“Because the sky is so high, and pigs can’t fly”.
Arjie Chelvaratnam is a seven-year-old boy living in an extended Tamil family in Srilanka. He is seen as an ‘oddity’, often called a ‘Funny boy’.
Storyline, backdrop and characters
Funny Boy is written by Canadian author, Shyam Selvadurai in 1994. It is his remarkably written debut novel. It is a bildungsroman and depicts the journey of an innocent, young boy ‘Arjie’. The story unfolds through his eyes and we go through his trajectory from his simple delightful childhood to the struggles and difficulties of being an adult. Arjie loved dressing up in a sari and playing bride-bride with his girl cousins rather than playing cricket with his boy cousins in the sun. He was forced out of the world which he considered his own to a lonely, unfamiliar environment. A lonely outsider, he tried to find solace with various sympathetic adults, whose own paths and decisions revealed to Arjie the consequences or difficulties of following one’s desires. The novel progresses in the escalating communal tensions and political violence which disrupts the world of Arjie and made them run from their own home, in search for a safer home.
Coverpage of the Book - Source : Bolerium
Surroundings and the autobiographical element
Shyam Selvadurai, born in 1965 in Srilanka, belonged to a wealthy Tamil family. He decided to leave his home country in the wake of the 1983 riots and communal tensions between Tamils and the Sinhalese, to migrate to Canada. ‘Funny Boy’ reflects upon some of the autobiographical similarities of the life of its author. The narrative takes the form of six self-contained yet linked stories about a boy growing up in a privileged Tamil family coming to terms with his own sexuality as well as the political turmoil around him.
Shyam Selvadurai ; The Author - Source : Canlitguides
Riots of 1983
The book is filled with undertones of politics, gender and discrimination. The politics of gender surrounding Arjie and Shehan, a question or taboo put on homosexual love. The riots of 1983 resulted from the conflicts that arose because of the linguistic battles.
Declaration of Sinhalese as the national language of Srilanka
In 1956, Sinhala was declared the national language of Srilanka, and this gave rise to a 40-year-old conflict. The Sinhalese constituted of the 70% majority while the Tamils consist of 30%. The conflicts rose to the level of extreme violence, lynching including putting the houses of Tamil people on fire. Because of this, many Tamils were forced to either take refuge or migrate to another country.
Riots Of 1983 - Source : BBC News
The novel addresses major themes like Gender, sexuality, homophobia and marriage. Gender is a facet of human existence. It talks about gender being a social construct and the concept of ‘Gender Dysphoria’. Gender Dysphoria in general terms means when a person does not identify with their biological sex.
Similarly, with sexuality, Arjie is forced to abide by the norms of society. There is a binary created for gender and a fixed notion for sexuality. Arjie goes through psychological trauma and is bullied and rebuked and is considered a misfit. From childhood, the binary system is in action. There are characteristics associated with being a girl and being a boy. And children are forced into the stereotypical environment at a very young age. The norms are instilled into their impressionable minds. Arjie, in several instances is ridiculed by the elders and others as being weak or being too feminine.
Pride - Source : Queer Intersection
The major theme highlighted in the text is that of love, and how love is not defined with binary and how it cannot be held in boundaries.
The story revolves around the homosexual love between Arjie and Shehan. Arjie finds comfort in knowing Shehan is like him. Shehan feels as an anchor to Arjie, in the misogynistic and crude environment of Victoria Academy. Their relationship develops to that of an understanding one. Arjie realized his sexual orientation when he met Shehan. Though another important theme highlighted in their love story is that they belonged to the apparent ‘rival communities’ in Srilanka. Their relationship was not affected because of this until when Arjie had to migrate to Canada.
Inter-caste Love/ Marriage
The other theme reflected is that of Inter-caste love. Radha aunty and Anil are a prime example. Radha aunty being a Tamil and Anil a Sinhalese, their relationship is not approved of by their parents. Though the couple fights for their love, they do not end up together. Nalini, Arjie’s mother and Daryl uncle also is an example of the same. Though Daryl was the first love of Arjie’s mother, they did not marry each other because of ethnic riots between Tamil-Sinhalese. Daryl was later killed in the riots in Jaffna. These love stories are a prime example of how societal tensions and communal differences destroy something as beautiful and as strong as love.
Non Binary Gender - Source : CakeWorld
“An extraordinary powerful, deeply moving novel” Amitav Ghosh
“Glittering and wise…” Alberto Manguel
“Selvadurai writes as sensitively about the emotional intensity of adolescence as he does about the wonder of childhood” New York Times Book Review
In my personal opinion, it is a coming of age story with its ties deeply rooted into the cultural and traditional environment. For me, it was a moving experience. I loved the book and loved how the chapters were so distinct yet so connected. If it would not have been for my university syllabus, I would have never picked up this book. And I would have missed on such an exquisitely written piece that talks to your conscience. So, I feel this is my chance to recommend this underrated work that’ll make you understand so many things yet will leave you wondering with the unanswered questions of life. The text is relatable and yet so foreign at the same time. We go through the main characters fears, his confusions and his love. It is a beautiful and at the same time a heart-breaking narrative. The text leaves you with an overwhelming experience. An experience of different love, trauma and fears. Indeed, it is a powerful novel and a must read.
Deepa Mehta has announced her next feature would be an adaptation ofCanadian author Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy. Deepa Mehta has adaptedseveral books like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Cracking India. The shooting is said to start in January, 2020 in Srilanka.
There is an emotional investment with the characters and their stories. The book aptly displays the problems and tribulations faced by the people in Srilanka at that time. Also it beautifully reflects upon the luminous maturity of the main boy, Arjie. All in all the book is a simple yet a poignant narrative and a must read for everybody.