The so-called ethnic problem as well as the gender identity and the non-heteronormative sexuality of its protagonist Arjun (Arjei) Chelvanayagam are the key themes of the novel Funny Boy published in 1994 by Shyam Selvadurai. The novel is set in the period between mid-1970s and 1983, a chaotic period in Sri Lankan history for all ethnicities irrespective of their numerical representation on census sheets. However, the main focus of Selvadurai’s novel is an urban upper middleclass Tamil family with a few token appearances of their ethnic Other in some bit roles (Radha’s lover Anil and his parents, Ammachchi’s servant Janaki, the Rankothwehera boy, etc.) which are often made to have a negative impact on the protagonist, physically, socially, and morally[y1] . The writer subalternizes the so-called majority Other by withholding from it a voice. Hence, the reader must keep in mind that what s/he hears of and sees being described are only the voices and views of just one segment of a particular community.
Unlike many of the western novels of the genre, Selvadurai does not give a label to Arjei’s sexuality or gender identity. The concept of homosexuality is felt at various degrees throughout the novel but it becomes a dominant theme only in the chapter titled “The Best School of All”. In Arjei’s case sexuality and gender identity are closely linked. In the first chapter “Pigs can’t Fly,” Arjei’s fascination with the world of girls is described in minute detail. In describing his preference of the shady back garden and the cool kitchen porch where the girls played with their dolls over the hot and dusty cricket pitch in front of the house which is preferred by the boys and tomboys of the family Arjei says, “I seemed to have gravitated naturally…For me, the primary attraction of the girls’ territory was the potential for the free play of fantasy” (3). But Arjei is not the only one with a gender issue; Meena who leads one of the cricket teams is biologically female. This is how Arjei describes his cousin: “Meena was standing on top of the garden wall, her legs apart, her hands on her hips, her panties already dirty underneath her short dress. The boy cousins were on the wall on either side of her” (23). Unlike Arjei, Meena, the biological female, is not chastised for her ‘tendencies’ by her relatives. It is as if her family and relatives, perhaps anticipating her inevitable buckling down to patriarchy after her marriage, is indulging her by allowing her to do as she pleased. Arjei, the biological male, on the other hand is not shown the same indulgence. The reason for Meena’s tom-boyishness could be that she has been socialized [y2] into thinking male as the preferred gender and therefore she is being boyish in order to have access to some of the privileges enjoyed by the boys in her family such as climbing and sitting on parapet walls, getting her clothes soiled with impunity, and playing outside in the hot sun without adult supervision. A female might for a while assume the acro-gender and later safely resume her lower-gender role; however, a male is not allowed the same privilege. At least while society may turn a blind eye to it as in the case of Arjei at the beginning, it certainly may not actively encourage it.
In the first two sections of the novel Arjei occupies a third sphere with regard to gender. The main attraction of the once a month spend-the-day for Arjei was a game called bride-bride, an elaborate marriage ceremony concocted by Arjei himself. In the back garden it is Arjei’s imaginative representation of the role that secures his place as the bride. In describing his fascination with the game Arjei says, “I was able to leave the constraints of myself and ascend into more brilliant more beautiful self” (4). It is clear that Arjei does not see dressing as a bride as dressing up as a woman; he sees it as a transformation into an ‘icon’. His concept of beauty is strongly influenced by his mother Nalini, Janaki’s love comics and films of the period. This idyllic world is shattered with the arrival of Thanuja, their cousin from England whose upper- caste /class mother was embittered by her experience of having to serve a white family to make ends meet during their stay there. Thanuja, a foreign-returned as Naipaul would put it, tries to buy the attention of the local cousins with her possessions and replace Arji as the leader of the Back Garden Group. She seems to feel that her foreign-returned status gave her the natural right to assume the mantle of leadership over her backward/sinful cousins. When her tactic fails Thanuja forcefully introduces gender politics into the edenic back garden when she says, “A boy cannot be the bride” (7). It is Thanuja, the Foreign-Returned, and not his Sri Lankan cousins, who calls Arji pansy, faggot, and sissy for the first time in his life. In fact his local cousins are in constant awe of his creativity and they take his side against Thanuja despite her tantalizing bribes. It is Thanuja’s mother Kanthi Aunty who drags Arjei who is dressed as a bride with the intention of humiliating him and the word funny is first uttered in Arjei’s context by Cyril Uncle, Kanthi’s husband. It is interesting that it is these people from the west that should react negatively to Arjei’s cross-dressing and brand him funny first. When their childrearing skills and values are publically challenged by the supposedly more sophisticated foreign-returned Arjei’s family is driven to do something to save face. Robert Chelvanayagam, Arjei’s father being an upstanding member of the upper-middleclass Tamil patriarchy reacts quite strongly to the situation. He places the blame of Arjei’s tendencies on his mother, “[i]f he turns out funny like that Rankothwehera boy, if he turns out to be the laughingstock of Colombo” (14). Arjei detects “a hint of disgust” in his father’s tone when he utters the word funny (14). Mothers in this novel – Ammachchi, Nalini, and Kanthi – are made the enforcers of the patriarchal norms and values. When Arjei asks why he could not watch her dress or play with the girls Nalini says, “Because the pigs can’t fly and the sky is so high” and later she repeats the same words to Sonali who was mystified by her parent’s seemingly illogical behaviour (19, 23). Nalini tries to pacify the rebellious Arjei by saying, “Life is full of stupid things and sometimes we just have to do them” (20). In response when he for the first time tries to make a reluctant entrance to the world of boys Arjei is called “girly-boy.” He who was the very heart of the backyard world was not even the last person to be selected for one of the cricket teams. Feeling vastly insulted and unable to relate at all to their values Arjei withdraws from the world of boys. Arjei acknowledges the fact that on that day he had “forever closed any possibility of entering the boy’s world again”, but he does not show any regret over it (28). In contrast, when he had to give up the world of girls he shows a marked remorse, “I knew I would never enter the girls’ world again” (39). Arjei realizes that he would have to occupy a third space, “I would be caught between the boys’ world and the girls’ world, not belonging or wanted in either” (39). It is interesting the author does not attempt to label the space occupied by people like Arjei, Shehan, Rankothwera boy and QC Appadurai as homosexual or transgender; it is merely funny, a loaded term.
In the second chapter titled “Radha Aunty”, Arjei’s feminine aspects are pointed out twice by other characters. Radha, after pasting a pottu on his forehead, “You would have made a beautiful girl” (50) and Doris, “What a lovely boy…Should have been a girl with those lashes” (55). Both women are actually complementing Arjei on his looks. It must be noted that both Radha and Doris too are characters in third spaces. Radha is described by Arjei as flat as a boy and Doris is discarded by her family for marrying outside her race. However, on his Father seeing Arjei reading Little Women, Arjei says, “He found me reading Little Woman and declared it to be a book for girls, a book that boys should not be reading, especially a boy of twelve” (104). Quite apparently, he does not approve of Arjei’s less masculine literary preferences. In contrast, Daryl Brohier, Arjei’s mother’s ex-boyfriend who was described as “tall and powerfully built, and had a beard and a moustache” (105) says “Little Woman…Used to be one of my favourite books” (109). This section reveals another skeleton in the upper middleclass society occupied by the Chelvanayagams and Brohiers of the world in the form of the QC Appadurai, a civil rights lawyer, with “a hint of scandal surrounding him and the servant boy” (139). However, unlike in the case of Rankothwehera boy, here the scandal is only hinted at. Robert Chelvanayagam does not jump into the conclusion that Arjei left unchecked by patriarchal norms and values would turn out like the QC Appadurai. It is also interesting that Chelvanayagam who is apparently disturbed by the possibility of Arjei turning out like the Rankothwehera boy is complacent about the beach boys being sodomized by foreigners. For him it was just a part of the recently introduced Open Economy.
Arjei’s personality undergoes a change with the arrival of Jegan Parameshvaran, a son of a friend of his father. Jegan had been a member of the terrorist organization the LTTE. Upon their first meeting Arjei says, “Now I admired how well built he was, the way his thighs pressed against his trousers” (161). Jegan notes Arjei’s fascination with his body and encourages it. It is then Arjei embarks on a confession:
“Lately, I had found that I looked at men, at the way they were built, the grace with which they carried themselves, the strength of their gestures and movements, sometimes these men were present in my dreams. I felt the reason for this sudden admiration of men had to do with my distress over the resent change in my own body…But I longed to pass this awkward phase to become as physically attractive and graceful as the men I saw around men” (162).
The thought of Jegan moving into their house, of him being in constant contact with him, fills Arjei with “an unaccountable joy” (162). The lightness with which the writer handles Jegan’s AWOL of the LTTE (over ideological issues, the reader is told), make it sounds like Jegan had just left a troop of boy scouts instead of a deadly terrorist outfit which in return makes the subsequent behaviour of his co-workers at the hotel towards him vastly discriminating. The store room above the garage where Jegan resided becomes sacred and Arjei is reluctant to move freely in it. This part of the book deals with Arjei who is at twelve developing a clear homoerotic/sexual leaning. Unlike the young boy of seven who was fascinated by female beauty and thereby wanted to emulate it, older Arjei is fascinated by male beauty and craves to be/ be with what he holds attractive.
The writer is not clear in his sketching of Jegan’s friendship with his friend who had migrated to Canada. Whether it was a non-heteronormantive relationship or not, it is undeniable that Jegan has been deeply affected by it. Jegan implies that the closeness he allows to develop between himself and Arjei is a result of Arjei’s resemblance to his friend. Whatever the nature of his former relationship is, Jegan is aware of Arjei’s fascination with his body, and by implication his sexual orientation, but Jegan does not show any revulsion over it. In fact he encourages Arjei’s perusal by smiling at him and he defends Arjei when his father airs his fears about his tendencies. This elevates Jegan into the state of herohood in Arjei’s impressionable mind. This feeling is further strengthened by the camaraderie they develop in their daily jogging which excluded Diggy. Jegan who is not concerned about Arjei being funny, shows disgust and anger at discovering young boys being exploited by foreign men on the beach. He is clearly disgusted by Robert Chelvanayagam’s offhand remark: “It is not just our luscious beaches that keeps the tourist industry going, you know, we have other natural resources as well” (170). As a father he is concerned about Arjei becoming funny, but is not above exploiting the homosexuality of the foreigners. Hypocrisy of society is revealed by the two attitudes Robert have towards homosexuality. Arjei who is experiencing what can be termed a first crush/puppy love is shaken by the prospect of Jegan’s leaving. He wonders if Jegan would “become for (him) what Jagan’s father had become to (his) father” (205). Arjei’s observation on the strength of the bond between the two men encourages the reader to hazard at a possible latent homoerotic/sexual leaning in Robert himself.
“The Best School of All” deals with Arjei’s sexuality in detail. Robert Chelvanayagam takes another step to cure Arjei of his funniness by sending him to the Victoria Academy, an English style school that encouraged ultra-masculinity. Once again it is ironical that it is there not at the gentler atmosphere of St. Gabriel that Arjei meets his first sexual partner. When questioned why he was being sent there, Arjei’s father says, “Because it’s good for you” (209) and adds that the Academy would force him “to become a man” (210). Is that what had happen to Robert, too? Diggy says that their father did not want Arjei to turn out funny.
The second person Arjei to have contact with at the Academy is Shehan Soyza who has power over Salgado due to his relationship with the Head Prefect. Arjei notices Shehan’s physique right away; “Though delicately built, his body was well-proportioned and lacked the awkwardness of most other boys of his age…the overall effect was attractive” (217). Diggy warns Arjei against Shehan, “He has sex with the Head Prefect… If you remain Soyza’s friend, people will think you’re like him and you’ll become the laughingstock of the whole school” (232). Arjei is bewildered by the very idea of two boys having sex and brushes the warning aside as malicious slander. That night he has an arousing dream of Shehan. Their relationship enters a new stage with Shehan’s kiss. “All I could think about was the sensation of that kiss” (251). Arjei relives the kiss in detail and express a desire to re-experience it in a leisurely manner. Arjei visits Shehan and draws conclusions on his family backgrounds. Shehan clearly expects Arjei to make some move but being new to the situation Arjei allows the moment to pass to their mutual disappointment. Once again Diggy warns his brother against Shehan, “I can’t wait Appa to meet Soyza. Then he’ll definitely know what you’re…” (256). Here, despite the obvious opening the writer refrains from labelling Arjei. His conversation with Diggy turns out to be one of enlightenment for Arjei. He realizes that the differences that had confused him were shared by Shehan and he is amazed by “the powerful hidden possibilities” their friendship. This feeling makes Arjei look forward to Shehan’s arrival with excitement akin to the one he experienced at the spend-the-day.
It must be noted that it is Arjei who initiates the relationship with Shehan; yet, it is he who feels revolted and violated by the incident. This feeling of shame, almost pre-planted in his mind by his family, makes Arjei think that he had “committed a terrible crime against them, against the trust and love they had given” him (262). He justifies his father’s behaviour as an attempt to protect him from what he feared was inside him. What has happened in the garage, according to Arjei, has moved him beyond his father’s ability to protect him. This conflict complicates Arjei’s attraction towards Shehan, “I felt a sudden contempt and a longing for him…Now I wished I had never invited him, never set eyes on him” (263). In his bewilderment Arjei lashes out at Shehan both physically and verbally. Shehan accuses Arjei of self-delusion, “At least I know what I want and I’m not ashamed of it…(you) pretend that you’re normal or that you’re doing it because you can’t get a girl. But in the end you’re no different from me” (265). After a painful session of contemplation, Arjei comes to the conclusion that Shehan has not degraded him, but rather had offered him his love and he Arjei had scorned it. This fills Arjei with remorse. But Arjei has enough common sense to realize that the social spear he and his family occupied which is shaped by the restrictive Victorian values of its former colonial master would not be eager to accept such a relationship; “I was reminded of things I had seen happen to other people, like Jegan, or even Radha Aunty, who, in their own way, had experienced injustice” (274). Here the writer links the two major themes of the novel ethnicity and homosexuality. Arjei questions the structure of authority, “How was it that some people got to decide what was correct or not just or unjust? It had to do with who was in charge; everything had to do with who held the power and who didn’t. But did we always have to obey? Was it not possible for people like Shehan and me to be powerful too?” (274). Arjei mangles the two poem on which Black Tie’s speech is based as an act of rebellion and a means to liberate Shehan from the Principal’s tyranny. This act of rebellion makes him feel more of an outsider in his family, “I now inhabit a world they didn’t understand and into which they couldn’t follow” (284/5).
“The Riot Journal” tells of the end of the first meaningful relationship Arjei has with a sexual partner. He is still bound by the social convictions of his upper middleclass upbringing that would not take it kindly if he were to flaunt his relationship with Shehan. So, when Shehan comes to see him at Sena Uncle’s house they shake hands instead of hugging each other as they really wanted to. Arjei says, “Shehan was a Sinhalese and I was not. This awareness did not change my feelings for him” (302). But it is inevitable that the outside world should intrude on a fragile relationship like theirs. The last meeting between Shehan and Arjei is a bitter-sweet one. Arjei compares his initial and present behaviours towards their meetings, “I smiled to think about that I rushed to the bath to wash off the smell since now I am reluctant even to change my clothes for the fear that I will lose this last memento” (310).
When compared to the herteronormative relationships such as those between Ammachi–Appachi and Nalini- Robert, and even Radha-Anil and Nalini-Daryl, the relationship between Arjei and Shehan is built on caring and understanding. Possibility of such relationships becoming long-lasting is hinted at in the case of the QC Uncle and his servant boy. Nalini’s willingness to accept her son’s funniness is hinted at through her acceptance of Shehan towards the end. Or it could be a sort of payment for Arjei’s own acceptance of and active corroboration in Nalini’s own extramarital affair with Daryl. The novel ends in a positive note despite the overwhelming images of violence. The writer handles the complexities that arise in the mind of a young person who is discovering that he does not fit the predominant gender/sex spaces with empathy. He allows Arjei plenty of space to think and rethink his position, so that in the end when he makes a stand he stands tall and steady. At the end of the book the reader is in no doubt of the fact that the so-called enlightened members of the modern society are a long way from accepting homosexuality, something which is often hinted at but never openly discussed. But it must also be noted that the book’s socioeconomic milieu is largely restricted to a narrow stratum of the Sri Lankan society – the Colombo based upper middleclass which has its own governing principles that has very little to do with the norms and values of people from elsewhere and therefore one must refrain from generalizing one’s observations to the entirety of the population of the island. In conclusion, Selvadurai uses Arjei’s experience to provide a stimulating commentary on the problems confronting minority ethnicities and homosexuality in the urban upper middleclass of Sri Lanka from the point of view of an expatriate Tamil homosexual.
On the issue of the problems faced by minority ethnicities, Interestingly, in the last chapters in which the writer paints a graphic picture of the destruction of the mansion-like house of the Chelvanayagams while the narrator contemplates on the possibility of someone picking flowers from their frangipani tree to be offered to the Buddha one topic that Selvadurai gives scant attention to is the question of lopsided division of the socio-political capital of the island that allows Brohiers, Chelvanayagams, Appadureis, and Soyzas of Colombo such socioeconomically prominent and dominant position over the so-called majority represented in this book by Janaki, Anil’s parents, the mob that assaults Radha, and the Sinhala-speaking policeman cowed by Nalini at the inquiry over the disappearance of Daryl Brohier. Had the novel explored in what way the Riots are connected to this strange situation which the writer/narrator accepts as the status quo, too, then Selavadurai’s work would have greater value as a journal[y3] of yet another troubled time in the long history of Sri Lanka.
[y1]Sena Uncle, his fathers’ business partner, who despite his ethnicity had the same class affiliations, being the possible exception
[y2]Generally Hindus show a marked preference for male children over girls due to the issue of dowry