Funny Boy

Funny Boy 3. See No Evil, Hear No Evil Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Arjie’s parents begin going with their friends Sena Uncle and Chithra Aunty to the Oberoi Supper Club. On Saturdays, they all take the children (including Chithra’s son Sanath) for American food, and then to Sri Lanka’s “first American-style supermarket,” which reportedly emerged from what Appa called “the end of socialism.” On one Sunday, they go to the beach, but Arjie is confused when they neither bring a picnic basket nor stop in their usual place, but instead stop at a partially finished hotel called the “Paradise Beach Resort.” After they go inside and meet the manager, Sonali tells Arjie that the resort is theirs, and Appa confirms that he has quit his job at the bank to become a part owner of this new hotel.
The beginning of this chapter reveals two important, mutually reinforcing forces that underlie much of Arjie’s experience but remain invisible for much of the book: market changes in Sri Lanka and the Chelvaratnam family’s economic class. Despite the discrimination and violence Arjie’s family faces, the Chelvaratnams are also very wealthy and can access myriad privileges that most Sri Lankans cannot. However, as Arjie later learns, the family's wealth also implicates it in certain injustices.
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As Arjie’s family grows wealthier, Appa goes to Europe, and he asks the children what they want him to bring back. Ever since Amma’s elderly and traditional sister, Neliya Aunty, moved in with the family, Arjie has been reading her old copy of Little Women, so he asks his father for the three sequels (even though Appa chastises him for reading “a book for girls”). Amma starts spending more and more time going out with Chithra Aunty and is thrilled about their lives.
Unfortunately, Appa’s newfound wealth just makes him even more distant as business draws his attention away from the family. Arjie’s fascination with Little Women shows that he continues to pursue traditionally feminine interests; and Appa still both sees this as a source of shame for the family and attempts to shame Arjie into changing, without considering this behavior’s effect on his son.
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“As if to contradict [Amma’s] optimism,” the family soon has a visitor: Daryl Uncle, an old family friend who speaks perfect Sinhalese. After 15 years away from Sri Lanka, Daryl—a white Burgher—returns on vacation, on a day when Arjie is sick with fever. Everyone is glad to see him until Amma comes home—she reacts to his presence as though she is dreaming, and then soberly asks him to sit. Arjie is confused at his mother’s reaction. When she returns outside and awkwardly greets Daryl, Arjie realizes that he does not know about her life before she had kids. Amma later introduces Diggy and Sonali to Daryl Uncle—they are also confused at first—and Arjie’s fever worsens that night. While taking care of him, Amma and Neliya Aunty chat about Daryl, which makes Arjie realize he had some sort of fight with Amma in the past.
Like Doris Aunty, Daryl Uncle is a burgher who straddles the boundaries between European and Sri Lankan identities, but is largely removed from the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict and, like Arjie's family, has significant social and economic privilege in relation to most Sri Lankans. In watching Amma react to Daryl’s arrival, Arjie begins to come to terms with adults’ fallibility, vulnerability, and individuality. Rather than simply seeing her as an authority figure, when Arjie realizes that a man unknown to him has played a significant part in her life, he begins to see that Amma has grown and changed throughout her life. In other words, Arjie is beginning to see adults as morally complex, with the same kind of internal struggles that he himself faces.
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In the morning, Arjie’s fever and Amma’s concern evaporate. But Daryl Uncle visits soon again, and he asks Arjie about his book. Arjie is embarrassed to show him Little Women, but Daryl reveals that it “used to be one of [his] favorite books.” Daryl promises to look for the sequels to Little Women in a bookshop later that day. Amma comes out, insists that Arjie is sick again, and sends him back inside. But Arjie soon hears the adults talking about politics—there is an ethnic war between the Sinhalese and the Tamil Tigers in Jaffna, and Daryl, who is a journalist, has come to investigate claims of torture and government abuses, especially using the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Like Radha Aunty, Daryl proves empathetic, generous, and understanding; he wants to hear Arjie’s perspective and develop an individual relationship rather than just treat him like any other child. Daryl’s interest in Little Women is important for Arjie, because it suggests that his interest in literature traditionally for women does not necessarily exclude him from being a man. And Daryl is also unique to Arjie because he promises to actually help address Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict; his sense of ethical obligation ultimately proves an important inspiration for Arjie. However, his planned story also shows that the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict is not merely about dueling ethnic groups: it is also about the government actively repressing the Tamil minority.
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Neliya Aunty comes into the room, and Arjie calls out to Amma in an attempt to stop her argument with Daryl Uncle. Amma sends Arjie to bed and, confusingly, invites Daryl to stay for lunch. After this lunch, Neliya Aunty says she hopes Daryl will not return, but Amma laughs her off, because “it’s not as if he were a stranger.” Arjie grows more and more confused about his family’s relationship with Daryl, whom he has decided he likes. That night, when his fever worsens again, Arjie asks Amma about Daryl Uncle, and Amma explains that they simply “have different opinions” about politics in Sri Lanka. She is surprised to hear that Arjie likes him. That night, Arjie gets sicker and sicker, and then Daryl visits again—this time, with the three sequels to Little Women. Amma is wearing “an expression on her face [Arjie] had never seen before.”
Still in the dark about the family’s relationship to Daryl, Arjie recognizes not only that Amma’s experience has been much deeper (and probably more interesting) than he previously imagined, but also that he is resolutely blocked out of some of that experience because of his youth. To the reader, it becomes increasingly apparent that Neliya Aunty’s suspicion towards Daryl stems from a sense of protectiveness toward Amma (her sister), and that Daryl and Amma were more than just casual acquaintances in the past.
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Mala Aunty confirms that Arjie has hepatitis, and during the subsequent two weeks he is extremely ill. During this time, Daryl Uncle is sporadically present and helps care for him. When Arjie comes to his senses, he notices that Amma and Daryl’s relationship has changed, and that Amma seems to be going to work. But Neliya Aunty seems angry at Amma, Sonali is now “secretive, as if she had done something very bad,” and Diggy is cold and mechanical, fond of shooting a tin can with his air gun. Soon, Neliya and Diggy turn against Daryl, and Diggy starts shooting the neighboring house’s chickens. It is a sweltering May, and to Arjie’s delight, Amma decides to take him to the hills for a holiday.
Although Arjie is mostly left in the dark about what happens during this time, it is clear that Daryl’s presence transforms the family’s dynamic, alienating and frustrating Diggy, Sonali, and Neliya Aunty. Daryl seems to be taking over a paternal role, challenging Appa’s authority over the family and perhaps stealing too much of Amma’s attention. Diggy’s violent outbursts, consistent with his unemotional masculinity, suggest that he is trying to make sense of this new paternal figure who seems to have replaced the father who virtually abandoned the family.
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Amma and Arjie rent a beautiful bungalow in the hills. They pass the first day quietly, enjoying the view of tea plantations and their freedom from the rest of the family. The next day, Daryl Uncle shows up, and Arjie resents “no longer hav[ing] Amma’s entire attention.” But Daryl sees and acknowledges Arjie’s concern, and the boy starts to feel slightly better. That night, Daryl explains the history of Sri Lanka’s Burghers, many of whom left in the 1950s because they did not speak Sinhala, which the government declared the only national language. Daryl explains that they could not simply intermarry with Sri Lankans, and he revealingly glances at Amma, while Arjie starts to think of him as a better father than his own—more personable, not to mention more attractive.
Arjie begins to struggle with ambivalent feelings toward Daryl, who intrudes on his one-on-one vacation with Amma but also continues to be attentive and thought-provoking. He explains the circumstances that kept him and Amma apart, which also clearly parallel the situation of Sinhalese and Tamils in the present. Arjie’s fleeting attraction towards Daryl hints at his impending sexual awakening, and his fantasy of a more fulfilling family shows that he clearly understands what Amma sees in Daryl Uncle—he is everything the cold, distant, managerial Appa is not.
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At the hill bungalow, Amma is happier than ever because of Daryl’s presence—but, shortly before they are set to return to Colombo, Daryl and Amma get into a huge argument because of his plans to visit Jaffna, where he feels obligated to go to cover the war, even though he loves her. Suddenly, Arjie understands Daryl and Amma’s relationship, and he feels like “an unwitting accomplice” in their affair. He worries that the community will shun his family if his parents separate and dreams about his family being the characters from Little Women. The next morning, Daryl leaves early, and Arjie and Amma head back to Colombo, where they meet Sonali, Diggy, and Neliya Aunty—although Arjie feels “a terrible sense of distance.” At home, Amma finds and hides a letter from Appa.
As the young Arjie finally realizes that Daryl and Amma are definitely and openly having an affair, he learns why the rest of his family grew so frustrated and cold during his period of illness. This time around, Daryl and Amma's love is not only transgressive because it is interracial, but also because it threatens the family's integrity. This holds an interesting mirror to both Radha’s relationship with Anil and Arjie’s own “funniness,” both of which his family sees as threats to their status and wholeness. While he felt it wrong for Radha to leave Rajan (the man she was duty-bound to be with) for Anil (the man she seemed to genuinely love), now Arjie sees a parallel situation from another angle, the perspective of someone affected by the outcome of a relationship. Amma’s worry about Daryl visiting Jaffna suggests that she is worried about his safety and raises questions about whether work was truly his primary motivation for visiting Sri Lanka.
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Arjie returns to school, and Amma comes with Daryl to pick him up on the first afternoon. There is clearly a tension between them, and Amma drops Daryl at the railway station. He says he will be gone for a week; Arjie and Amma go home and try not to talk about him. Amma starts going out with Chithra Aunty again, and Daryl does not return. They hear news of violent riots in Jaffna, and Arjie wonders if Daryl might still be there. Amma insists that he “can’t be” and, pained and shaking, says she is “sure he’s back” by now.
Daryl and Amma’s conflict reveals that Daryl chooses to put his sense of moral and professional duty above the love that he and Amma have apparently rekindled behind Appa’s back. The new stories of violence in Jaffna confirm Amma’s worst fears and recall Radha Aunty’s horrifying assault on the train.
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The next afternoon, Amma reports that she wants to check on Daryl Uncle, since the police have just burned down the Jaffna library. At Daryl’s house, the servant boy Somaratne says Daryl has not returned, nor has he left a note; Amma looks around for one, and she finds Daryl’s room completely disheveled, with drawers and clothes everywhere. They rush away and tell Neliya Aunty, who insists “there’s no proof that anything has happened” and warns them against talking to the police. Clearly, however, Neliya is also concerned.
The burning of the Jaffna library, a 1981 watershed moment in the build-up to Sri Lanka’s Civil War, signals that the government has begun to openly persecute and deliberately stoke animosity toward Tamils—precisely what Daryl feared and had gone to investigate. While the state of Daryl’s room understandably makes Amma and Neliya afraid, they also recognize that the very fact of government abuses means they should be cautious about involving the police.
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The following day, Amma takes Arjie to the police station. When she says her friend is a “white man,” the officer “immediately changed” and started taking her seriously, giving her a form to fill out. The officer’s superior came and addressed her in English, then went into a back room for some time before returning to assure Amma that they would check on Daryl Uncle’s house and call her to Jaffna.
As Amma expected and contrary to their ostensible mission, the Sri Lankan police are clearly neither impartial nor interested in justice; Daryl’s social and economic privilege as a white burgher opens doors, but also may lead the reader to wonder what kind of treatment someone with little social capital (and perhaps even little knowledge of Sinhala or English) would face at the police station.
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When they meet at Daryl’s house, the police assure Amma that “it’s simply a case of break and enter,” and she reveals Daryl’s real occupation and her real fear about his fate. Other police officers bring in the servant boy Somaratne, whom they found running away and they declare “the culprit” responsible for the state of Daryl’s room. The boy and Amma both insist that he is innocent, but the police take him in for questioning, accidentally knocking off his sarong and exposing him in the process. Arjie wonders whether it was right to trust the police.
Just as Amma begins to trust the police who pretend to take Daryl’s disappearance so seriously, it becomes clear that they are more interested in finding an easy explanation than a valid one. The poor servant boy, Somaratne, becomes a scapegoat, and Arjie and Amma have to cope with their accidental complicity in this injustice. Just as Arjie has experienced within his family, the most marginalized and vulnerable people often receive unjust punishment in such contested circumstances.
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Appa calls that night, and Amma talks to him “as if nothing unusual had happened in our lives.” The next morning, the same police officer proudly tells Amma that he “play[s] squash with [her] husband from time to time.” The police have not found Daryl, he reports, but they have confirmed that the servant boy, Somaratne, was stealing from him. Amma returns home distraught, worried that Appa will find out about her concern for Daryl. That night, Amma receives a phone call and learns that “they’ve found Daryl’s body.”
Amma’s apparent normalcy on the phone belies her dual loyalty to both Appa and Daryl and evidences to Arjie her capacity for deception. Similarly, the police chief’s jovial mood is doubly disturbing. First, his capacity for such normalcy after so cruelly abusing Somaratne and while the family is worried about Daryl’s disappearance (in which he may be involved) suggests that he does not process the personal consequences of Sri Lanka’s violence, including his own actions. Secondly, his friendliness to Appa suggests to Arjie’s family that the same people responsible for much of the inhuman cruelty in Sri Lanka are seemingly innocuous members of their own privileged class. What is serious for the victims of violence is casual for its perpetrators.
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In the morning, Amma and Neliya Aunty have to go identify Daryl Uncle’s body, which “washed ashore on the beach of a fishing village.” Arjie struggles to process the shock of Daryl’s death, as everyone else around him continues their normal routines. Amma and Neliya Aunty return and explain that Daryl will be cremated and sent to Australia. Amma and Arjie both only begin to recognize that he is really gone, and Amma explains that “he was killed, then thrown into the sea.” But officially, “they have witnesses who saw him go swimming.” Amma insists that they must do something: “this is a democracy, for God’s sake.”
Daryl’s death is particularly distressing precisely because he was trying to heal Sri Lanka’s ethnic divide and force the government to act fairly, and then became evidence of the government’s profound commitment to perpetuating injustice in targeted ways. Just as Radha gets chastised by her family, Daryl suffers from the cruelty of those who declare themselves moral authorities and faces unpredictable, unmerited, agonizing punishment precisely because he embraced honesty and vulnerability in his quest to make democracies do the same. And yet the government’s shoddy cover-up suggests that the government is more interest in buying plausible deniability than actually convincing anyone that Daryl really might have died in an accident.
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That night, Amma falls sick with a headache and laments that she did not save Daryl Uncle, who turned out so disfigured she could only identify him from his wallet. She wonders why she did not believe what he said about the fighting, and why she was so optimistic about the new government. She is still in shock, and Arjie wishes she could cry, which “would have seemed more natural.” After another dream about Little Women, Arjie awakens to finally understand Daryl Uncle’s death.
The shock of Daryl’s death hits Amma so profoundly because she had encouraged him not to go to Jaffna; although she strongly opposed his plan to go in the first place, now she begins to blame herself for not trying harder, even though Daryl was dedicated to going the whole time. Consumed by guilt, confusion, and self-loathing, Arjie notes, she is too traumatized to grieve.
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By the next afternoon, Amma has a plan: they go to see Q.C. Uncle, an elderly civil rights attorney and old friend of Appachi. When she explains what happened and mentions Daryl’s name, Q.C. Uncle recalls that she “wanted to marry [Daryl] at one time” until her parents sent her away to stay with Q.C. for three months. Q.C. says that, were he still practicing law, he “wouldn’t be doing civil rights,” which is “too dangerous.” There is nothing to be done; one must only “be like the three wise monkeys. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” Amma’s focus, Q.C. insists, should be saving her family from harm. As they leave, he tells them how to tell if the government is tapping their phone, by listening for a click.
Q.C. Uncle’s unfortunate advice highlights Amma’s continued, forced choice between ideals and safety—her belief in justice and love for Daryl, on the one hand, and the practical consequences of speaking out for herself, her community, and her family, on the other. Neither is anywhere close to a morally perfect option, but both justice for Daryl and loyalty to the family are important ethical obligations for Amma, but when they conflict, she has no choice but to put her family’s safety first.
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On their way home, Amma grapples with anxiety and decides to return to Daryl’s house to see what became of the servant boy, Somaratne. When they arrive, a woman tells them that the boy has gone back to his village, and after Amma mentions the boy’s mother’s heart problem, the woman tells her the name of the village. Back at their home, Amma hears the click Q.C. Uncle warned her about when she calls Mala Aunty. That night, she tells Arjie she is going to find Somaratne, the servant boy, in his village. She agrees to let Arjie accompany her.
Despite her promises to Q.C. Uncle, Amma starts investigating Daryl’s death on her own, although the click on her phone line (indicating that the government is surveilling her calls) appears as almost a direct punishment for her freedom. Her familiarity with the story of Somaratne’s mother also reminds the reader how intimate she was with Daryl and how much of their past will forever remain off-limits to Arjie.
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During their drive to Somaratne’s village, Amma and Arjie notice a blue car following them. Fortunately, when they pull over, it continues past them. They reach the village and ask for Somaratne, then make their way to his mother, who explains that he is not there, but appears to be lying, and yells that they (as “rich folk from Colombo”) do not care about her son. Amma insists that they just want Somaratne to help them identify Daryl Uncle’s murderer, but Somaratne’s mother says they will end up sacrificing her son in the process, and accuses them of seeing village people as “not even human beings.” The woman reveals that the army killed her first son in 1971, and that Somaratne returned home with a paralyzed arm. She assumes Amma and Arjie are just there to injure him further.
In her crazed effort to find out about Daryl’s death, Amma completely overlooks the way other Sri Lankans are deeply wounded by systematic injustices, similar to the one that killed Daryl and perpetuated by a government that sees itself as charged to protect only a certain subset of Sri Lankans. In fact, the villager’s reaction shows that Amma and Arjie are part of the wealthy capitalist class responsible for perpetuating these injustices against the rural poor. Although it is unclear how much Arjie empathizes with the villagers, this encounter could allow him to see that others legitimately view him as an enemy, and that his family’s own suffering is not unique and does not justify putting others in danger (even if unintentionally).
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As Arjie and Amma head back to their car, the villagers start throwing stones at them. One hits Arjie and he explodes at his mother, calling her selfish for choosing this trip and blaming her for “nearly [getting us] killed.” In turn, Amma accuses Arjie of not listening. On the highway back, Amma pulls over to cry, and Argue gazes out at the mountains, whose “beauty and serenity seemed [out of place] with all that had happened.” They return home around sunset, and Neliya Aunty explains that an Australian journalist from Daryl’s paper came looking for Amma during the day—but warns her against involving herself in whatever he is looking for. Neliya and Arjie both worry about Amma: “where will all this end?” That night, Arjie dreams about his mother pushing him to run into a huge wave instead of away from it.
Arjie’s outrage at his mother reveals that he continues to grow out of his childhood faith in her infallibility. Amma’s conversations with Neliya and C.Q. Uncle look remarkably like Radha’s conversations with Aunty Doris and Mala Aunty in the previous chapter; both struggle to reconcile their ideals with their commitments to family. Arjie's dream represents his fear and dismay at realizing that Amma has put him in danger (especially during the visit to Somaratne’s village). Like all children, he begins to lose faith that she will always be able to protect him.
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The next day, the same journalist from the Sydney Morning Star stops by to see Amma. She gives him little information about Daryl’s project or his death, and he leaves. Arjie feels “a terrible sadness” at seeing his mother lie and realizing that “Daryl Uncle’s killer would never be brought to justice.” He reads one of his favorite chapters from Little Women but loses faith in its message and its neat universe “where good was rewarded and evil punished.” He wonders how the family will try to adapt back to normalcy when Appa returns. And he does return the next week—they throw a party in his honor, and Amma puts on a beautiful sari and cheery attitude, but Arjie sees her intermittently show exasperation. In the party’s flickering lamps, everything there “seem[s] insubstantial.”
Despite her instinct to help avenge Daryl’s death and hold accountable the evildoers responsible for it, Amma ultimately takes Neliya and Q.C. Uncle’s advice and chooses to put her family’s safety above her moral ideals. Like both of the previous chapters, then, this one ends on a tragic note: Amma is forced by poor circumstances to choose between two unquestionable goods (justice and her family). In order to save one, she has to sacrifice the other. While Arjie thereby learns that good does not always triumph over evil, this does not mean he gives up on pursuing what is good altogether; rather, he comes to understand the sacrifices and dangers inherent in pursuing moral ideals, which sometimes people can’t afford to put ahead of concrete commitments.
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