Personal struggles, at times, are so deeply embedded within situations of political turmoil, that the boundaries between the exploration of one’s own self and identity, and the larger socio-political affairs begin to blur, such that it becomes difficult to dissociate one from the other.
Shyam Selvadurai’s 1994 book Funny Boy is a heart-touching depiction of the intermingling of the ‘personal’ and ‘political’, told through the lens of a boy whose sexual identity and emotional preferences are at odds with what a patriarchal, heteronormative society sanctions as ‘suitable’ activities for a male child.
The book comprises of six different stories, each chronologically flowing into the next. While each tale comprises of an entirety in itself; it is a negotiation between what the heart wants and what social norms command, as well as the struggle and urge to find outlets to express one’s desires, that prevails beneath the spectre of oppressive gender-norms and communal biases which choke the yearnings of one’s ‘self’, throughout the text.
The tale “Pigs Can’t Fly”, where the protagonist is caught between the rigid demarcations between ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ spheres of activities, aptly reveals that the norms and assumptions of gender are socially constructed. For a boy like Arjie, to play the game “bride-bride” with his female cousins, and to dress up in a feminine attire is a closeted act of pleasure, which he indulges in innocently; lacking the awareness that although the act may have been guileless and instinctively natural for him, it flouted the norm of masculinity in a patriarchal society so brazenly that nothing could prevent the adult backlash that he had to endure, and suffer in loneliness and isolation, as a form of retribution for his actions.
The theme of negotiation between one’s own desires and the repression that they have to suffer from the overarching societal norm is prominent in each of the six stories. Arjie’s aunt Radha’s fate is also suppressed by the larger political undercurrent of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict.
‘Funny Boy’ pushes us to question our assumptions about ‘self’ and ‘other’ at every turn of the page. Radha’s ability to determine the circumstances of her fate is limited by the polarized identities that separate her from her beloved.
For Arjie, meanwhile, the ability to form sustained attachments is a persisting struggle. There aren’t many avenues that the Sri Lankan society, even among the privileged class of Colombo, provides for a teenage boy, to express his sexual liking for men.
As somebody who is routinely criticized by his father and other elders of the extended family for having ‘feminine’ inclinations such as reading silently and not having a penchant for outdoor games that a patriarchal culture adorns as a conventional marker of masculinity, Arjie’s experience of his own ‘self’ in relation to the larger socio-cultural world he is situated in, is a muffled struggle for existence, where a lack of friendship and social support is compensated for, by the promise and allure of mental escape and relief that books provide.
There are moments in the narrative where the reader would feel compelled to question, that why is happiness perpetually denied to some. When Jegan, a 25-year-old man, enters Arjie’s home as the son of his father’s best friend, Arjie gradually begins to feel that somebody likes him for who he is. Yet the sense of validation and acceptance that he feels is short-lived, for political violence and injustice eventually surpassed personal longings, and deprived him of his yearn for affinity with Jegan, just when he had begun to feel that somebody could see him, and appreciate him, in an unconditional manner.
Moments of such heartbreaks are multiple in the book. Radha’s estrangement from Anil, Arjie’s separation from the game of ‘bride-bride’, or Jegan’s alienation from Sri Lanka due to political reasons, are each an unfortunate and stark reminder of the fact that our choices are eventually limited by the larger socio-political underpinnings in our surroundings.
In one of the stories, when Arjie’s mother’s past is revealed through the entry of Daryl uncle into the plot, which leads to a trail of events that confound Arjie, one gets an intuition that compromises made on the personal front, to adhere to norms of propriety, painful as they are, are routinely shrugged under the carpet and rendered invisible, to preserve one’s face in ‘society’. The mysterious and unexplained circumstances leading to Daryl Uncle’s death leave questions, that remain unanswered, just like the urge to live, and find fulfilment in one’s own life remains squashed and wanting, by the end.
There are moments of triumph, though.
Arjie’s life seems to have ended and deprived of any ray of hope, when his father sends him to Victoria Academy, an authoritarian school where boys ruthlessly impose their brutal machismo amid factions and groups to establish and sustain a hierarchy of dominance and micro-aggressions among one another.
However, his friendship with Shehan, and the conflicting hopes, urges and anxieties that it triggers in Arjie also charts his path towards self-awakening and sexual discovery, which ultimately enable him to accept himself, with all shades of his personality.
The moments of desperate longing for Shehan, interspersed with moments of guilt upon indulging in a sexual act for the first time, vividly bring to fore the anxiety and fear, felt upon encountering parts of our ‘self’ that we hadn’t considered ourselves capable of, parts that we are socialized to express disgust at, and yet the ones that somewhere within us, we also crave for, all along.
Although the tale ends with Colombo gripped in communal turmoil, that compels Arjie’s family to relocate abroad with dim financial savings, and an uncertain future, there still are moments of agency, resolution and hope in the text. When Arjie defies authority by purposely ruining his performance in a school function to settle scores with an authoritarian principal, and musters courage to privately accept and rejoice at his relationship with Shehan, one finds relief at the fact that he is not completely helpless, and is negotiating his freedom in his own limited, but possible and real ways.
Arjie is termed a ‘funny boy’ by his father as an expression of muffled disapproval and disdain at all the unconventional or ‘queer’ traits that he exhibits, for no fault of his own. Yet for a novel with the adjective ‘funny’ in its title, it is actually ridden with the kind of melancholy and pain, that pushes one to rethink the pedestal upon which children often place the world of adults on- a world which is ultimately so capable of violence, deprivation and injustice, both physical and psychological, that its prejudices begin to seep into the world of children and tarnish their innocence, much sooner than one would hope for.