[Book Review] Shyam Selvadurai's 'Funny Boy'


Arush Nand as young Arjie, dressed here as a bride


Selvadurai’s debut novel, Funny Boy explores a Sri-Lankan Tamil boy’s life and his transition to adolescence as he comes to terms with his sexual identity. Set against the backdrop of the Sri-Lankan civil war, the book explores themes like homosexuality, nationality, identity, and violence. Selvadurai masterfully connects Arjie’s life story with the politics of post-colonial Sri Lanka which was steeped in ethnic rivalries, political tensions, and communal violence between the Sinhala and Tamil communities.


The book is divided into six stories about events that occur in the characters’ lives and how they have an effect on Arjie, subsequently shaping his understanding of the world. When you begin reading this book, you are instantly mesmerized by Arjie’s precociousness. He is an oddity in this world. Unlike the rest of his boy cousins who play cricket, he dresses up as a bride to play “bride-bride” with his girl cousins. His cross-dressing displeases the elders, who snarkily term him a “Funny Boy.” The story is narrated from a child’s perspective who is baffled by the adult world which is full of secrets and enigmas.



Arjie’s perspective makes the readers question their hypocrisies and thought processes. It is through Arjie’s clean slate mind that we realize how ridiculous societal norms are. As a child, he feels stifled when these norms are imposed on him, he refuses to exist in heteronormative binaries. Arjie is never personally confused about his identity. He however fails to understand why society wants to push him into rigid categories. Arjie finds a friend in his father’s sister, Radha aunty, who takes him to drama practices and movie theatres. Arjie becomes an accomplice in his aunt’s secret love affair when she falls in love with a Sinhala boy. His aunt is forced to keep it a secret from her family because Sinhalese killed her grandfather in the fifties' language riots. The affair comes to an abrupt end when Radha aunty is brutally injured in a riot and realizes that despite her wishes, she cannot marry a Sinhalese. This event makes Arjie understand that history dictates the present reality, and that love isn’t enough for two people to be together.


Arjie’s romantic understanding of love and marriage is shattered when he learns of the tensions in his parent’s relationship. He soon finds himself in the middle of a clandestine affair between his mother and her old lover Daryl, a journalist with mixed ancestry, who returns to Sri Lanka from Australia. When Daryl uncle, half Portuguese, is killed in Jaffna, Arjie’s mother is scared and anxious. On the one hand, she wants to bring justice to her lover, but on the other, she is concerned about her family. Scared that a police investigation will draw unnecessary attention toward her Tamil family, a minority in Sri Lanka, she is forced to stop her investigation regarding Daryl’s mysterious death. The story ends with Arjie’s realization that there exist forces bigger and more powerful than him, or his family. Each chapter signals an end and a beginning in Arjie’s life, as he learns new things about his world and realizes that it is not as simple as it had seemed when he was young. Arjie’s growth also becomes visible through the narration. As he ages, his understanding of the world shifts from naive and inconclusive observations to nuanced realizations. He forms his opinions and soon begins to understand why his family used to call him a “funny boy.”


Arjie’s sexual awakening finally happens at Victoria Academy, an elite all-boys colonial-style school. His father, the patriarch of the Chelvaratnam family admits him to this new school because Arjie’s “feminine tendencies” threaten the dominant hetero-patriarchal social order. However, rather than confronting this, the book reestablishes the social order. His father believes that at Victoria Academy Arjie will finally “turn into a man.” For Arjie’s family, his “funniness” is just a phase that he is taking time to outgrow. Interestingly, in the book Arjie doesn’t come out to his family. His sexual identity is never explicitly stated by the author, but the word “funny” is used to hint at it. This may have been because homosexuality was, and still is a criminal offense according to Article 365 and 365 A of the Sri Lankan Penal Code with up to ten years of jail. Through Arjie, Selvadurai expertly expresses the anxieties surrounding gender non-conformity in Sri Lanka’s patriarchal society.


Victoria Academy can be seen as a microcosmic representation of Sri Lanka and its political situation. Classes are divided between the Sinhala and Tamil speakers. When Arjie, a Tamil joins the Sinhalese class, he is mocked by the Sinhalese boys and asked to return to the Tamil class. With its politics, the school is divided between those who support the Principal (popularly known as Black Tie) and the other half that support the Vice-Principal (Mr. Lokubandara). The rivalry between them is extremely complex and bitter. Mr. Lokubandara wishes to turn the school into a Sinhala school and since all Buddhists are Sinhalese, this would mean that Tamils would be excluded from it. The Principal is opposed to this decision because he believes that the school should be open to children of all races and religions. The school can be seen as a reflection of the national scenario of the country and as a site of conflict between the nationalist and separationist, the colonial and the post-colonial, and the heterosexual versus the homosexual/“funny” (Lou 2).


It is in Victoria Academy that shy and hesitant Arjie meets the charming Sinhalese Shehan and falls in love with him amidst escalating communal violence. His romance with Shehan coincides with the beginning of the riots in Sri Lanka. Arjie is forced to confront the hostile boundaries of ethnic and linguistic identities. The last chapter of the book, titled ‘Riot Journal’ documents Arjie’s experience of being a victim in the communal riots. His house gets burned and looted, his grandparents die and he is left homeless in his homeland. Selvadurai keeps the violence in the background, we never directly witness the action occurring upfront. This makes the narration more impactful and intensely emotionally because we learn how these incidents affect the characters. The last chapter also problematizes the idea of home. For Arjie, this “home” is doubly hostile because of his sexual and ethnic identity. He is a minority not just because he is a Tamil, but because he is queer in a largely heterosexual world. Arjie as a child was protected from the harsh realities of the world and blinded to the danger until he grew old. But his parents and grandparents always lived in uncertainty with fear looming over their heads. Their fear finally manifests in the form of the anti-Tamil pogrom.


The official poster of Deepa Mehta’s adaptation of Funny Boy

The story keeps you hooked till the end. You become emotionally attached to the characters and empathize with Arjie as he bids adieu to Shehan and his now destroyed home. Arjie and Shehan’s tender love story comes to an end when Arjie’s family decides to move to Canada. Penniless and devoid of a home, they are forced to seek refuge in a foreign land, far away from a place they had known as home.


The Funny Boy is an exceptionally beautiful story, it deals with heavy subjects, but never makes you feel burdened by their weight. Its beauty lies in the subtlety of Selvadurai’s writing. He crafts this world with feather-light touches and creates characters that seem real and alive. His writing flows smoothly; his words invite you to relive his own experience of being a young boy in Sri Lanka. The Funny Boy will make you nostalgic for your childhood, while also pushing you to rethink your ideas about the world. This Pride Month will be the right time to pick up this poignant coming-of-age story that is sure to leave you breathless and mesmerized. If you are not a reader, then you can watch the recently released adaption of the book, directed by Deepa Mehta, and the screenplay co-written by Shyam Selvadurai and her. You can find the trailer here.


References


  1. Lou, Louis. "Sexual/Textual Tendencies In Shyam Selvadurai’S Funny Boy". Concentric: Literary And Cultural Studies, vol 44, no. 2, 2018, doi:10.6240/concentric.lit.201809_44(2).0008. Accessed 8 June 2021.http://www.concentric-literature.url.tw/issues/Contested_Modernity_Place_Space_and_Culture/8.pdf

  2. https://www.npr.org/2020/12/16/946334919/in-funny-boy-a-young-sri-lankan-gay-man-comes-of-age-as-ethnic-tensions-explode

  3. https://www.indiewire.com/2020/12/funny-boy-review-gay-sri-lanka-netflix-lgbt-1234603400/

  4. https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/society-the-arts/books/story/19950228-book-review-shyam-selvadurais-funny-boy-806994-1995-02-28


This Night Owl Original has been authored by Chinmayee Babbal. Chinmayee is a student of English Literature at St. Stephen’s College. A hoarder of books, poetry, and music, she is an avid reader and an occasional writer.


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