Funny Boy

Funny Boy 1. Pigs Can’t Fly Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator, Arjie, recalls his family cherishing their monthly Sunday “spend-the-day.” After waking Arjie, his brother Varuna, and his sister Sonali, Amma brings the three children to their grandparents’ house. The children traverse the house’s eerie corridor and then meet their grandparents in the drawing room; Appachi (grandpa) scarcely acknowledges them, but Ammachi (grandma) always gives them an uncomfortably tight hug and proclaims herself lucky for having 15 grandchildren.
Although he opens with a classic kind of nostalgia for his childhood, Arjie quickly reveals that this past was far from perfect: he is clearly uncomfortable around his grandparents and their menacing house; he values his experience there, but not necessarily because his family was there. Ammachi and Appachi respond to the children according to typical gendered scripts about familial love: Ammachi with overbearing maternal love and Appachi with an indifferent paternal distance.
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After the adults leave, the children are always ecstatic to be free, watched by only Ammachi and Janaki, who is busy cooking and wants nothing to do with the kids anyway. When the children fight, Janaki intervenes, and they know better than to bother Ammachi. Instead, the children resolve their own conflicts through “territoriality and leadership.” “The boys” get the area in front of the house—this group includes Meena, a girl cousin who leads one faction of the boys, and Varuna, nicknamed “Diggy” for his nose-picking, who leads the other. “The girls” get the area behind the house, and Arjie inevitably gravitates there, for he prefers “the free play of fantasy” to the boys’ cricket game.
In contrast to the stuffy formalities they are forced to exchange with their grandparents, the children have complete freedom for the rest of their “spend-the-days.” Like Meena, Arjie plays on the opposite side, which offers the first hint that he diverges from the conventional gender expressions that the other children seem to have already learned (competitive sports for the boys, creative cooperation for the girls). And yet this does not seem to create any fuss; the children have clearly already learned to think of gender as a binary either-or, but they do not yet seem to consider it wrong or shameful for someone to end up on the unexpected side.
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In fact, Arjie always ends up as the fantasy games’ leader, orchestrating the girls as they make costumes out of their grandparents’ dirty clothing and always “play[ing] the main part in the fantasy.” Arjie’s favorite game is the elaborate “bride-bride,” and he especially loves getting dressed and made up for the imaginary wedding, which allows him to feel he is “ascend[ing] into another, more brilliant, more beautiful self,” becoming a revered center of attention, like the hero from a film or myth.
At this age, Arjie is not at all concerned about others’ opinions or concepts of gender; he sees his interest in playing with the girls as simply about realizing his authentic self, although he certainly sees a gap between his everyday gender expression and the “more brilliant, more beautiful” role of bride. His fixation on the wedding points to the central role of love—including unconventional and even fleeting love, like this ceremony in which Arjie is the implausible bride—in the characters’ processes of growth and self-realization in the novel.
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Looking back on the “spend-the-days,” Arjie feels nostalgic for his childhood innocence, given that his family eventually had to flee Sri Lanka because of violence and that those Sundays began leading him “toward the precarious waters of adult life.”
As narrator, Arjie reveals the context from which he now writes and the scope of the chapters to come: they trace the loss of his initial freedoms but also the growth of his awareness about the world.
Themes
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Things change at Arjie’s grandparents’ house with the arrival of Kanthi Aunty, Cyril Uncle, and Tanuja, their daughter, whom the kids call “Her Fatness” and who readily takes on the least prestigious role in the game “bride-bride”: the groom. Sonali gets promoted from this lowly role to that of a bridesmaid. But their third day with Tanuja is Ammachi’s birthday, and this spells trouble: all the adults are to stay around for lunch, and Arjie’s family is late because Amma took so long to put on her sari. When they arrive, Kanthi Aunty accuses the rest of the kids—and Arjie in particular—of refusing to play with Tanuja.
As Arjie’s previous narrative digression foreshadowed, Kanthi Aunty’s interference in the children’s game threatens to rob it of its innocence; although, as the newcomer, Her Fatness seems to accept her place at the bottom of the bride-bride hierarchy, Kanthi Aunty seems bitterly convinced that her daughter deserves better, and set on blaming Arjie because he is the only boy in the girls’ group. The universe of bride-bride reverses conventional social gender hierarchies, which attests to the children’s true degree of freedom in it: all the children want to be the bride, while none wants to be the groom.
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Ammachi opens her present and the kids leave to play. Arjie finds the girls circled around Her Fatness’s beautiful imported dolls, the girl’s attempt to win favor in the group. But the girls pass the dolls around and quickly turn back to the bride-bride game. When it is time for the wedding, the groom (Her Fatness) marches in with a mustache and cigarette, and tries to steal the show before exclaiming in distress that she “want[s] to be the bride.” The girls explain that “Arjie is the bestest bride of all” and Her Fatness insists that “a boy cannot be the bride.” The girls shoo Her Fatness away, and she responds by calling Arjie a “pansy,” “faggot,” and “sissy,” but they laugh her off and she storms out, yelling that she “wish[es] you were all dead.”
Her Fatness’s attention-seeking behavior reveals that her greed may have really driven Kanthi Aunty to complain about Arjie. While the girls’ group decides who plays what role cooperatively, Tanuja tries to dominate the others (ironically enough) in order to win their favor. Unlike the girls, she is completely incapable of playing: she unimaginatively replaces the creative transformation of gender with rigid rules about it. By calling Arjie names he might not even understand yet—“pansy,” “faggot,” and “sissy”—she introduces the harsh, real-world prejudice against effeminate men that he likely has not encountered yet.
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The girls begin their wedding ceremony, but just as Arjie makes it to the altar, Kanthi Aunty shows up and accuses the girls: “who’s calling my daughter fatty?” Seeing their game, she brings the sari-clad Arjie to the drawing room and shows him to all the adults with a sadistic delight. Everyone but Arjie’s parents breaks out in laughter and Cyril Uncle calls him a “funny one.” That night, Arjie’s parents do not look at him—or even at each other—during the ride home. Later, they argue in their room about the danger of him turning “funny” and becoming “the laughingstock of Colombo.” Appa is furious at Amma for letting their son dress up in her clothing.
Like her daughter Tanuja, Kanthi Aunty treats play like war: she is more interested in beating the other children into submission than cooperating with them. When she exposes Arjie to the adults, the fantasies he nurtures in playtime suddenly become a public spectacle and serious cause for concern; the adults seem to think more like the vicious, unfair Tanuja than the accepting, cooperative girls’ group. For the first time, the reader encounters the tactically vague word that comes to define Arjie in his family’s eyes: “funny.” The word is as definite in reference as it is vague in meaning: although all the adults know what Cyril Uncle is talking about, they are seemingly so afraid of the possibility that they dare not speak aloud what they really mean—Arjie’s effeminacy and possible homosexuality. At least for now, this leaves Arjie in the dark about what, exactly, everyone finds wrong about him. Finally, Appa’s explosive reaction at Amma reveals that he believes sexuality is made, not born; this assumption is also what leads the family to worry so much, because it would imply that Arjie’s gender expression and sexuality reflect poor parenting.
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On occasions that call for special dress, Arjie always watches Amma get ready; he considers her “the final statement in female beauty.” He pretends to try on her jewelry while watching her put on her sari. But, after the spend-the-day incident, Amma no longer lets Arjie in while she is getting dressed. Arjie goes to his bed and tries to figure out what his mistake was, and what it meant when the family called him “funny.” After their parents leave, Sonali tries to comfort Arjie, who is on the verge of tears. He feels uncomfortable around his mother the next day.
Like “bride-bride,” watching Amma get dressed allows Arjie to fantasize about the feminine beauty he is socially prohibited from exhibiting. Although Amma no longer lets him watch her because of fears about his sexuality, to him it resolutely feels like punishment, and he begins to blame himself for whatever the adults thought of as “funny” about him. This inexplicable fault introduces an unprecedented tension into his otherwise close and trusting relationship with Amma.
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The morning before the next spend-the-day, Arjie can tell that Amma does not want him to bring his sari. After breakfast, Amma orders Diggy to make Arjie play cricket. Both the boys are distraught, but she does not budge, explaining that people always blame the mother “if the child turns out wrong.” Arjie falls on his bed and cries, but Amma does not comfort him and insists “big boys must play with other boys.” When Arjie refuses, she shakes him and he takes pride in getting through “her cheerful facade” and revealing “how little she actually believed in the justness of her actions.”
Amma appears to see past the gender norms that the other adults take for granted, and is obviously conflicted about constraining her son to appease her prejudiced family and society. Despite his ostracism, Arjie never ceases believing he is in the right; after adult gender norms shatter his innocent play, he learns earlier than most other children to see his mother, and adults in general, as illogical and morally flawed instead of perfect and all-knowing.
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Amma tells Arjie to be in the car in five minutes, and he worries that Her Fatness will become the girls’ new leader, and that the group will not even be able to play bride-bride if he does not bring the sari. He also has to avoid the cricket game, and he cannot bring the sari bag into the car. So Arjie waits inside until Amma calls him to the car, then runs quickly into the back seat and shoves the sari in Sonali’s bag. Sonali is confused; Arjie explains that he is being sent to the boys today, and Sonali asks Amma why. She responds, “because the sky is so high and pigs can’t fly.”
Unwilling to let his mother’s arbitrary decision get in the way of his freedom, Arjie hatches an underhanded plan to win back his rightful position in bride-bride. Sonali, who is even younger than Arjie, understands his plight better than anyone an manages to advocate on his behalf. Amma’s response—the source of the chapter’s title—points to the character of social prejudice as brute fact. There is no question of explanations or principles when it comes to gender roles but merely one of conformity.
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During the car ride, Diggy’s discomfort signals that he will definitely (if reluctantly) force Arjie to play cricket. After they arrive and ritualistically greet their grandparents, Diggy drags Arjie to the cricket game. Meena and the boys are confused by Arjie’s presence and refuse to take him—the “girlie-boy”—on their team, despite Diggy’s attempts to trade him away. Arjie thinks he can avoid the game because nobody wants him, but another cousin, Muruges, agrees to take him on his and Diggy’s team (although they don’t let him bat).
Diggy, like Amma, puts his sense of duty to his family before his sense of what is right—although he clearly is less interested in justice than simply avoiding conflict on his cricket team. It is deeply ironic when Meena calls Arjie “girlie-boy,” because of course she is the one girl who plays with the boys. Somehow, Arjie’s femininity threatens the family’s integrity and social standing, whereas Meena’s masculinity does not. Perhaps this is because the family’s property and status are transmitted through the male line, and so being a feminine man (who is, by implication, unable or unwilling to support and protect a wife and children) is more dangerous in a patriarchal culture than being a masculine woman (who can be self-sufficient instead of needing a man’s “protection”).
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Diggy had struck a “fragile balance” between obeying Amma and keeping his cricket team—but Arjie quickly overturned this balance by insisting on batting when his name gets drawn first (instead of letting Muruges take his spot). Meena, the opposing team’s captain, enthusiastically supports Arjie; Muruges quits his team in frustration and Diggy kicks Arjie out of the game, wielding the cricket bat as he chases him back to the house. Once Arjie makes it inside, Diggy threatens him to avoid the cricket field, and Arjie “forever close[s] any possibility of entering the boys’ world again,” to his own delight.
Against Diggy’s diplomatic attempts to keep order, Arjie recognizes his capacity to create disorder allows him to free himself from the boys’ group. He embraces his outsider status rather than trying to conform; while all the adults assume that others have made Arjie feminine, and therefore that Arjie might become masculine by being forced to play with the boys, here he shows that he is acting out of his own volition and is not merely absorbing influences from his environment.
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Arjie makes his way to the girls’ territory, where he realizes that Her Fatness has usurped his role, and is making the wedding cake he designed. The rest of the girls are happy to see him, but Her Fatness objects to Arjie playing bride-bride—until he reveals that he has the sari. Arjie says he is willing to play any part in the game, and Her Fatness agrees to let him join—as the groom.
Arjie continues carrying out his plan to win back the bride’s role. Despite all of Her Fatness’s objections about Arjie’s gender presentation, in fact she ends up emulating him and proving that he does femininity the best of all the girls. And he also adopts her tactics, agreeing to join the game at the bottom in order to climb back to the top.
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As the groom, Arjie is not allowed to help with the cooking, but instead relegated to the office, a table on the porch. At the “office,” he pretends to stamp papers and calls Sonali up to deliver an imaginary letter, then another cousin, Lakshmi, to take dictation. Her Fatness interrupts, insists on seeing the sari, and threatens to tell Janaki that Arjie is playing with them, so Arjie retrieves Sonali’s bag.
Like Her Fatness, Arjie makes a racket as the groom in order to win the girls’ attention. His strategy suggests he understands how the corporate world distributes power on gendered lines: briefly playing a man, he makes the girl cousins into his secretaries and distracts them from the wedding preparations.
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But the sari is not inside Sonali’s bag; Arjie realizes that Her Fatness has already discovered and hidden it in Janaki’s room. They race to find it—Her Fatness gets it first, then runs off, with Arjie chasing after. Arjie manages to grab Her Fatness’s arm and then get a hand on the sari, but Her Fatness does not let go of it, and it tears in half. Arjie and Her Fatness start to fight, and he rips the sleeve of her dress as she runs inside, shouting. Seeing her, Janaki yells, “Buddu Ammo!” (“Mother of Buddha”). Her Fatness blames Arjie for tearing her dress, but Sonali and Lakshmi blame Her Fatness and defend Arjie.
Arjie and Her Fatness fight over the quintessential symbol of womanhood in Sri Lanka, which symbolizes Arjie’s long-lived struggle to express his femininity against a culture that sees him as a threat. Janaki’s line (“Buddu Ammo!”) seems like an irrelevant detail but actually points to one of the other tensions that becomes central to this book: Janaki, who is almost certainly the family maid despite never being described in detail, is a Sinhalese Buddhist, while Arjie’s family is Tamil and Hindu. While this is a non-issue in Ammachi and Appachi’s household, this ethnic division takes on a much greater role throughout the rest of the book.
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As the children assemble to explain what happened, they realize that Ammachi is standing in the doorway; she chastises Janaki for failing to “keep these children quiet.” Her Fatness starts crying, Ammachi sees her torn dress sleeve, and she names Arjie as the culprit. Ammachi canes Arjie, who screams that it is unfair and calls her an “old fatty” before running away, out of the house, across the street, past the railway tracks and to the beach, where he cries and laments that “I hate them all […] I wish I was dead.”
Authoritarian as ever, Ammachi takes no interest in the truth of Arjie and Tanuja’s fight, which the other cousins are eager to share; instead, she arbitrarily chooses a side, whether out of distaste for Arjie’s gender expression or empathy for the crying Tanuja. Like those in power throughout this book, Ammachi has no interest in justice or fairness. As Arjie yet again faces punishment for something he feels is not his fault, he begins to feel that the world is stacked against him and that he cannot escape it.
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Eventually, Arjie stops crying and gets off the burning rocks. He wades into the ocean, silver and empty under the sun, and notes that “something had changed.” He dreads returning to Ammachi’s cane, and realizes that he can “never enter the girls’ world again.” He is no longer excited about the family’s “spend-the-days” and foresees himself lonely, “caught between the boys’ and the girls’ worlds, not belonging or wanted in either.” The church bell rings and Arjie decides to go back to his grandparents’ house, “up Ramanaygam Road to the future that awaited me.”
After getting himself kicked out of the cricket game, Arjie took joy in permanently leaving the boys’ world; now, he realizes that he will only be allowed to live in that world, and that the girls’ world is being taken from him because of social circumstances outside his control. If his own disposition robbed him of belonging in the boys’ world, the family’s predilections about gender now rob him of belonging in the one place where he truly feels at home and leave him completely alone. This sense of exclusion and profound shame deeply impacts his development in the book’s coming chapters.
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