Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai is a 1994 novel, recently adapted to film by Deepa Mehta. The book is the semi-autobiographical journey of a young Sri Lankan boy, plagued by racial injustice, rioting and civil war, while having to confront his sexual and racial identity, all in a system that has no space to accommodate this apparent deviation from heteronormativity.
The book has been narrated through the voice of a young Arjie or Arjun, the protagonist. In the toxic patriarchal setup of his family that is perpetuated by his Ammachi and Appa, Arjie is made aware of how his behaviours, preferences and interests make him “funny” and different from the rest of his family. His young age and a few protective family members help him obscure the days before which he must confront the harsh reality that comes with accepting one’s own sexuality and what that would do to his relationships within the family.
Arjie belongs to an upper middle-class Tamil family, who represent the educated, bourgeoisie that are blind to the inequities of their people. Yet, Arjie is exposed to many forms of injustice at a young age. He sees his young aunt Radha, who studied in Canada and displays the ideals of a young and independent woman. Her defiance of cultural normativity however, is punished when she is forced into arranged marriage after having loved a Sinhalese man, who embodies the very race that threatens her family’s Tamil way of life. Arjie is later introduced to his Amma’s childhood friend and romantic partner, Daryl uncle, who is of Burgher lineage, and whose racial identity fails to protect him during the riots. Through Jegan, his father’s Tamil employee, he learns of the injustices that his community face, cushioned as Arjie is by his family’s wealth and bubbled existence. The book gives us glimpses into the dichotomy of richness and stark poverty and of masculine superiority and feminine ingenuity.
There is a sense of disconnect and privilege in Arjie’s story, where he is always cushioned from having to experience pain, threat to life and rejection by virtue of his socioeconomic status and education. The violence in his country reaches his house when it’s too late, and his family’s disregard for his sexual identity provide him with the safety of ignorance at home. His experience of the riots and his understanding of politics is narrow and blurry, which gives us a glimpse of how convenience and luxury can be barriers towards injustice. Eventually, however, not even his family name and richness can protect Arjie’s identity. His family must find solace in their wealth, to be able to leave the country and survive before the war begins.
The novel takes a harsh look at the injustices done against the Tamil community in Sri Lanka during its long and torturous civil war, which forms the basis of an unequal society in which many individuals and communities were damaged without rights and the freedom to live their lives peacefully. Amid this, Arjie’s existence is an act that defies the patriarchal systems of power that dictate how his society functions. We are introduced to the hyper-masculine school culture that bullies Arjie to accept toxic masculinity meekly, with the exception of Shehan, his first romance. Their dictatorial Tamil headmaster, who, under the guise of trying to maintain racial equality in educational politics, uses corporal punishment and bullies his students through terror, to maintain a semblance of military discipline. Very soon, however, Arjie learns the hollowness of his headmaster’s actions and his bullies’ behaviours, and empowers himself to own his identity, protect his loved ones and find his place in a system that has no space for him.
“Funny Boy” is a critique of the patriarchal and military systems that exist to suppress and exclude, forcing people from different genders, ethnicities, races and sexualities to the margins. With Arjie, we are forced to confront with terrible unease, how societal norms push people towards exclusion instead of inclusivity and oneness. How they won’t let a young boy play in a sari, how education does not grant a woman the freedom to love whom she wants, how boys are not allowed to grow out their hair. The punishments for these acts are torturous and humiliating.
Gender and sexuality are the foundations of many dichotomous norms or binaries, with gender roles and sexual identities deciding much of the parts that we must play as members of society. In spaces of civil unrest, war and conflict, gender minorities face the brunt of traumatic events, due to the nature of ethnicity, gender and sexuality. They face many forms of torture, sexual abuse, violence and hate crimes for their identities as ethnic, gender and sexual minorities. Children especially are at high risks of being hurt and abused this way. Being able to thrive often seems like a distant dream when survival is of utmost importance in conflict-ridden areas and countries. While the mental health of young people is constantly threatened by violence and danger, there is the added fear of marginalisation and internalised queer phobia that can lead to serious mental health concerns among young people who are learning to identify and be comfortable in their sexualities.
There are many instances of confusion, dysphoria and guilt in his life, where Arjie feels like he has done something wrong or even committed a crime for even questioning his sexuality. The extent of his internalised queer phobia is questioned by Shehan, who confronts and teaches Arjie to find the courage within him to love himself. This slow process finally gives Arjie the freedom and power to fight for what he believes in, and protect the people he loves. In a tragic story about injustice, torture, hatred and death, Arjie’s story is hopeful in that it gives young readers in conflict the familiarity of loneliness and marginalisation.
Selvadurai has used this novel to highlight his own story, urging other queer people in his country to learn to embrace their identities and challenge the system that confronts their existence. His novel is an attempt to highlight the grave injustices done towards the racial minorities in Sri Lanka, which triggered a 26-year long civil war, and resulted in the death and fleeing of thousands of Sri Lankans. His story is a personal account of the tragic losses that he faced due to the war, and the fragility of the society he lived in, that was threatened and confused by his very existence.
This article was written by our Therapist and Fellow Akshata Chonkar