Funny Boy

Summary
Analysis
A deceased friend’s widow writes to Appa from Jaffna, asking his help employing their son Jegan, who had been working with the Gandhiyam movement. She includes a childhood blood pact that Appa signed with her husband, in which they promised to “always protect each other and each others’ familys.” Appa voices his regret at making the pact and worries about the boy’s involvement in the Gandhiyam movement, whom he worries are “in league with the Tigers.” He decides he will ask the boy about politics before hiring him. As Appa walks away, Arjie considers how distant but powerful he always had been to the children.
Out of the blue, Appa suddenly finds himself morally responsible for someone he has never met because of a promise he may not even remember making. While he is clearly willing to make good on his promise, he feels that it will conflict with his self-interest and turns Jegan into an ethical dilemma before even meeting him. Arjie’s note about Appa’s usual distance, however, suggests that this sense of duty might be his way of being; Appa does only what he must, but often falls out of the picture in matters concerning anything less than necessity.
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Jegan Parameswaran comes to the family’s house a few days later. While Neliya Aunty goes inside to fetch Appa, Arjie “smile[s] shyly” at Jegan and explains that he and Sonali are picking snails out of the garden. When Appa comes out, he is initially serious and then astonished at Jegan’s resemblance to his father. Jegan explains that his father often talked about Appa and was proud of his friend. Appa tells Jegan he will try to “arrange something” without even waiting for Jegan to talk about his past—and, of course, without even mentioning politics.
Despite his promise to interrogate and test Jegan before hiring him, Appa is overcome with an uncharacteristic sentimentality about his old friend and completely changes his thinking. While his loyalty is admirable, his quick about-face raises the question of how reliable his promises are in the first place. Fortunately, however, he does not let politics get between himself and those important to him.
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Instead, Amma is the one who asks Jegan about the Gandhiyam movement—which resettles Tamils uprooted by the riots—and then flatly asks if they are “connected with the Tigers.” Appa interrupts, yelling, “no politics.” Jegan says some are “sympathetic,” Amma asks if Jegan is, and Appa suggests that even he might be “if the Tigers had such fine chaps [as Jegan] in it.” Jegan does not answer.
Recognizing that Appa might be missing something important by entirely giving up on politics, Amma butts into the conversation and asks what is on everyone’s mind, likely out of concern that the family might become targets of government persecution. Appa’s excessive flattery begins to make him look insincere, especially given that he usually hates the Tamil Tigers.
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Arjie sits and watches Jegan, fixing his gaze on his muscles; although Jegan notices Arjie looking, he just smiles back, “as if to say that it was all right.” In fact, Arjie has started paying attention to men’s bodies and mannerisms, and even sees them in his dreams; he thinks this has to do with his own entry into puberty. At dinner, Appa apologizes to Jegan for never attending his father’s funeral and recalls how close they were before he left to study in England. He decides to let Jegan stay in the empty room above the garage, and Arjie feels “an unaccountable joy” at the chance to be “in constant contact with him.” Jegan moves in a few days later, and Diggy is excited to meet him. Arjie feels that “the place seemed to have become sacred by [Jegan’s] presence.”
With Arjie’s apparent crush on Jegan, the reader finally gets some indication that his longstanding femininity does in fact have something to do with his sexuality; Arjie seems excited to have Jegan around because he welcomes the attention and does not recoil at the prospect of being around someone queer. Jegan's presence also promises him a male role model besides his distant father and obnoxious brother Diggy. Diggy, of course, is also thrilled to have a potential older brother figure in the house.
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After Jegan starts working with Appa, the two become “inseparable,” even taking drinks together every evening. Arjie starts listening to their conversations from the verandah, and Appa soon starts revealing details from his own past, like a love affair with an English girl while he was in university, which flew in the face of Sri Lanka’s social expectations. Some time later, Appa reveals that the other employees are taking issue with Jegan, but he shrugs it off.
Jegan's friendship with Appa gives Arjie a window into Appa’s past and emotional life, just as Daryl Uncle’s relationship with Amma allowed Arjie to see her as a complex and imperfect person. Appa’s relationship with the English girl (which is also an obvious parallel to Amma and Daryl Uncle) shows that, despite his insistence on conformity, he, too, was willing to transgress social norms when it came to his own romantic life. He also does this with his children: Appa seems to be treating Jegan with far more attention and affection than he grants Diggy, Sonali, and Arjie.
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Jegan also grows close to Arjie, recounting his time in the Gandhiyam organization and inspiring Arjie to live more purposefully. Over ta drink one night, Appa mentions Arjie’s “certain tendencies” and suggests Jegan might help him “outgrow this phase.” Arjie is horrified, but delighted to hear Jegan defend him.
Arjie worries that Jegan’s relationship with Appa might undermine his relationship with Arjie, if Appa is using Jegan to try to manipulate his son. Like Daryl Uncle’s affirmation of Arjie’s interest in Little Women, Jegan's defense of Arjie’s effeminacy again proves that the social norms of masculinity can be circumvented, and do not exist with full force everywhere. In fact, Jegan helps show Arjie that norms should be changed, not obeyed: unlike Appa, Jegan puts his values first, and he encourages the young protagonist to do the same.
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One day, Arjie, Sonali, and Diggy see someone sticking a poster of a lamp on their wall—in the upcoming “referendum” (held to avoid a real election), voting for the “lamp” meant choosing to extend the existing government for six more years. Jegan and Appa come out to confront the man, who does not stop, and then Jegan grabs and holds him on the ground before tearing the poster off the wall, and then in half—all as the man complains he is destroying “government property.” The man runs away and threatens, “you don’t know who you’re dealing with.” The neighbors come outside and praise Arjie’s family—the government has done the same thing, illegally putting up posters, all around Colombo. But Appa tells Jegan he “shouldn’t have done that” because “these days it is necessary to be discreet.” He may have endangered himself by “antagoniz[ing] the wrong people.”
For the sake of historical context, it is worth noting that this referendum marked an important stage in the Sri Lankan government’s shift from an ordinary democracy to the arguably deceptive, centralized, Sinhalese-run police state that fought the civil war. Accordingly, Appa’s worry is not that Jegan is taking a wrong political stance—he certainly agrees that the referendum is an illegitimate power grab—but instead with the fact of taking a political stance at all. Like with Daryl Uncle’s courageous but ultimately careless decision to go to Jaffna, this becomes a central ethical question throughout this chapter: is it necessary, worth it, or even safe to put one’s political beliefs before one's personal safety and the safety of those one cares about? If not, how can a society effectively resist oppression, and will only the privileged end up saving themselves?
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Appa promotes Jegan to take over his hotel inspection duty, and then brings him with the family for the next inspection. The hotel is in a small, poor town three hours from Colombo. After their inspection, Jegan and Appa invite Arjie to sit with them for their evening drink; Jegan mentions that he noticed a lot of the foreign men staying at the hotel spending time with young village boys. Appa laughs him off and says that it makes no sense for him “to stop it,” and that the police are not around to do anything. But Jegan simply responds with “a stern expression.”
Appa’s behavior raises two related moral questions: first, whether Jegan actually deserves his promotion, and secondly, whether there is any real justification for his supporting sex tourism—especially when its victims are young boys and most of all when he repudiates Arjie out of his intense homophobia. Appa seems to make exceptions to moral rules for himself, and Arjie now has the capacity to see that his family not only suffers from injustice, but also perpetrates it.
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The next day, Arjie sees Jegan bring the manager to Amma and Appa’s room at the hotel. Jegan complains that the manager has told him not to directly correct the staff; Appa sits Jegan down and explains that “that’s the way we do things here.” Jegan decides “it’s a Tamil-Sinhala thing, isn’t it?” and calls the policy “ridiculous,” but Appa explains that the region is unstable—the hotel was nearly destroyed during the last riots because the community knew he, its owner, was Tamil. Another local hotel owner, the Banduratne Mudalali, is a “very anti-Tamil” Sinhala and ordered mobs to murder many Tamils during the last riots. Jegan is in danger, too, because people think he only got the position because he (like Appa) is Tamil. To succeed as a minority, he says, Tamils have to keep a low profile. Appa implores Jegan not to “spoil” his “bright future.”
Again, Appa tries to circumvent political issues—here, the tension between the hotel’s Tamil leadership and Sinhala staff and community—rather than confronting them and following moral principles. At the same time, he has practical reasons for doing so, and while his lack of principles leads him to make many questionable decisions (including passing up many qualified Sinhalese staff members to give Jegan a promotion), this passage also makes it clear that Jegan’s idealism is not sustainable in the real world. When Appa speaks about Jegan’s “bright future,” however, he is almost certainly thinking in terms of financial success, something unlikely to matter very much to Jegan.
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Arjie now sees “an immediate and frightening dimension” to the riots that were previously a distant worry. He remembers first hearing news about the violence in the rest of the country, but feeling relatively safe in Colombo. But the riots were sudden, and more could happen at any time.
In the past, Arjie has only ever seen the effects of ethnic violence—Radha Aunty's attack, the deaths of Ammachi’s father and Daryl Uncle—from a distance. Now, for the first time, he sees that it is possible for him to actually experience it and begins to grapple with the uncertainty that underlies life in Sri Lanka (and drives his father’s caution and conservatism).
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Arjie calls Jegan over, and Jegan suggests they go for a walk on the beach, which he says reminds him of going with his schoolmates in Jaffna. Arjie mentions that he knows about the torture in Jaffna, and Jegan says he knows someone from the Gandhiyam movement who was tortured—and of whom Arjie reminds him. This friend migrated to Canada, while Jegan joined the Tamil Tigers—which Arjie is astonished to hear, but promises not to recount. Jegan has since quit, because he could not stand the Tigers’ refusal to accept dissent. But he thinks the Tamils need their own state. He tells Arjie more about his friend, and Arjie “could tell that [Jegan] had loved him very much.”
Jegan’s firsthand accounts give Arjie a window into the conflict that his parents have mostly kept secret from him; Arjie’s affection for Jegan seems now to stem from the fact that Jegan treats him as an adult, even more than from his initial attraction to Jegan. Indeed, Jegan would never admit to Appa that he used to be a Tamil Tiger; his willingness to confide in Arjie shows that their relationship is genuine, and not merely the result of Appa’s prompting or Jegan's sense of obligation. Finally, Jegan’s love for his friend is a foil for Appa’s love for Jegan’s father; it helps Arjie understand the sense of deep obligation that binds Appa and Jegan, but also suggests that Appa may be wrong to think politics and personal relationships can be completely separated.
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Arjie and Jegan grow closer; after they return to Colombo, they start going jogging every evening. (Diggy is jealous, which Arjie savors.) One day, Jegan mysteriously talks with two strange men on the track, whom he calls “old school friends.” But he is clearly worried; there are also three other ominous men, one of them in an expensive tracksuit, and an official-looking car with uniformed men outside the track. Later, through the newspaper, Arjie learns that the man with the tracksuit is a Tamil government minister. On the next day, Jegan starts going to a different park.
Jegan quickly becomes Arjie’s closest friend and confidant since Radha Aunty many years before. For the first time Arjie beats Diggy at one of the rare things that matter to both of them—befriending Jegan—which challenges the family’s clear and longstanding assumption that Diggy’s masculinity makes him a better son. However, Jegan’s suspicious behavior suggests that he may still be hiding important details about his political activities from Arjie’s family.
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After a few days, Arjie learns what was bothering Jegan. The police visit the family’s house during the day, trying to talk to him. Arjie is distraught at this news, and when Jegan and Appa return from work, Appa asks if Jegan has ever been “connected with the Tigers.” Jegan explains his history with them and Appa calls a friend in the police, who will “look into it” but advises them to show up at the police station, which would suggest Jegan’s innocence. He tells Jegan not to worry, but also “not to mention this Tiger business.”
Unsurprisingly, as Amma and Appa worried even before Jegan came into town, Jegan’s past catches up with him; Appa initially seems steadfastly dedicated to helping extricate Jegan from his situation, but from the previous chapter (when Amma, Arjie, and Neliya Aunty attempted to learn about Daryl Uncle's death) the reader already knows better than to instinctively trust Sri Lanka’s corrupt and anti-Tamil police force.
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After the family waits all evening for Jegan and Appa to return, Appa’s car comes to the gate at night. Jegan is not there; Appa explains that Jegan is spending the night at the police station, but promises that this is “just routine stuff.” They justified this through the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and Appa stops the family when they insist that Jegan is no terrorist: the two men he talked to at the racetrack were Tigers “planning to assassinate a prominent Tamil politician.” He makes Arjie recount “exactly what [he] saw” that day. After, Amma declares that Jegan must be innocent, but Appa questions her and tells them “to get as little involved as possible,” so nobody accuses them “of harboring a terrorist.” He will not try and save Jegan because he has “a business to maintain” and must “be very careful.”
Astonishingly, although Appa threw out his political suspicions about Jegan the moment he arrived and appeared dedicated to defending him at the police station, he suddenly seems to lose all sense of loyalty to Jegan, whom he now treats as a threat to the family and—perhaps more importantly to him—his business. This further complicates Appa as a character, as he continues to look more and more self-serving, deceitfully flattering, and ethically unprincipled. At the same time, Arjie must confront the possibility that Jegan truly had lied to him, and that their apparently close relationship was somehow underlain by deception.
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The next morning, the newspaper reads: “KEY SUSPECT IN ASSASSINATION PLOT DISCOVERED.” It is Jegan, and the article says he “resides with a well-known Tamil hotelier.” Amma and Appa field phone calls all morning, and at lunch he explains that his office staff knows about the article—and the hotel staff soon will. He also found a note on his desk “accusing [him] of being a Tiger” and got hateful phone calls all day. And then, the police let Jegan go, without charges, later that day. Everyone asked how he was treated, but Appa told them to let him be in peace and Amma sent him upstairs for a bath—and Arjie to bring him a clean towel. Upstairs, Arjie finds Jegan crying, motionless, on the bed. Jegan tells Arjie to keep this a secret.
Jegan’s release—under no less than the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act that would have let the government detain him for as long as they liked—means that there is no credible evidence against him. However, the media, not the truth, incurs the real and irreversible damage, which threatens to implicate Appa’s business as well. Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict feeds on the priority of rumor over reality, and in retrospect Appa’s warnings now seem to make perfect sense; he clearly understands that it is difficult to abide by principles when one has no choice but to deal with an irrational and unjust society.
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As they have their drink in the yard, Appa suggests that Jegan take a vacation to Jaffna, but Jegan says that “the best thing for me is hard work.” Appa shows him the newspaper article and laments that the whole office read it, and “the Sinhalese staff […] were silent,” while everyone else offered words of support. Jegan asks if they can sue the newspaper, since he is innocent, and then asks if he is fired; Appa says he merely needs to take a vacation, but that Jegan can decide what he wants to do. Jegan decides to go right back to work, and on their jog that night, Jegan is strangely quiet and runs well ahead of Arjie, who “realize[s] that something had indeed happened at the office.” At work, Jegan gets into an argument with an employee, but everyone—including Appa—sides against him.
Again, Jegan insists on what he knows is fair—his right to return immediately to work and force the newspaper to acknowledge the truth—instead of listening to Appa’s pleas to manage his image and try to avoid conflict. The divisions within Appa’s office show that Tamil-Sinhalese animosity easily crosses all social contexts, and while Appa trusts Jegan to make his own decisions, he is clearly no longer committed to backing Jegan in every circumstance. Jegan’s arrest, then, was a watershed moment: it showed that Appa would continue to see a conflict between Jegan's interests and his family’s, and that he would always prioritize the latter.
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That night, Arjie hears Appa explaining the incident to Amma, who thinks he “should have taken Jegan’s side.” But Appa explains that “as Tamils we must tread carefully,” which is the only “realistic” thing to do. Amma laments that she no longer feels comfortable speaking Tamil in public, and Appa hopes that “once the government destroys these damn Tigers, everything will go back to normal.” But Amma thinks “these Tigers and their separate state” might actually make sense—she does not want her children to keep living in constant fear for the rest of their lives. Arjie realizes this might have something to do with what happened to Daryl Uncle.
Amma, like Jegan, wishes Appa would stand for his principles instead of trying to conform to a society already stacked against him. Appa, on the other hand, sees the very fact of society’s bias as a reason why his survival depends on conformity. For Amma, though, conflict seems to be inevitable, and perhaps even for the best—for her, this is precisely a reason why it does not matter whether or not Appa speaks his mind: no matter how much he tries to manage his image, he will never save himself from injustice (nevertheless, Appa is much more interested in success than in justice).
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After a week, it is time for Jegan’s inspection duty, and Appa goes with him to “discourage any dissension among the staff.” They end up bringing the whole family along. During the day, everyone seems perfectly cordial to Jegan. At night, they walk by some drunk students on their way to a monumental rock, but Chithra Aunty insists there is no trouble, and they encounter none until their way back, when one man calls Jegan “Tiger” and throws a bottle at them. They run back to the hotel and Amma recounts the incident, first to Appa, and then again to the hotel manager, who explains that the boys are relatives and friends of the Banduratne Mudalali. Appa asks Mr. Samarakoon to alert the night watchman. Amma is confused—Appa explains that, in the riots of 1981, the Banduratne Mudalali orchestrated “all the killings and burnings” of Tamils in the area.
For the first time since his visit to Somaratne’s village, Arjie confronts a legitimate threat of physical violence. Even though he has clearly done nothing wrong and Jegan has been exonerated, news of the arrest has clearly spread and the whole family is considered guilty by association—not only with the people who were plotting the politician’s assassination, but also by virtue of being Tamil in the first place. The precedent for killings makes the danger all the more palpable.
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After Appa’s explanation, Amma breaks the news that she has been considering immigrating to Canada or Australia, “for the sake of the children.” Appa refuses, insisting that Sri Lankans are treated like “nothing” abroad and that he would have no job opportunities beyond “a taxi driver or a petrol station man.”
Although Arjie's family would obviously rather stay in Sri Lanka, Amma’s fears that the violence might worsen lead her to consider alternatives. It is important to note that Arjie’s family is well-connected and already has many members, like Radha Aunty, living abroad; they accordingly have an opportunity to immigrate available to few other Sri Lankans. But Amma and Appa's conflict appears here as the conflict between acting for the sake of the children and acting for the sake of material wealth (Appa’s business success and job opportunities). Appa sees moving abroad as entering another society at its lowest rungs, trading safety for shame and ostracism that may be just as severe as the dangers they face at home.
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Before dinner, Arjie, Diggy, and Sonali worry about whether they will be attacked. They eat solemnly and, afterward, see a crowd forming at Jegan’s patio. In Sinhalese, the words “Death to all Tamil pariahs” are written on his window. Appa refuses to translate for a guest who asks what the graffiti means, and he tells everyone to return to their rooms, but the crowd does not disperse. Appa has the “guest-relations officer” explain that “it’s just a prank,” but people do not believe her at first, although they eventually leave. Inside, Jegan finds his belongings scattered around the room, and the manager Mr. Samarakoon declares that it was an “inside job.” But he does not trust the police to help.
The specific and targeted threat against Jegan, no doubt tied to the Banduratne Mudalali just like the bottle-throwing students, suggests that the hotel is reaching a breaking point because of local opposition to Jegan's presence; indeed, if Mr. Samarkoon is right and one of the staff is really responsible, then this suggests that Appa’s organization, and not just his reputation, is beginning to fall apart from the inside. Again, Arjie's family finds nowhere to turn in a situation of injustice, since every institution—especially the police—is deeply affected by the same anti-Tamil bias that drove the crime.
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The guest-relations officer returns and declares that all the guests are leaving because they think the writing proves that “the hotel is going to be bombed tonight.” Appa decides to “salvage the situation” himself and tells Jegan to move rooms. Later, the lead housekeeper comes by and asks for Appa, because none of the housekeepers is willing to wash off the writing: “if we do it, we might be in trouble next.” Amma says she will do it herself and Arjie goes with her. She tells Jegan to pull himself together so the staff does not lose respect for him, but he replies that he is inevitably going to get fired anyway. At night, Sonali cannot sleep alone, so Arjie joins her, and they hope they will make it back to Colombo unscathed the next afternoon.
Ultimately, Appa’s worst fears come true: the controversy surrounding Jegan begins to threaten his business. Ironically, however, if one of the staff truly is responsible, then they are undercutting their own job—this illogic is one of the many ways in which intercommunal violence so often becomes self-defeating. Just as the police and Sinhalese community scapegoat Jegan—who specifically disavowed the Tamil Tigers for their violent methods, and yet is assumed to participate in them—now the hotel suffers unfairly because of something Appa has no role in precipitating.
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Appa does not come to breakfast, which is tense. They see him on his patio with a glass of whiskey, and Sonali reports that she saw Amma crying in her and Appa’s room. They go to the beach and swim—it is beautiful but joyless, and when they return, Appa has not moved and is still holding his whiskey. Later, Arjie overhears Sena Uncle and Appa talk about firing Jegan and sending him abroad to the Middle East.
Appa’s morning of drinking illustrates the gravity of his dilemma: should he keep his oath to Jegan’s father or punish the innocent Jegan in order to save himself? He is forced to choose between an ethical commitment and his livelihood; it is now clear that he cannot have both, and will unjustly victimize either Jegan or his own family.
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Arjie goes for a walk on the beach and is angry, “but at whom [he doesn’t] know.” He feels betrayed by his father but also understands that Appa was in a tough position because of his childhood pact with Jegan’s father. He wonders how his and Jegan’s relationship will progress after Jegan gets fired, and whether “he [would] become for me what his father had become to my father […] a distant memory.” He tells himself that he will not, and he realizes that he has had more honest conversations with Jegan than with anyone else.
Arjie’s inability to direct his anger shows that what he is really angry at is the tragic character of the family’s situation, the fact that they must choose the lesser of two undeserved evils and that he might have to lose one of his best friends in the process. It is telling that, as he surveys his feelings about Jegan, Arjie comes to dwell on Jegan’s openness and honesty—something that Appa quite frankly lacks, and something that shows Arjie to put relationships above status, a person’s genuine self over one's expectation of what they are or should be. It is a trait Jegan shares with Arjie's other role models so far, Radha Aunty and Daryl Uncle.
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Back at the hotel, Arjie sees Jegan packing his things onto the car. Jegan dismissively mentions his firing, and Arjie mentions the possibility of working in the Middle East, but Jegan talks about “other alternatives” and tells Arjie, “you’re just a boy.” Jegan refuses to make eye contact. Furious, Arjie throws a rope at him and Jegan ignores him, ties his things to his car with the rope, and walks away. Arjie realizes they cannot be friends and begins to hate Jegan.
Although Arjie hopes to try to cheer Jegan up, and therefore show him that his firing should not sever their personal relationship, Jegan turns Appa’s decision against Arjie. In fact, Jegan’s response hurts Arjie most of all because it belittles him and suggests that their friendship was never equal, or about more than circumstance; although perhaps he cannot be expected to do so, Jegan does not recognize that both of Appa’s alternatives (firing him or sacrificing the business) were far from just or harmless.
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Back in Colombo, Jegan avoids the family and then moves out the next day. Arjie asks Amma if he said anything before leaving, but she says he did not. Arjie is devastated that “Jegan had left without even saying goodbye.” Briefly jumping out of his remembered narrative, the adult Arjie interjects that “we would never see Jegan again.”
Jegan's resentful, abrupt, and permanent exit ends another chapter on the same tragic, unfortunate note as the previous three: just as family pressures suffocated Arjie’s self-expression and Radha’s relationship, politics has cut Daryl’s life short and now done the same to Jegan’s new life in Colombo. In all these cases, characters are the victims of circumstance and prejudice, frustrated most of all because they lack the means to improve their situation—and, in the last three cases, become victims precisely because of their attempts to create understanding between the Tamils and Sinhalese.
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During the government referendum, armed thugs led by a member of Parliament “stuff the ballot boxes with false ballots” when Amma and Appa go to vote. The government “wins,” meaning it gets to rule for six more years. That night, Amma brings up immigration again, but Appa refuses to consider it. Looking at Appa, Arjie feels he understands his father’s feelings. Appa skips dinner and drinks late into the night.
The outcome of the rigged referendum is no surprise, and only promises Sri Lanka’s Tamils another six years of repression and accelerating authoritarianism. And yet Appa’s reluctance to consider immigrating to another country suggests that, despite the blows his business and his conscience have suffered in this chapter, Appa retains faith in the possibility that life will improve in Sri Lanka.
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