal story about desire and sexuality is interwoven with politics and ethnicity in years of turmoil.
Critics have grappled with the intricate relationships between queerness, homosexuality, ethnicity, and postcoloniality in the novel. The subversive potential of Arjie’s relationship with his boyfriend Shehan, for Senath W. Perera, is not their same-sex love, but that their friendship implies that “racial harmony can be achieved among the marginalized”. Maintaining that Funny Boy should be read as a diasporic text intervening in the politics of the modern Sri Lankan nation state, Tariq Jazeel shows how the negotiation of everyday spaces (the family home and the school) signifies an identity politics, arguing that the nation’s “racially polarised geographies of difference” are destabilized in the treatment of portraying how Arjie comes to terms with his same-sex desire. Andrew Lesk, on the other hand, maintains that the protagonist’s gender and sexual “transgressions” do not challenge the nation state, and will not “subvert the overriding national project of self-harmonization, even in its most violent formations” in what Prakrti calls “post-postcolonial” Sri Lanka; Lesk defines this as a country having moved from “colonialism to post-colonial sovereignty, and now to self-assertion”. On Arjie’s “homosexuality,” Robert Aldrich argues that it “seems a lesser sin than heterosexual violation of ethnicity, caste and religion and the consequences to status and bloodlines that such mésalliances engender”. Gayatri Gopinath, on the contrary, argues that Funny Boy “queers’ the space of Sri Lanka as ‘home’ by disrupting the logic of nationalism, which consolidates ‘the nation’ through normative hierarchical sexual and gender arrangements that coalesce around the privatized,
bourgeois domestic space of ‘home’ as a site of sanitized heterosexuality”.
Shifting the emphasis from sexuality to a socio-economic analysis, Emily S. Davis argues that it is the effects of neoliberalism that shape Sri Lanka’s “governmentality, consumerist fantasy, and global economic mandate” in the postcolonial period. Neoliberal logic, as an economic ideology for development in post-independence Sri Lanka, exerts a subtler effect, which Davis calls the “betrayal of neoliberalism”, on all the marginalized figures, including Radha, Mrs. Chelvaratnam, and Jegan, not to mention Arjie. The power of neoliberalism eventually fails to protect Mr. Chelvaratnam, Arjie’s father, from the violence against his endangered ethnic minority as a Tamil businessman in Colombo, however conformist and patriotic he is. Arjie’s resistance to the oppressing system, for Davis, should be understood as a rejection of neoliberalism, so the publication of Funny Boy as a postcolonial queer Sri Lankan Canadian autobiographical novel aiming to live up to Western LGBTQ identity politics without understanding its “geopolitical and economic context” must instead be interpreted as a problematization of the commodification of the “gay coming of age story”.
Taking these ideas as a starting point, this paper probes the word “funny” in Funny Boy to show that meaningful criticism relies not on a
close reading of the character, but rather on the text itself. The former approach would result in further reinforcing the notion of a fixed identifiable subject, however marginalized it seems, whereas the latter underscores a radical position engineered at a textual level which criticizes by making fun of a power structure that sides with nationalism, imperialism, and neoliberalism.
The word “funny” does not only imply otherness and the comical, but also carries political connotations. Following Edward Said’s influential thesis in Orientalism, the colonized is feminized by the colonizer: “The Oriental was linked thus to elements in Western society (delinquents, the insane, women, the poor) having in common an identity best described as lamentably alien” (207).2 Colonial discourse categorizes the native, the Other, as “funny,” but in the novel it is not colonial discourse that describes the narrator as “funny,” but postcolonial (or, in the historical context of Funny Boy, neocolonial) discourse, which perpetuates the language of colonialism. The culture that Arjie reacts to is dominated by patriarchal power. The novel shows how queer sexuality critiques the national identity-building of modern Sri Lanka. But since nationalism is partly induced by the Sinhalese forces, as opposed to the Tamil minority seeking autonomy, that critique comes from a double marginalization: from a position which is “homosexual,” not heterosexual, and Tamil, not Sinhalese (Hawley 124). Colonial history under the British, the Sinhalese/Tamil split in postcolonial Sri Lanka, and the clash between two major religions (Buddhist/Hindu) threaten to shatter the nation by creating the civil war that appears in full force at the end of the novel. There have been attempts to read the text as a “gay novel,” or even as one about “coming out,” but homosexuality understood as subjectivity only imposes another form of violence by giving closure to the text. Instead of forging a single identity for the nation and the individual, the concept of funniness subverts the idea of a unified personal and national identity.
We may start with a disclaimer about Arjie’s “homosexuality”: calling him homosexual is problematic, not only because the term comes from a Western, Christian, medical discourse which is hostile to same-sex acts, but also because labelling an adolescent “homosexual” essentializes homosexuality. The term is never used in Funny Boy, but the idea is described and implied in the words “funny” and “tendencies.” Perera takes Arjie’s transformation into a “funny boy” while at school as confirmation that his “latent homosexual tendencies” emerged in childhood, assuming the sexual connotation of the word “funny.” Lesk asserts that Arjie’s “sexual identity earns him the ascription ‘funny””, without questioning its plural meanings. He notes that the Sri Lankan equivalent for homosexual is “ponnaya,” and that Arjie “strangely, never uses the word”. Although Lesk argues that “Arjie does not have the language to access what his desires might mean”, there is unfortunately no further exploration of what the
word “funny” means. Interestingly, “ponnaya” is indeed used in Selvadurai’s 2005 novel Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, but the English word “homosexual” is never mentioned. Unlike Arjie, who seems to be more affirmative about his .sexuality in Funny Boy, Amrith de Alwis, the protagonist of Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, struggles to face his same-sex desire. Despite being alone in front of his mother’s tombstone, Amrith cannot bring himself to articulate the word “ponnaya,” but only “I am… different”. It is necessary to start with what Lesk leaves out, examining what the word “funny” could imply.
Insistence The word “funny” appears nine times in the novel, including in the book title. The first instance occurs when the family discovers Arjie’s crossdressing during “bride-bride,” a children’s imitation game of playing the wedding couple; Cyril Uncle cries out “jovially” to Appa, Arjie’s father, “looks like you have a funny one here” (Funny Boy 14). “Funny” here, as in all other instances in the book, is ambiguous in meaning. It is the description of the tone of Cyril’s comment as “jovial” that illuminates the meaning of “funny,” steering the signification of the word to the first definition given by the OED: “affording fun, mirth-producing, comical, facetious.” Arjie nonetheless does not know what his uncle means. It is not necessarily the crossdressing that interests Arjie, because in his innocent mind what he desires is “to wear makeup and costumes and dance around” like the child actor in the play The Pied Piper of Hamelin, probably a dramatization of Robert Browning’s poem.
The Nine Instances of Funny and Their
That evening, Cyril’s diction is repeated in the second instance of the use of the word by Appa, who warns his wife Amma, “If he turns out funny like that Rankotwera boy, if he turns out to be the laughingstock of Colombo, it’ll be your fault,” and “You always spoil him and encourage all his nonsense”. Through the off-stage “Rankotwera boy,” the Chelvaratnams communicates with each other. Everything in the word “funny” depends on its euphemistic force, which is powerful and determining because of its lack of definition. The differences between Cyril’s usage of the word (“a funny one”) and Appa’s (“turns out funny”) are suggestive. Cyril’s exclamation implies that Arjie is already “funny,” whereas Appa sees a potentiality in Arjie’s behavior—”if he turns out funny.” The first is accompanied by Cyril’s laughter, so Arjie’s funniness is already being laughed at, but Appa’s statement is a warning against Arjie becoming a “laughingstock,” which is not “funny” at all. The two instances of “funny” are different in their usage.
The oxymoronic nature of the word is noticed by Arjie. After the Cyril Uncle incident, Amma prohibits Arjie from seeing her change clothes, attempting to transform him into a “normal” male. Frustrated, Arjie contemplates, these fitted the sense in which my father had used the word, for there had been a hint of disgust in his tone.
realizes that the meaning is not in the spoken word, but in the paralinguistics of the affect people show when speaking. Minoli Salgado
asserts the significance of the ambiguity of the word “funny,” arguing that Arjie is not called “gay” or “homosexual” because “funny” implies the “instability of his subject-positioning”. But such a potentially dangerous position is directed toward something laughable.
It was clear to me that I had done something wrong, but what it was I couldn’t comprehend. I thought of what my father had said about turning out “funny.” The word “funny” as I understood it meant either humorous or strange, as in the expression “That’s funny.” Neither of these fitted the sense in which my father had used the word, for there had been a hint of disgust in his tone.
Arjie realizes that the meaning is not in the spoken word, but in the paralinguistics of the affect people show when speaking. Minoli Salgado asserts the significance of the ambiguity of the word “funny,” arguing that Arjie is not called “gay” or “homosexual” because “funny” implies the “instability of his subject-positioning”. But such a potentially dangerous position is directed toward something laughable.
Laughter serves the function of protecting the laughing subject, giving them a sense of superiority over those who are being laughed at, as illustrated in the case of Cyril’s laugh. Laughter creates a hierarchy over the “abnormal,” as implied by Thomas Hobbes’ definition: laughter is a “sudden glory,” implying a feeling of superiority, which “is the passion which maketh those Grimaces called Laughter”. Laughter “is caused either by some sudden act of their own, that pleaseth them” or “by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly applaud themselves”. For Hobbes, those who laugh at others feel superior because laughter constructs normality by marginalizing “deform[ity].” People who laugh are “conscious of the fewest abilities in themselves; who are forced to keep themselves in their own favour, by observing the imperfections of other men. And therefore much laughter at the defects of others, is a sign of pusillanimity”. Pusillanimity here, the opposite of Aristotelian megalopsuchia (magnanimity), means mediocrity, meanness, and a lack of generosity. The act of laughing at what is constructed by the pusillanimous as “funny,” and desiring to fix funniness, are both reactions to a crisis of identity, instanced in the case where the colonizer laughs at the colonized. When the colonizers find someone or something “funny,” the non-specificity and the implied pusillanimity are caused by what Freud calls “Verleugnung” (disavowal or denial). Its mechanism is similar to his formulation of fetishism, which is paraphrased best in Octave Mannoni’s title “Je sais bien, mais quand-même” (“I Know Well, but All the Same”). The fetishist disavows or disregards what is seen in reality, saying what is there when it is not, or turning what is absent into presence. Verleugnung is stronger than “Verdrängung” (repression) because it denies an external reality. Nietzsche argues that the lack of spontaneity promoted by Christian culture in modernity yields what he calls ressentiment, an affect of rancor, bitterness,
and envy. While pusillanimity is bound up with ressentiment, Hobbes
would say ressentiment is veiled within laughter which involves the disavowal of the laughing person’s lack of spontaneous being. Colonialism produces pusillanimity, which translates into ressentiment, showing itself in heteronormativity.
The fourth use of “funny” in the novel appears in chapter 2, “Radha Aunty,” when Radha, a Tamil woman engaged to a man of the same ethnicity, is allegedly having an affair with Anil, who is Sinhalese. Radha’s mother, Ammachi, confronts her over this disrespectful act:
“You think this is funny?” Ammachi said after a few moments. I could tell she was really trying to control herself.
“No,” she replied brightly. “I think it’s very serious.”
“Let’s see how serious it is when Amma [mother] puts an end to your acting in The King and I,” Kanthi Aunty said.
“Funny” is contrasted by Radha with her “serious” love toward Anil, who does not fit into Arjie’s childish idea of a lover because he was “not serious enough” (66). But even so, Anil is not regarded as “funny.” Radha’s response to her mother’s question plays upon the binary opposition of serious/funny. Radha deliberately exploits the double meaning of the word “funny” in Ammachi’s rhetorical question, managing to announce her anti-traditional attitude towards the cross-ethnic relationship. Radha’s ability to exploit language’s ambiguity allows her to temporarily resist that dominating power.
When Arjie’s other aunty asks Radha if she is in love with “this boy” Anil Radha replies, “No… I don’t know,” and “The funny thing is I never thought of him like that [as a lover] until Amma started to make a fuss. It was only after she went to speak to his parents that I began to see him differently”. This fifth “funny” connotes a sense of irony in cause and effect. Radha’s first reaction is negation, and the indicator for being in love is that apart from her fiancé, she is “thinking of Anil as well”. Life’s strangeness arrests Radha, confronting her with the oddity of relationships: love is activated by a third party and denial of love itself.
Hobbes describes people laughing at deformity, but such an attempt to affirm normality is outdone by life’s strangeness. This appears in the next passage (the sixth example of the word “funny”), where Aunty Doris warns Radha not “to make the same mistake” as she did: “Life is a funny thing, you know. It goes on, whatever decisions you make. Ultimately you have children or don’t have children and then you grow old. Whether you married the person you loved or not seems to become less important as time passes”. It is life that could be called the “funny boy”: heterogeneous, or “curious, queer, odd, strange,” (the early eighteenth-century meaning of “funny,” as indicated by OED). Life, as Doris’s third sentence suggests, robs situations from signifying any single meaning.
The seventh instance appears in “The Best School of All” (ch. 5), when Arjie asks his brother Diggy why he must be sent to the ex-British colonial school, Queen Victoria Academy. Diggy says that Appa “doesn’t want you
turning out funny or anything like that”. Arjie feels “a flush rise into [his] face,” and he refuses to meet Diggy’s accusing gaze when the latter asks, “You’re not, are you?” (205). Arjie’s flush is a sign of shame and desire. It suggests shame, as though he is being looked at by an imagined internalized authority, creating desire, signaled in a flush, or in Norman Brown’s words, as “a mild erection of the entire head”. For Michel Foucault, normative desire and disgust are produced discursively. The function of confession is to produce a split subject: the more a subject confesses, the more developed and more vulnerable his subjectivity becomes. The word exists in discourse with the power to define and marginalize, as Foucault suggests that language always does, but its power is its imprecision, that it is not clear whether someone is funny or not.
The eighth use of the word “funny” appears when Black Tie cuts Shehan Soyza’s hair as a punishment in Queen Victoria Academy. Arjie says: “It’s not fair. He can’t get away with this.”
Soyza studied me with mock pity. “You poor thing,” he said, “you really are fresh meat, aren’t you.”
“Stop joking,” I cried at him. “It’s not funny.”
“Why not? I think it’s extremely funny.”
“Funny” here functions like the reply which Radha makes, as the opposite of “serious”: Arjie does not like being called “fresh meat,” which has sexual implications, nor that Shehan has had his hair cut. It is not clear what Arjie protests against more, Shehan’s hair or being called fresh meat. The joke may be on him as vulnerable (fresh meat) or on Shehan, who thinks “it” funny. “Funny” may be read beyond Shehan’s sense, meaning that Arjie’s response shows his “funniness”-his affection toward Shehan, which makes “funny” positive. Sharanya Jayawickrama maintains, “The word ‘funny’ that is initially used derogatively to refer to Arjie’s identity is reclaimed by the end of the novel when he himself initiates laughter that proves redemptive of his position”. It seems to recognize otherness, or marginality. So, Shehan’s claim “it’s extremely funny” indicates that he accepts the marginal place they share, but such an acceptance can only be achieved by maintaining equivocality. Being disingenuous becomes a form of politics, enabling a plurality of meanings.
Lastly, the word “funny” appears in the title Funny Boy: A Novel in Six Stories. “Pig Can’t Fly,” the first chapter, was first published as a short story in The Toronto South Asian Review, and was also collected in the “gay stories” anthology Meanwhile, in Another Part of the Forest. The title Funny Boy simultaneously unifies by giving a sense of identity (however ambiguous and plural the word is) to the protagonist, and fragments the chapters of which the novel is composed, because the subtitle suggests that the six stories may be read as separable and independent works. Their protagonists, while all called Arjie, are not necessarily one person; or if they are one person, the assumed homogeneity of personhood over different stages is challenged. The separating
“Funniness” betrays Arjie when the ambiguous nature of the word is denied and its signification fixed, expelling not only him, but also those who are “funny”: anyone who is not regarded as “proper” within the dominant ideology is banished simply by labelling them “funny.” Such violent expulsion accumulates not as a direct force, but within repeated forward and backward steps. In this “Novel in Six Stories,” each chapter begins with what Freud calls “the return of the repressed”, and ends with a compromise, or a further repression. This structure can be illustrated through the fourth “story,” “Small Choices,” which gives an example of repression in the father, both sexual and political. The chapter opens with the unveiling of a childhood friendship followed by a series of events which reveal Appa’s potential sexual funniness; it ends with political oppression, intolerance to a Tamil, and ethnic “funniness,” which Appa refuses to admit. Arjie’s suffering and the family’s exile are actually both caused by the repeated repression of some version of funniness. At the beginning of the chapter, Appa reads aloud an unexpected letter from the widow of a childhood friend:
tendency in funniness is already installed in the novel’s title.
Dear Mr. Chelvaratnam, I am writing to request a favor in memory of my late husband. My son, Jegan, is a qualified accountant. He’s twenty-five years old and has spent the last year as a relief worker for the Gandhiyam movement, but, due to recent problems, I removed him from the organization. He is currently unemployed. Would you be able to find him a post in your business? I am sure his skills will be useful to you. Yours truly, Grace Parameswaran. P.S. I found the attached document among my husband’s belongings, and I am sending it to you as a souvenir of your friendship with him.
The letter implies a repression, starting with the old “yellowing piece of paper”, followed by the appearance of Jegan, the son of “Buddy Parameswaran,” and then with him being sent away. The parallel between Buddy and Mr. Chelvaratnam (Appa)’s relationship, as separated close childhood friends, with that of Arjie and Shehan opens up the possibility that Arjie’s undefined funniness may be derived from the father, suggesting that the entry into patriarchy depends on the repression of something homosocial or homoerotic, of tendencies which cannot be acknowledged. When Arjie’s father first discovers Arjie in bridal dress, everyone laughs except Appa, who “pretended he had not heard [the laughter] and, with an inclination of his head, indicated to Amma to get rid of me”. The father’s reaction may suggest his repression. He cannot laugh at his son, not just because he dislikes the crossdressing, but also perhaps because it reminds him of his own “funniness,” his own “tendencies.” Whereas the text suggests that Arjie’s life is a repetition of Appa’s, reoccurrences of words such as “funny” and “tendencies” in the novel can be understood as what Lacan calls l’instance in “L’instance de la lettre dans l’inconscient” [“The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious”]. For Lacan, l’instance means both the
instance and insistence. “Funny” belongs to such literality of language, which “insists” through the specific language of repeated generations. The tendency (or “insistence”) of the word “funny” is to accrue non-specific but marginalized meanings, and to “insist” in the unconscious, tending to create a history that the conscious self is unaware of. Tendencies Toward a Tendency:
Arjie’s “tendencies” are first manifest in his being drawn to associate with his female friends as a young child. In his grandparents’ house, described in “Pigs Can’t Fly,” spaces are explicitly divided to demarcate sexual difference:
Territorially, the area around my grandparents’ house was divided into two. The front garden, the road, and the field that lay in front of the house belonged to the boys, although included in their group
was my female cousin Meena. The second territory was called “the girls,” included in which, however, was myself, a boy. It was to this territory of “the girls,” confined to the back garden and the kitchen porch, that I seemed to have gravitated naturally, my earliest memories of those spend-thedays always belonging in the back garden of my grandparents’ home. (3; emphasis added)
John C. Hawley sees ethnic (Sinhalese/Tamil) and gender (boy/girl) binary oppositions as metaphors for each other (124). National identity requires an identification of “proper” ethnicity and “normal” sexuality. But the quoted passage destabilizes the categories of boy and girl, making the situation “funny”: the young Arjie has a tendency to enter the girls’ territory. As if pulled or stretched (tendre in French) by gravity, Arjie “naturally” belongs to the territory of “the girls.” His crossgendered acts are treated as signs of being “funny,” but he is proud of being the bride. Arjie’s tendencies are characterized as natural, even though the word “natural” itself is problematic because the notion of naturalness is largely ideological.
It does not take long for Arjie to realize that his “funniness” places him in a liminal space. After being barred from “the girls’ world,” he foresees being “caught between the boys’ and the girls’ worlds, not belonging or wanted in either” (39). Stuck in an imagined space, he loses any sense of gender, any sexual, ethnic, or national identity. Arjie’s liminality robs him from possessing any single subjectivity. A slippage in language always misrepresents: there is no way of describing a boy who is different from other boys that does not risk defining or implying that he belongs with the girls. Understanding gender in terms of a binary opposition of boy and girl offers no place for Arjie, just as language’s power to name deprives him of a proper space.
It is precisely the apparent plurality of the word “tendencies” that makes it, a crucial term in the construction of homosexuality as a single thing within the text. “Tendencies” first appears as a plural when Appa talks about his worry of something emerging in Arjie:
“From the time he was small he has shown certain tendencies.” “What do you mean, tendencies?” Jegan asked.
“You know… he used to play with dolls, always reading.”
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him,” Jegan said.
For as long as I could remember, my father had alluded to this “tendency” in me without ever giving it a name. (162; 1st ellipsis in original) This cross-generation conversation shows how “homosexuality” is (not) discussed in the novel. Appa is “embarrassed” (162), and the “name” he gives is misnamed: “tendencies” is understood because it does not tell. What do these “tendencies” tend toward? The answer is omitted yet understood, or misunderstood, like the word “funny.” If the word “tendencies” is a substitute for “homosexuality,” identity becomes nothing but a chain of catachreses, like Arjie’s using “tendency” to name “tendencies.” The plurality and complexity which Appa and Jegan talk about become a singular “tendency” when Arjie contemplates its meaning, bringing a sense of closure to the word in an attempt to fix his own identity as defined by a single tendency.
One euphemistic but now archaic meaning of “tendencies,” particularly in middle-class Britain, is “tendencies toward homosexuality”. Though it is unstated, this is likely the reason behind Eve Sedgwick’s use of the title Tendencies, a book analyzing different “gay” texts. The citations which the OED gives are from 1938 and 1958, years which would roughly correspond to the period in which Appa had his college life in Britain. The OED draws on English literature: first from the British Poet Laureate John Betjeman’s Oxford University Chest, in which “Someone who has ‘tendencies’ as an undergraduate, will in ten years time be settled down to married life”. The second is by Lawrence Durrell, who was himself arguably born a colonial subject but became a British establishment figure. Durrell writes in Balthazar, “Now the Egyptians, they don’t give a damn about a man if he has Tendencies”. Plural tendencies mean a single thing, possessing the power to break down a binary opposition.
Did Arjie’s father pick up the word “tendencies” at Oxford, or whichever university he attended in Britain? Did he pick up actual “tendencies”? And did he understand the meaning of the word, or would it have been a case of the outsider not being able to understand an “in” word, the use of which shows a “sudden glory” (Hobbes 6.125) over someone who cannot and who is unable, on account of colonial embarrassment, to ask? Does the word then carry colonial implications, being the language of a parent-culture not sufficiently understood by its Sri Lankan user? Or did Appa understand the word perfectly, and is he now trying to talk like a British subject in a postcolonial context? Is homosexuality to be defined by the colonial power, especially through its literature, and if so, to what extent does the colonized figure know this? And what of the knowledge of Arjie? Does the author try to make tendencies into a singular tendency? Selvadurai’s deliberate emphasis on changing the plural to the singular exposes the weirdness, or “funniness,”
of assigning one meaning, that of homosexuality, to “tendencies.”
Jegan’s reply to Appa is no less ambiguous: his answer could mean that there is nothing queer about Arjie, if Jegan understands what “naving tendencies” means; or, that there is nothing wrong with Arjie even if he is homosexual. Jegan’s attitudes toward sexuality and national identity are conflicting, for he belongs to a political activist organization aiming to divide Sri Lanka by turning the northern and eastern territories into a monoethnic Tamil independent state. To split the country into two according to ethnic difference is not to recognize the queerness of national identity. To read Funny Boy as a “coming-of-age novel” (Hawley 117) or “a tale of sexual coming-of-age” (Aldrich 210) is potentially reductive, because it is impossible to know what “funny” means, and it is an act of reducing plural tendencies to a fixed, single quality. “Small Choices” ends with the betrayal of Jegan, whom Appa has promised to protect for the sake of Buddy, Jegan’s father, and with a fake referendum organized by the anti-Tamil government, which suggests that sustained state violence will soon be under way. Shocked by the brutality of these injustices, Arjie feels he has no alternative but to stay with his father, “sharing his silence” (Funny Boy 203). Their mutual silence covers over Appa’s own ethnic and perhaps sexual “funniness” unveiled by the Jegan incident, but the temporary understanding implied in the shared silence does not prevent Appa from insisting on reducing Arjie’s “tendencies” into a masculine, single subject. Arjie’s tendencies lead him to a position of liminality, a situation Appa insists on rectifying by transferring him to a prestigious boys’ school.
of the Imperial Canon We have traced moments when Arjie’s funniness is mentioned or referred to, in non-verbal or literary ways. Canonical literary language “insists,” particularly in public school discourse as well as in the cultural references to which the author is exposed. Postcolonial discourse subtly modifies this language of literature, showing that there is something funny within it. In the last story, realizing that leaving Sri Lanka is a reality for him, Arjie recalls his childhood excitement-“what fun it would be to go abroad” (302) when his imagination was fuelled by books he had read: “Those Famous Five books, and then Little Women and the Hardy Boys” (302). Given the prestigious education that Arjie received, we could assume that apart from reading these popular children’s adventures or Bildungsroman at home, he must have picked up the colonial literary canon at school, though he is not necessarily able to distinguish the British “Famous Five” from the American Little Women and “Hardy Boys” series. Such a literary tradition is also implied in Selvadurai’s Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, a tale set in 1980s Colombo (the same time and place as Funny Boy), in which the young protagonist Amrith studies English literature including Romeo and Juliet (Swimming 49), Othello (61), George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (54) and Rudyard Kipling’s “If” (164). Though not referred to in Funny Boy, Thomas Hardy is another example of a writer Arjie may have known because of his
Critical Funniness: Making Fun
Allusions to literary classics in Selvadurai’s world fuel the novel’s “tendencies,” silently cancelling out the violence that excludes “funny boys” (all those who are regarded as others). The allusions also offer resistances to the dominant power that splits the nation, symbolized in the family’s house at the end. When Appa decides to leave for Canada, Arjie is “glad” because he does not “feel at home in Sri Lanka any longer” (Funny Boy 297). But leaving Sri Lanka means he must also part with his boyfriend, Shehan. Their last encounter is recounted in Arjie’s last diary entry dated 27 August 1983, which also ends the novel. Arjie writes, after the last time they have sexual intercourse, “I glanced up at the mirror and saw that he [Shehan] was watching me. For a moment our eyes met, then I turned away and continued getting dressed” (303). It is followed by a parting scene invested with such literary motifs as torrential raining, loud weeping, and a compulsion of “turning back and look[ing]” at the house destroyed by “Black July” rioters: I wheeled it [my bicycle] to the gate, staring straight ahead, not wanting
to look at the house again. I didn’t bother to close the gate as I left. There was no reason to protect it against the outside world anymore.
I began to ride up the road, and the rain suddenly started, falling in great torrents, as it does during the monsoon season. When I reached the top of the road, I couldn’t prevent myself from turning back to look at the house one last time. For a moment I saw it, then the rain fell faster and thicker, obscuring it from my sight. (305)
Arjie may be too young to have read Hardy or Shakespeare, but the adult writer must have read the British canon. The parting between Arjie and the burnt, ruined house in the midst of “great torrents” in Funny Boy’s ending evokes the familiar imagery of a lover’s departure in the rain, as in Hardy’s poem “At Castle Boterel,” with the “I” bidding farewell to a vision of his dead wife:
I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
I look back at it amid the rain,
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking, And I shall traverse old love’s domain
Never again. (Hardy 169)
These motifs of the visual senses (“look,” “see,” and “look back”) in Hardy’s poem and the compulsion of looking in Funny Boy suggest that although it is the “last look” that the poet and narrator have, they nonetheless revisit the scene in writing. Hardy’s poem is a farewell to his dead wife, but what receives Arjie’s look is the now decimated house that embodies his identity, his past, and his Sri Lankan national identity. Whereas Hardy’s dead wife diminishes as he moves away from the gate, Arjie’s house is gradually obscured by the downpour. The two texts both end in rain, suggesting a sense of disillusionment.
Motifs of rain, gates, segregation, and funniness evoke not only Hardy,
but also Shakespeare. In Twelfth Night, Feste the clown laments over knaves being ostracized from a house: When that I was and a little tiny boy, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, A foolish thing was but a toy, For the rain it raineth every day. But when I came to man’s estate, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, ‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate, For the rain it raineth every day. (5.1.388-95) The figure of the “funny boy” is a conflation of Shakespeare’s “little tiny boy,” “knaves and thieves,” and Feste the clown. Moreover, we witness the same image of this figure being expelled in the rain in the closing scene of Funny Boy and in Twelfth Night. In the latter, the clown is not furiny anymore. He is lamenting the mistreatment of his kind by nobility and society at large. Arjie and his kind, be it a Tamil or a homosexual, are pushed out of their own house. If Arjie is funny, the cultural root could be traced back to an early-modern tradition that “boys are compared to women, or said to be effeminate” (Sinfield, Shakespeare 126) instanced in King Henry VI, Part 1 in which Gloucester accuses the Bishop of Winchester of preferring “an effeminate prince, / Whom like a schoolboy you may overawe” (1.1.35-36).
These effeminate “schoolboys” in the textual “faultlines” (Sinfield, Faultlines 9) are reminders of an unresolvable “third gender” in Shakespeare. Commenting on Shakespeare’s theatre, Stephen Greenblatt maintains that individual manhood was formed by excluding one gender in adolescence, since “boys” played female roles on stage.8 The subversive dimension to Arjie’s “tendencies” in Funny Boy can be traced back to Shakespearean theatrical practices. Such a subversive dimension in representing the “third gender” is also hinted at in Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, in which this theatrical transvestism is doubly practiced by the single-sex schools where female roles are played by juniors in the boys’ schools, and male roles by seniors in the girls’ schools in the Inter-School Shakespeare Competition held in Colombo (Swimming 49). Having won The Best Female Portrayal from a Boy’s School playing the heroine in Romeo and Juliet the previous year (49), the 14-yearold Amrith is first offered the role of Desdemona in Othello (220-21), but is then dispossessed of this female lead and instead given the part of Cassio (222-23). He is being made fun of-“Ah, Michael Cassio, waiting for your darling Iago to pick you up?” – a reference to Iago’s lie about Cassio’s dream of kissing him (223; emphasis in original; Othello 3.3.416-28). Even though the complexity of Iago’s psychology, that is to say, his own fantasy about Cassio as manifested in his imagined oneiric erotic encounter, is certainly missed by the boys (who “don’t know the first damn thing about Shakespeare” , according to Mrs. Algama, the director of
the Drama Society), the subversive elements of the strangeness in Shakespeare’s theatrical practices are exposed in the Sri Lankan single-sex public school.
While Hardy and Shakespeare are literary allusions in Selvadurai’s writings, Funny Boy’s subversive tendencies can also be found in two explicit textual references to poems by Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938): “The Best School of All” (1899), which Selvadurai uses as the title for the fifth chapter of the novel, and “Vitae Lampada” (1892), which Arjie is forced by the principal Mr. Abeysinghe (Black Tie) to recite in the prize-giving ceremony (Funny Boy 231). The fictional Queen Victoria Academy can be regarded as representative because of the significance of the name: there are schools founded by the British during the colonial era in Sri Lanka such as Victoria College in Chulipuram, and Royal College (formerly Royal Academy, established in 1835) in Colombo. Black Tie, a product of such an education, always dresses himself in outmoded outfits, a “carefully pressed white suit,” and a “sola topee,” or “white domed hat” (209) that reminds Arjie of a British colonial ruler. Arjie’s response to the privileging of a colonial mentality through the teaching of poetry of little artistic or literary value like Newbolt’s might position the doubly marginalized protagonist as what Perera calls a “resisting reader,” realizing “the hypocrisy inherent in the school,” “the anachronistic nature of its values,” and the “injustice resid[ing] in the patriarchal world” of modern Sri Lanka (“Some Responses” 259). Defiance of postcolonial authority aside, I contend that it is a critical funniness. in the text itself, and not Arjie’s, that allows Funny Boy to challenge the values promoted by the former colony’s imperial British “master.”
The British imperial values that Queen Victoria Academy promotes are manifest in the discourse of literary language and everyday disciplinary practices. The word “game” repeated in “Vitae Lampada” signifies such aggressive activities as physical training, bullying, cricket matches (the British national sport), school policy power struggles, and imperial war.9 As described in Newbolt’s “The Best School of All,” Black Tie also “tanned the hide” (line 25) of his students, evoking a sense of sadism, while the “pride” (line 27) gained by the masters in the fourth stanza is most likely erotic. This sadomasochism contributes to the making of the masculine subject, the “funny boy,” the boy with “tendencies,” and yet the school is a feminine figure the word “her” recurs three times in the first stanza. The refrain of “Vitae Lampada” is “Play up! play up! and play the game!” The school boys’ homosociality implies an unconscious homoeroticism in Newbolt’s canonical but far from refined poem. The “game” they play is remembered in the second stanza when the narrator is fighting in a war, requiring him to “play up,” evoking the “game” played by the protagonist of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901).10 Meanings that “the game” can take up range from cricket, war, and colonialism, to, in Funny Boy, homoeroticism and homosexuality.11 The title, and the phrase “torch of flame” in the third stanza, are taken from Lucretius, but they also evoke the blindfolded woman’s lit torch depicted in the “small sketch in oils” in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of
Patric Dickinson quotes Newbolt on the First World War, which “like life itself, is a game or else a brutality worse than bestial. . . . I have come to believe that the best thing we can do is to kill the accursed and that isn’t a job to rejoice over. To win a game makes the pulses leap” (Introduction 22). In this context, to “play the game” is to fight a war. Using the colonial and literary rhetoric of fighting a war as “playing the game” also allows, because of its fantasy, for what happens in Sri Lanka’s civil war. Newbolt’s “playing the game” refrain also appears in Appa’s tip to survive as a member of minority, that “as a Tamil you have to learn how to play the game. Play it right and you can do very well for yourself. The trick is not to make yourself conspicuous” (Funny Boy 169). Knowing how to “play the game,” however, does not protect Arjie’s father from the violence in 1983, however hard he tries to “go around quietly” and “[not to] step on anyone’s toes” (169). The rhetoric of “the game” insists in the unconscious, producing which are embarked on in game-like tendencies. pogroms,
The treatment of Newbolt’s poems in Funny Boy implicitly criticizes British imperialism. Perhaps Newbolt’s Jewishness made his patriotism more emphatic, as if he felt the need to assert it out of a sense of marginalization.13 Arjie repeats the first two lines of “The Best School of All” and moves into the last stanza of “Vitae Lampada” when Black Tie demands that he recite the former in a rehearsal for the ceremony speech. Arjie’s inability to recite under Black Tie’s over-masculine sadistic threat becomes ironic and comic at the same time. Reciting “The Best School of All,” Arjie goes, “It’s good to see the School we knew, the land of youth and dream, / This is the word that year by year, while in her place the School is set, / Every one of her sons must hear and none that hears it dare forget . . .” (Funny Boy 231; ellipsis in original). At the very moment when Arjie enunciates the warning by the colonizer not to forget the lesson taught, his mind goes completely blank. There is a latent criticism of violent imperialist force exerted onto a colonial subject when the very reaction is to violate the rule so set forth. Coming out of Newbolt’s education policy, Black Tie, a colonial subject dressed up as the colonizer, punishes Arjie for his failed rehearsal by “continu[ing] to cane me until he felt the vice of falsehood had been banished from my being” (232). The mocking tone and Arjie’s jumbling up of Newbolt’s poems work together to intensify the criticism of colonial violence, both Newbolt’s and the imitator Black Tie’s, offered by Arjie’s unintentional “critical funniness.”
Following this episode, Arjie and Shehan make fun of Newbolt when looking for his poems in the British Council library. Shehan, after reading the poems, says, “this fellow really loved school” (235);
Now we were chuckling, and it was a relief to be able to hold up for ridicule all that was considered sacred by the Queen Victoria Academy. “I bet you anything,” I said, “that he was cricket captain, rugger captain, and tennis captain all in one year.”
“And don’t forget leader of the debate team and chairman of the English
Literary Association,” [Shehan] Soyza added. “Otherwise, how else could he know such big words?”
He peered at the book, then held up his finger authoritatively and read in a sonorous voice, “”Qui ante diem periit: Sed miles sed pro patria.”” The expression on his face, as if he understood what he was saying, made me laugh. (235)
Newbolt’s imagined achievement in sports (which, like “game,” means wars and British imperialism), and as a man of letters (his 1921 report on education) supplement the criticism of his patriotism and English language education after the war. Shehan misses the beginning (“Qui procul hinc”) of these “big words” in the “legend” written on the “yonder brass” in Newbolt’s poem “Clifton Chapel” (1908), a reference to Clifton College, Newbolt’s alma mater, which he considered the “best school of all.” In “Clifton Chapel,” a father addresses his son, buried in a “frontier-grave” (ll. 30), possibly in the Boer War, comforting the young man by affirming that he was a good soldier who died for his country. He praises his son who must “love the game beyond the prize” (ll. 10), and “honour, while you strike him down, / The foe that comes with fearless eyes” (ll. 11-12). Though Newbolt’s complete poem is not given, the mocking way Shehan reads the half line dismisses the values promoted by the poet. Homosociality (“brotherhood”), masculinity, masochism (“count the life of battle good” [ll. 13]), and, patriotism are part of the imperial “game.” The subversiveness of their laughter becomes more powerful as the speaker is unaware of its implications— “as if he understood what he was saying.”14 Criticism of Newbolt offered by Shehan and Arjie’s laughter is best described by Terence Hawkes, who argues that the policy of teaching English in England in the 1920s as part. of a liberal education was a political act, aiming to bring “social cohesion in the face of potential disintegration and disaffection; and nationalism, the encouragement of pride in English national culture on a broader front” (325-26). The person behind the education policy was none other than Newbolt, who worked in the War Propaganda Bureau, and was knighted in 1915.15 The power of the radical “chuckles” (Funny Boy 235) resides in criticizing Sir Henry Newbolt, his British imperial values, and the implied hypocrisy of his education policy.
The boys’ subversive laughter in the British Council library is the beginning of a subtle criticism of British colonial power which had attempted to achieve cultural superiority. It is followed by Arjie’s realization that Newbolt’s poetry is full of “foolish lines” (267), and then his “revenge” plan against Black Tie to take Newbolt’s two poems as representative of English literature, and to “confuse [them], jumble lines, take entire stanzas from one poem and place them in the other until the poems were rendered senseless” (270). The poetry recitation serves a political function. The new vice principal, appointed by a cabinet minister, plots to transform the existing “too British” (215) school, which allows multi-ethnicity and multi-theology, to a Buddhist
a one, which will result in a monolingual Sinhala-speaking education. Inheriting British colonial values from the old principal of Queen Victoria Academy, Black Tie tries to win over the cabinet minister, who is also an alumnus, with speech based on Newbolt’s poetry. Arjie is involuntarily dragged into a conflict between an inclusive but colonial school policy and an exclusive but national one. As an ethnic minority, Arjie should side with the more inclusive side, but he chooses to destroy Black Tie’s plot out of his love for Shehan. The result is a distorted speech and a “tired and defeated” Black Tie whose words are “buffeted” “by laugher and coughs” (276). Arjie’s action fragments the school as it is taken over by Sinhalese power harmful to him as a Tamil.
Identity involves recognition of the self. It is not static, but it constantly changes in relation to political, cultural and social events that are occurring. A child’s identity is negotiable. Children are presumed innocent and naÃ¯ve until they have experienced life. Their sense of identity has not been determined if they have not had experiences in which they are able to determine their relationship to and how it affects them. In narrating or privileging a child’s perspective in a novel, the language the reader is presented with is simplistic and the viewpoint of the narrator is often minimalistic as it is based upon the experiences which the narrator has encountered. Shyam Selvadurair’s Funny Boy is narrated from an adolescent’s perspective, where the presumed innocence and naivety of the child offers an alternative view to the political, cultural, social and historical tensions in India and Sri Lanka and the effect that it has on the developing child in terms of identity. The child narrator in each text is an outsider as they do not merge with the cultural norms imposed upon by society. Arjie, the product of an upperclass Tamil family in Funny Boy, crosses borders in his awakening as a homosexual, falling in love with a Sinhalese, despite his parents attempt to create a masculine identity for him, in order that he may abide by the boundaries and social order that has been imposed upon him. The need to understand identity determines the characters individual relationship to the tensions surrounding them. Although children might not understand what is going on, they offer a new angle in which the readers may make sense of what they are being told and how it is important to the work as a whole.
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.
In transgressing boundaries, desire seems to be the only hope of doing this. Throughout the novel, Arjie’s family is persistent in ‘replacing’ him back in the male category, removing his involvement with girls, and encouraging his play with boys. The reader understands that Arjie’s family is aware of his sexuality, or aware of what may become of his sexuality, even before Arjie himself becomes aware of it. The continual attempt to place Arjie back in the role that has been deemed for him by society is the family’s assimilation to the rules that have been put in place. His family, the adults, is aware of the consequences of their actions, yet the child Arjie is unable to connect the two; cause and effect, which enables him to break these boundaries that his family tries so hard to resist. It is Arjie’s desire to play ‘bride-bride’ with the girls, rather than play cricket with the boys that begins his transgression of boundaries. Stepping outside of the norms of society has cause the personal to become intertwined with the political for Arjie.
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.
When Arjie recognizes that Shehan is a Sinhalese, he is recognizing the borders that he has transgressed in both his sexuality and in bridging the gap between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. As the adolescent or child narrator has grown and experienced more of life throughout the novel, they have gained recognition of the self and attempted to create their own identity.
Readers of the text are presented with information that may seem unrelated and in abundance at times, but it merely adds to characteristics of children presenting what is on their mind which at times seems irrelevant. As children are presumed innocent and naÃ¯ve until they have experienced life, the account of the events in both texts for the most part are told from the child’s perspective, where they have not yet been influenced by society. Through lack of experience, children’s reactions and views are objective, allowing the child as narrator to present the reader with their inner thoughts, having not yet been changed or altered by society. This offers a sense of innocence and authenticity to the child’s perspective and the reader is aware that what they are reading is the original thoughts of the child without the influence of society. Although children might not understand what is going on, they offer a new angle in which readers may make sense of what they are being told and how it is important to work as a whole.