Just before the new school term, Appa declares that he is transferring Arjie to Diggy’s school, the Queen Victoria Academy, because it “will force [Arjie] to become a man.” Diggy clearly understands what Appa really means, and Arjie asks him later that day. Appa “doesn’t want you turning out funny,” Diggy says. When Arjie blushes, Diggy asks if he is “funny,” but soon changes the subject and tells him to be careful about the abusive and sadistic principal, whom everyone calls “Black Tie.” Black Tie beats children senseless for winking or licking their lips, and nobody complains because doing so is unmanly. Arjie grows terrified of Victoria Academy, and his only solace is knowing that Black Tie’s vice principal, Mr. Lokubandara, has political power and might take over his job. But Diggy says that Lokubandara is dangerous too, “a snake in the grass.”
At least to the reader, Appa’s motivations for transferring Arjie to Victoria Academy are thinly veiled, simply a new iteration of his attempt to make Arjie play cricket as a young child: he believes that sexuality and gender expression are reflections of the external environment rather than products of one's internal disposition, desires, and creativity. And yet Diggy describes school’s insistent masculinity as something closer to a culture of cruelty, which (beyond highlighting the cruelty in Appa’s attempts to “convert” Arjie) simply calls into question the very value of the concept of masculinity as strength—including, apparently, the strength to tolerate pain and injustice without speaking out.
The first day of school, Arjie dons his new uniform with long trousers, unlike the shorts he used to wear and wishes he could return to. When he and Diggy arrive, he marvels at the school’s ominous colonial building—Black Tie stands on the balcony, wearing an old British colonial topee hat and an old white suit. Arjie and Diggy pass boys playing rugger violently in the courtyard and head up to the classrooms, where the other boys are loud and tough. Diggy leaves Arjie in Sinhala class with a threatening boy named Salgado, who says Arjie is not welcome because he is Tamil (even though he does not speak Tamil and has always been in Sinhalese medium classes). Another boy, Shehan Soyza, points out that the bigoted Salgado is “always saying that Tamils should learn Sinhalese.” At Queen Victoria everyone uses last names, so Arjie is now “Chelvaratnam.”
Queen Victoria Academy (as its name suggests) derives much of its prestige and draconian disciplinary practices from the colonial era, which Black Tie specifically alludes to through his clothing. This illustrates the strange paradox of post-colonial Sri Lanka: although the nation is proud of its independence from brutal, exploitative colonial rule, the relics of colonialism are still objects of fascination and imitation, and association with the former colonial government still confers status and power. While the Tamil-Sinhala divide is clearly stark at Victoria, the reader is again reminded that, far from a typical Tamil, Arjie has actually been surrounded by Sinhalese students and the Sinhala language his whole life. This, and Salgado’s embarrassing contradiction, show that convenient narratives about ethnic differences have no basis in reality.
Arjie sits next to Soyza, who points out the nail someone has planted on his chair and exchanges a shy glance with him. Arjie writes him a thank-you note, but Soyza does not acknowledge him again until much later, although Arjie stares at him frequently during class and decides he is attractive. Arjie also realizes that “Soyza had a certain power which gave him immunity from bullies,” a power that was not physical—his face “looked like it could easily be shattered”—but rather came from his confidence, daring, and long hair.
Soyza clearly has a unique, liminal place in the school: he is not an insider to any of the groups in Arjie’s class, but everyone seems to respect him and keep a healthy distance. Unlike the rest of the boys, Soyza is neither competitive nor aggressive, but his confidence suggests that this is out of choice, not inability. In a sense, while he lacks the external, physical traits of conventional masculinity, he still has the bravery and moral strength that characterize it at its best.
One day, while a prefect substitutes for a physical education teacher who recently left, Soyza goes to the bathroom for about 15 minutes and returns with rumpled clothing. After another week, Arjie watches Salgado and his posse drag Cheliah—a Tamil student—into a bathroom stall, presumably to beat him up. In the hallway, Arjie meets Soyza, who takes him to the playground and explains that Lokubandara lets Salgado and his friends “do whatever they like.” Soyza reveals that the whole school is “divided into two factions” between Lokubandara (who wants to make the school officially Buddhist, like most of the Sinhalese) and Black Tie (who is Buddhist but “want[s] the school to be for all races and religions”). Later the same day, Lokubandara visits Arjie’s class, but—to Arjie’s bafflement—seems innocuous and kind.
Although he cannot explain Soyza’s trip to the bathroom, the sight of Salgado bullying Cheliah suggests that Soyza might be suffering something similar. Fortunately, Arjie seems now immune to Salgado’s cruelty, whether because of Soyza’s protection or the simple fact that he speaks Sinhalese. The school’s split between Black Tie and Lokubandara’s factions is a clear metaphor for Sri Lanka’s split as a whole—not only in terms of the Tamil-Sinhalese divide, but also with regard to the more fundamental question of who owns and belongs in the Sri Lankan nation.
After about two months, Arjie finally sees Black Tie, who visits class during “a rubber-band-and-paper-pellet fight.” Everyone pulls out their books and Soyza pins up his hair. When Black Tie walks in, he wears a sour frown under his topee hat, and he pulls Soyza aside because a lock of his hair was out of place. Black Tie smacks Soyza twice in front of the whole class and declares that “we will have discipline in this school.” He drags Soyza off and the other students speculate about whether the boy will end up among the group of students Black Tie has dubbed “the future ills and burdens of Sri Lanka.” After Black Tie and Soyza leave, Salgado runs to the front of the classroom, grabs another student, and imitates Black Tie’s slaps, which leave the whole class laughing.
The classic image of schoolkids scrambling to hide their fight from a feared authority figure already hints at the extent of Black Tie’s power over his students; as Diggy had promised, he turns out to be needlessly and inexplicably cruel, singling out students for infractions with no consequence for the learning environment while ignoring great problems like systemic bullying. In fact, Salgado’s imitation of him suggests that one of the reasons Victoria Academy’s students seem so cruel is that their authority figures are modelling this behavior.
At the end of the day, Black Tie releases Soyza with short hair cut in “jagged layers.” Soyza knows that there is nothing to be done and calls his condition “extremely funny.” Arjie, who waited alone for Soyza in class, suggests Soyza complain or tell his parents, but Soyza recoils in anger. Arjie touches him on the head, Soyza walks out, and Arjie follows him to the bicycle shed, where Soyza asks and then takes back a mysterious question: “What do you know about me?”
Soyza turns his jagged haircut, intended by Black Tie as a sign of the boy’s shame, into a sign of the school’s excesses. And yet Soyza’s violent reaction to Arjie’s attempts to help him show both that Black Tie’s cruelty truly has wounded him, and that—perhaps as a result of Victoria Academy’s hypermasculine culture— he feels unable to admit how he feels. Outside, Soyza declares that his newfound tension with Arjie symbolizes a deeper, unspoken understanding between them, but Arjie is baffled; it remains to be seen whether they are completely talking past each other, or Arjie understands something about Shehan Soyza without recognizing what he knows.
At physical training class the next morning, a new teacher writes a rhyming honor code about “the best School of all” on the board and makes each boy recite it in turn. Afterwards, he makes Arjie do it again, and then read a poem to the class. The teacher walks out and Salgado asks the prefect what just happened—the prefect explains that this old teacher, Mr. Sunderalingam, teaches English and drama, and likely wants “to rope [Arjie] into some play or other.”
Again, Victoria Academy’s methods rely on teachers’ absolute authority over the students, who are not even told what they are being asked to do or why, but are instead merely expected to blindly obey Mr. Sunderalingam’s request. In fact, even the prefect does not take Sunderalingam seriously as soon as the man has left the room, which suggests that the culture of feigned absolute respect for authority actually breeds a fundamental disrespect towards others.
In social studies class that day, a prefect and favorite of Black Tie nicknamed “the Angel of Death” (because he always delivers bad news) comes to bring Arjie to the principal’s office. Soyza is sitting outside; inside are Mr. Sunderalingam and Black Tie, who is now smiling and nearly bald without his hat. Black Tie hands Arjie two poems, which he is being asked to recite at a prize ceremony.
Ironically, although Arjie is one of Black Tie’s favorites and Soyza one of the “ills and burdens,” they both end up in the same place, which further underlines the way punishment, wrongdoing, and justice essentially have no connection to one another in Arjie’s universe. Arjie’s long-standing talent for performance and theater—from bride-bride to The King and I—finally wins him appreciation and status.
After school, Arjie tells Soyza about what happened in Black Tie’s office, and then Diggy tells Arjie not to associate with Soyza, who is known for leaving class during free periods to have sex with the head prefect. Diggy tells Arjie not to win himself the same reputation. Arjie assumes Diggy must be lying and accuses him of doing so, but also thinks that Soyza’s mysterious question from the day before—“what do you know about me?”—might be somehow related to this.
Yet again, those around Arjie employ shame and intimidation to try and get him to change his behavior and censor himself; now, Diggy is explicit about precisely what the family has feared all along and always meant when they called Arjie “funny”—they worried he would turn out to be gay. When he sees Soyza’s question take on a new meaning, Arjie understands his own behavior in an entirely new way, too; he realizes that he has been flirting with Soyza all along, or at least has expressed something more fundamental than his words, even if he did not realize it at the time.
Arjie starts studying the poems he is supposed to recite, but has difficulty understanding them, especially because they valorize school, which he does not particularly like. In bed, he wonders how it would even be possible for two boys to have sex with each other.
Arjie confronts two separate spheres in which his experience contradicts the expectations of those around him—he hates the school he is supposed to praise, and he is only more intrigued by Diggy’s warnings about Soyza. Arjie’s thoughts about sex prove that, although he realized his attraction to men some time before, he has not yet thought of this in sexual terms or developed a concept of his own sexual identity or orientation.
The next afternoon, Arjie visits Black Tie for a practice run at reciting the poems. He runs into Soyza, still with the “ills and burdens,” and briefly practices, forgetting the lines until Soyza calms him down. Black Tie comes back and decides to bring Soyza to his office with Arjie, then pull out his cane and order Soyza to stop Arjie for every mistake in his recitation. Arjie’s mind goes blank and Soyza feeds him the first two lines; Black Tie accuses Arjie of never having learned the poems. Arjie begs for a second chance, and then bungles that second chance by mixing the poems together. Black Tie accuses him of lying and gives a speech about how falsehoods are responsible for Sri Lanka’s problems. He canes Arjie repeatedly on the thighs and orders him to return the next day with the poems memorized.
Although Arjie clearly has a talent for recitation and performance, what Black Tie fails to understand is that the circumstances of this practice session—and especially the threat of caning—interrupts Arjie’s ability to perform the poems that he has, in fact, memorized. As a microcosm, this event illustrates what is wrong with both Victoria Academy as a whole, in which discipline appears to hamper rather than facilitate learning, and Sri Lanka’s contemporary situation, in which many put their lives on hold and restrict their own potential because they are preoccupied by violence, paralyzed by fear, or unwilling to freely express themselves in a police state.
Arjie and Soyza walk back to the classroom to get their bags, but in a fury, Arjie tears up the poems, which he then realizes he still needs to memorize. Soyza shyly agrees to take him to the British Council library, and they meet there soon thereafter. Soyza’s clothes are ironed, and he has carefully coiffed his hair to hide the horrible cut Black Tie gave him. Arjie wonders what Soyza’s home life is like, and they go inside, where they easily find the poems and start making fun of their author, who seemed to have “really loved school.” They joke that the poem’s author must have been the captain of pretty much every club, and they mockingly read out his Latin lines, bothering everyone else in the library. While they wait in line to photocopy the poems, Arjie notices Soyza watching him and smiling. He smiles back.
As they get to know each other outside the walls of Victoria Academy, Arjie and Soyza remind themselves and the reader that there is much more to their lives than their draconian school. Arjie sees how Soyza diligently manages his appearance and realizes how much lies behind his friend’s cultivated, stable facade. In turn, he sees that he will have to play a similar game, feigning love for the school, in reciting the absurd poems he has been assigned by Black Tie. There are clear homoerotic undertones to Arjie and Soyza’s friendliness—they seem to understand and organically relate to one another’s experiences and emotions, whereas most of the interactions between boys at their school are competitive and deliberately unemotional.
On their bicycle ride home, Soyza asks whether Arjie’s family calls him “Arjun” (no—they call him “Arjie”) and Arjie asks Soyza the same (they call him “Shehan”). They adopt these familiar names for one another and part ways. On his way home, Arjie thinks about Shehan—his name, their playful relationship, and Diggy’s rumor about the head prefect. That night, he dreams about wrestling in the pool with Shehan, and in the morning, he “notice[s] the familiar wetness on [his] sarong.”
As they switch from last to first names, Arjie and Shehan reach a new degree of familiarity—in fact, Shehan appears to be Arjie’s first true friend (besides his cousins and compassionate adults like Radha Aunty). Arjie is both in the early stage of recognizing that his interest in Shehan is sexual, and also just beginning to understand that his difference from other boys has anything to do with sex at all; contrary to the experiences of most contemporary readers, Arjie's lack of a vocabulary surrounding sexuality and queerness makes these feelings even more confusing and difficult for him to process.
The next day, Arjie and Shehan take up their same roles for Black Tie. Arjie “studies” Shehan’s body and notices his smell; again, he forgets the poems and Black Tie canes him. This time, he has to kneel on the balcony until he learns them—and Shehan has to join him. Arjie tells Shehan, “I know those poems. I just can’t recite them with that cane on the desk.” Arjie looks down on the school’s empty lawn, feels hopeless, and hears his old school’s bells sound in the distance. An hour later, they go back in, and then Black Tie canes them both after Arjie still cannot recite the poems and Shehan proves he failed to help Arjie learn them. They are forced to return to the balcony and exchange apologies; Shehan is on the verge of tears.
Arjie finally acknowledges his sexual attraction to Shehan, forgetting his assignment because of a new distraction, this time. Again, Arjie and Shehan end up receiving the same treatment even though Black Tie ostensibly sees Arjie as exemplary and Shehan as an “ills and burdens;” Black Tie fundamentally sees all his students as blank slates over whom he has absolute and unquestionable authority, and his own mission as crushing their individuality and emotionality, producing the same kind of citizens who are responsible for much of Sri Lanka’s communal violence. Indeed, Shehan's punishment for Arjie's mistake mirrors the inversions of justice that Arjie has seen in Sri Lankan society, when—for instance—Jegan gets punished for being declared innocent, or Radha Aunty gets ostracized despite trying to reject Anil’s advances.
After another hour, Arjie and Shehan return inside again, but now Arjie has a plan. He asks Black Tie if he can go to the bathroom, then runs to the staff room and finds Mr. Sunderalingam, who explains that Black Tie’s beliefs are “old school”—in fact, Black Tie was an orphan, raised by the school’s previous principal. Mr. Sunderalingam insists that, as Tamils, they must both support Black Tie in his power struggle with Lokubandara. In fact, Arjie is to play a crucial role in this fight: his poems were the favorites of an important minister, a Victoria Academy alumnus who recited those same poems in his own youth and was allegedly “next in line for the presidency.” Thus, Arjie’s recital is supposed to be the centerpiece of a ceremony designed by Black Tie to win this future president’s support. In other words, Arjie can “save the school.”
Arjie's plan recalls his childhood plot to win back his role in “bride-bride;” once he realizes that nobody else is looking out for his interests, Arjie uses deception and manipulation—the tools of injustice—in order to pursue what he knows to be just. Mr. Sunderalingam’s explanation also shows Arjie a vulnerable and sympathetic side of Black Tie, a trauma that explains the man's current resistance to expressing any vulnerability and sympathy whatsoever. And the circumstances of the ceremony also demonstrate a different kind of vulnerability for Black Tie—although Arjie thinks that he is at the principal’s mercy, in fact it is the other way around. Arjie discovers a power, in other words, that he never realized he had.
Mr. Sunderalingam agrees to talk to Black Tie, and Arjie starts making his way upstairs. Thinking about Black Tie’s cruelty toward Shehan and himself, and then Salgado’s cruelty toward the Tamil boys (which Lokubandara sanctioned), Arjie feels like he has no good option. When he gets back to Black Tie’s office, the principal asks what took him so long and sends him back to kneel on the balcony.
Arjie's feeling that cruelty and corruption are all-encompassing in Victoria Academy again helps illuminate the condition of Sri Lanka as a whole, in which both sides—Tamils and Sinhalese, whom the Tigers and government claim, respectively, to represent—are untrustworthy and responsible for horrible atrocities, but are also the only two options.
After school, Mr. Sunderalingam visits Black Tie, who then calls Shehan and Arjie inside and releases them. They run downstairs and, in their whirlwind of surprise and delight, Shehan kisses Arjie for a brief moment. They run to the classroom, but Shehan grows distant and surly—Arjie is just as confused by this shift as he is by their kiss. Outside, as Shehan unlocks his bicycle, Arjie asks if he has plans for the evening. They agree that Arjie will go over to Shehan’s house.
When Arjie’s plot to save himself and Shehan proves successful, their authentic feelings for one another come out unexpectedly. Realizing that he has almost completely revealed the unspoken foundation of their friendship, Shehan withdraws as though out of guilt and fear; Arjie is as baffled by Shehan’s mixed messages as he is by his own lack of clarity about his feelings.
At home, no longer stunned by Shehan’s kiss, Arjie starts to savor it—he tries to remember it perfectly, then imagine what a slower and more passionate one would be like. He hopes they will have another one soon.
Given privacy and time to think, Arjie admits and accepts what he really feels about Shehan, despite his awkwardness when they are together.
Shehan is nervous when Arjie arrives at his poorly maintained house, which makes Arjie immediately realize that Shehan “[doesn’t] have a mother.” They awkwardly meet the old servant woman and go to Shehan’s room, where they sit on his bed. Shehan seems to be expecting something; unsure what to do, Arjie says, “do you have a mother?” Shehan gets up and Arjie tries again: “I mean, where is your mother?” Shehan explains solemnly that his mother lives in England, but Arjie realizes that “the reason for this tone was not his mother but what had just happened between us.” Arjie decides that he should leave, and Shehan politely sees him off. On his way home, Arjie feels like a failure.
Arjie continues to learn about the complex experiences that stand behind people’s surface presentation; Shehan’s house immediately reveals one of the personal struggles that underlies his simultaneously generous and glib personality. Of course, Arjie's ability to see that an unkempt house means no mother (even though a servant woman also works there) reflects how ingrained the gendered division of labor is in this time and place. Arjie’s classic teenage awkwardness demonstrates his discomfort admitting his feelings to someone else—even the target of those feelings—and recalls Shehan recoiling after kissing Arjie just a few pages before.
When he returns home, Arjie’s family is in the middle of dinner and ask where he has been. They are curious to hear he has a friend—his first friend ever. Amma says the family should have Shehan over for lunch that weekend, and Diggy shakes his head at Arjie, who defiantly agrees to his mother’s proposal. Later, Diggy approaches Arjie and tells him he is “going to be sorry” for his friendship with Shehan. He begins to warn about what will happen when Appa meets Shehan, but then trails off, although Arjie clearly understands the message. Arjie deliberately exclaims that he likes Shehan “very much.” This concerns Diggy, who asks “how do you like him?” Arjie pretends not to understand the question and Diggy warns that “Soyza could easily lead you down the wrong path.”
Although he seems to fully understand and even anticipate Diggy’s criticism, Arjie has grown much more fearless—reckless, even—and agrees to have Shehan over as if as a means to indirectly come out to his family. For the first time, then, he rejects his family’s attempts to prevent him from being “funny,” to make him follow the heterosexual, masculine formula that is the only kind of manhood they know. In fact, just as he learns that his recitation assignment gives him the power to save Black Tie's job, Arjie realizes that his deviation from his family's expectations gives him the power to make them feel and confront the shame and guilt they usually try to avoid by trying to control and manipulate him. Accordingly, he plays along with Diggy’s overwrought concern, embracing the "wrong path" and forcing his family to learn to see it as an accepted one.
Arjie realizes that he and Shehan are both different in the same way, and that there are “powerful and hidden possibilities” in their friendship. He now understands that “the kiss was somehow connected to what we had in common, and Shehan had known this all along.”
In this passage, which is as close as Arjie gets to a coming out moment, he realizes that, apart from their mutual attraction, he and Shehan have been able to bond because they share the experience of being ostracized and misunderstood. While he seems to understand the connections between his gender expression, attraction to men, and differences to other boys in terms of a unified identity, he does not explicitly formulate this as such or get anywhere near using the word “gay.” Instead, he remains focused on his experiences and feelings, but has little interest in categorizing himself.
Arjie is “excited but scared” about Shehan’s arrival on Sunday. After he arrives, Shehan is quiet, and he and Arjie join Sonali and her friends in hide-and-seek. Arjie and Shehan hide together in the garage, and Arjie hears Shehan’s breathing quicken and realizes he was getting “another chance to make up for [his] inability to act the last time.” He puts his hand on Shehan’s stomach, and Shehan holds it in his own. Then, they slowly kiss until Sonali yells, “ready or not, I’m coming.” Sonali comes to the garage briefly, then runs away to look for other people hiding. Arjie kisses Shehan back and feels like he is discovering a new world of physical sensation as Shehan guides his hand downward. They take off their pants and have sex against the garage wall, but Arjie slips from pleasure into discomfort and pain just before Shehan finishes.
Like many first sexual experiences, Arjie’s is abrupt, hesitant, and vaguely uncomfortable, although perfectly consensual. Of course, the time and place in which they first have sex makes it even more transgressive. But Arjie’s decision to initiate shows that he has finally decided to embrace rather than continue denying and fighting his desires; his process of self-realization, although not necessarily self-acceptance, is now complete.
They get dressed, and Shehan gives Arjie an uncomfortable kiss. They return outside and Arjie worries about stains and wrinkles on his clothes, but Shehan promises him he has nothing to worry about. They find the family inside, eating lunch, and declare that they were simply on a walk. Appa’s expression to Amma immediately demonstrates “that he disapproved of Shehan.” Arjie imagined his father walking in on him and Shehan in the garage, and then sees Diggy’s vicious smile, which reminds him of the story about Shehan and the head prefect and makes him realize that “I had let Shehan do to me what the head perfect had done to him.” Arjie feels profoundly guilty, like he has betrayed his family’s “trust and love” with his and Shehan’s “dreadful act.” He feels that his father’s attempts at protecting him have now definitively failed.
As soon as they finish, Arjie is overcome with guilt, as much for his own actions as for the possibility that his family will be able to tell what he and Shehan have done. He sees his desire for Shehan and his love for his family as opposed and incompatible, much like Radha Aunty’s love for Anil or Amma’s love for Daryl Uncle. Appa, around whom Arjie must walk on eggshells, is more interested in whether Arjie’s friend meets his own standards of masculinity than what this friend does for Arjie; the family's disapproval again infects Arjie, despite his fearlessness just a few pages before. Curiously, along with this return to shame, Arjie also slips into a conventionally gendered way of thinking, imagining one partner as defiling another, rather than seeing the mutuality in his experience with Shehan.
After lunch, in Arjie’s room, Shehan points out that Appa did not seem to like him. Arjie asks if Shehan “want[s] to play a game,” and Shehan hugs him from behind, but Arjie dismisses him. They decide to play Scrabble, but Shehan does not draw out any letters, and instead points out that Arjie seems to be “feeling guilty about what we did.” Arjie denies it and then asks, “what do you think? What does your head prefect think?” Shehan is shocked and denies this accusation in turn, but then accuses Arjie of being jealous, and finally declares he is proud to at least not be ashamed by his own desires.
Quite aware of Arjie’s dilemma, Shehan tries to comfort and support him, but Arjie is already on the offensive. Ultimately, Arjie only attacks Shehan because he is unable to reconcile his own behavior with his family's attitudes; he finds it easier to see his queerness as a kind of deviant infection, the result of something like a spell Shehan cast over him (like the head prefect has done to Shehan). Shehan’s honest acknowledgment of his sexuality looks quite similar to Arjie's before they had sex, just a few pages before.
Arjie calls Shehan “revolting” and says he regrets initiating in the garage. Shehan accuses Arjie of being one of the “type” who pretends he’s “normal or […] can’t get a girl” but is really gay, and Arjie hits Shehan, knocking him to the ground. They are both surprised, and after a pause, Shehan walks out the door.
Shehan points out how Arjie parrots Diggy and Appa’s homophobia, conflating same-sex desire with weakness and failure, as though it is a consolation prize for those who cannot fulfil their heterosexual desires rather than an entirely different structure of desire in the first place. Ironically, this destructive rage is probably Arjie’s most stereotypically masculine moment.
Arjie dreams of Shehan again the night after this entire episode. In the dream, he meets Shehan in a dark classroom and they begin to have sex again, but then he realizes that it is actually the head prefect, who restrains him despite his attempts to escape. When he wakes up, Arjie remembers "the tender look on Shehan's face before he had kissed me, the feel of his body against mine after he had opened the buttons of his trousers.” Arjie feels both “desire for Shehan and disgust at that desire," and he has trouble sleeping that night.
As he allows himself to process the day’s experiences, Arjie again admits to himself in private that he really takes issue with his own internalized homophobia, not with Shehan’s treatment of him. He is gradually progressing toward a full acceptance of himself: whereas in the past he oscillated between confused desire and confused disgust, now he recognizes both halves of this emotional response clearly and at the same time, and sees that he must overcome one in order to fulfill the other.
Arjie mulls over his dream on his way to class the day after. When he arrives, he finds Shehan with a new attitude, “his emotions […] clearly visible” instead of hidden by pride. He also does not leave class, as usual, or go to the principal’s office. In a fury, Black Tie visits to retrieve him: Shehan was only set free yesterday, but expected to continue his normal punishment today. As Black Tie drags Shehan by the ear out of the classroom, Arjie feels a sudden care and concern for him.
Apparently relieved by his newfound freedom and at least outwardly unbothered by his argument with Arjie, Shehan gets victimized because of a simple misunderstanding—indeed, one that Black Tie should have been responsible for clarifying the previous day—now leads to him being punished in an even more draconian way than ever before and proves that Black Tie’s momentary leniency was only an exception to the rule of his unjust and gratuitous cruelty.
Arjie cannot stop thinking about Shehan for the rest of the day and worries that he has mistreated the friend who “had not debased me or degraded me, but rather offered me his love.” After school, Arjie waits for him, and when he comes into the classroom for his bag, Shehan is “close to tears.” Arjie apologizes and Shehan yells at him: Arjie turned out fine, while Shehan is stuck in “ills and burdens,” and what they did in the garage can remain a secret. Shehan storms out of the classroom. At home throughout the afternoon, Arjie waits to somehow hear from Shehan, but realizes that the only thing he can do is visit Shehan’s house.
Realizing that he has added another layer of pain and rejection to Shehan’s already difficult life, Arjie feels an intense sense of responsibility and deeply regrets lashing out at his friend the day before; he understands that it is his own internalized prejudice, not something wrong with sex, that so bothered him after the fact. However, Shehan’s reaction shows Arjie that an apology is not enough in their situation, but that his pointless punishment as one of the “ills and burdens” is ongoing and seemingly only getting worse. In other words, what Shehan needs is help, not appreciation and an apology.
When Arjie arrives at Shehan’s house, the servant woman tells him that Shehan has not left his room since after school. He has only ever done this once: “when his mother left.” Afterward, the servant woman explains that she was the only reason Shehan made it, since Shehan's father “never had time for his family.” Arjie goes inside and calls to Shehan through his room door. Shehan lets Arjie in after Arjie sends the servant woman away, and Arjie and Shehan sit down on the bed. Arjie apologizes, but Shehan “had already forgiven [him].” Shehan explains that he “can’t bear” to be with the “ills and burdens” without Arjie there. Seeing his solemn expression, Arjie grows worried: like the servant woman, he realizes that Shehan has “reached his limit.”
Although Arjie is never particularly happy with his family, his conventional household contrasts sharply with Shehan's utter loneliness; Shehan’s punishments at school are only compounded by his lack of love, understanding, or community at home. Arjie sees that, despite Shehan’s anger towards him at school and his fear that Shehan was just using him sexually, he plays as or more important a role in Shehan’s life as Shehan does in his. This passage makes clear, in other words, that Arjie and Shehan need one another’s love and are fully capable of providing it.
On his way home, Arjie feels “a despair […] fueled by [his] inability to relieve Shehan of his pain.” He thinks about how Shehan helped him with Salgado’s bullying and the poems, and then shared his punishment for forgetting them. Impulsively, Arjie turns to go to his school instead of continuing home. He watches the sunset over the sea, which illuminates the school building and makes it look tranquil instead of ominous. He remembers the ridiculous poem “The Best School of All” and admits that he could eventually look back on Victoria Academy fondly, but promises he will not.
Contrary to the hardcore individualism and masculine toughness that Victoria Academy tries to instill in its students, Arjie genuinely feels both Shehan’s pain and a sense of responsibility for it. His attitude, while misunderstood by those around him, shows how empathy and vulnerability are often more courageous than strength. In fact, Shehan is the only one to teach Arjie anything of value at Victoria, the only reason he might later remember his time there fondly.
Arjie wonders “how many boys like Shehan [have] passed through this school” and have become the school’s “prisoner.” Most probably did so in secret, or were deliberately forgotten. Arjie realizes that the school’s rules—especially Black Tie’s rules like “no blinking, no licking of lips, no long hair”—have nothing to do with what is truly right and wrong. And then he realizes that his love for Shehan—and their tryst in the garage—could not be wrong, even though they “would be in terrible trouble” if anyone found out. He thinks of Radha Aunty’s love for Anil and Jegan’s fate at the hotel, both of which are similar injustices. He wonders why “some people got to decide what was correct or not” and realizes it is just about power—can he change these rules, he asks, if he gets power? These questions stay with him until the next day.
Arjie now understands the dark side of Appa’s desire to turn him into “a man” through the school’s discipline. In his epiphany about power, he shows that the school’s authoritarian culture, Sri Lanka’s political injustices, and his family’s attempts to change his gender expression all rely on the same principle: might makes right. Although he remains committed to a vision of moral justice that treats those marginalized or excluded from power and privilege equally to those who have it, he also sees that it is often the nature of those in power to scapegoat and victimize the same populations who most need help. Accordingly, he sees a paradoxical way out of this predicament: in order to dismantle the tyranny of brute force over morality, those with a moral conscience—and those most affected by injustice—need to seize and rework the system. Rightly or wrongly, he seems to think that if force does not listen to justice, then justice must be implemented with force.
At school the next day, Shehan is cheery and energized. He announces that he has a plan to save himself: “I’m going to England to be with my mother.” Arjie wonders if this is practical, but Shehan promises that he can get the money for a plane ticket from his father and that his mother will accept him, although “he didn’t sound so sure.” Arjie promises to support him, but Shehan can tell that Arjie does not believe in him, and Arjie can “sense the idea crumbling in his mind” as they walk up to class.
Shehan’s sudden burst of enthusiasm demonstrates that he has developed his “plan” out of misery and desperation; he has created a fantasy in order to help himself get through his unhappy and unjust present. Of course, his speech also belies the disheartening truth that his family has essentially abandoned him and shows how important Arjie has become to him as a source of emotional support.
During second period, Black Tie calls Arjie to his office, where Shehan is still kneeling on the balcony, and makes him recite the poems—but this time, without the threat of caning. Arjie does it perfectly, and Black Tie asks him about “the values these poems speak of,” which “may soon disappear” if the school’s leadership changes. Arjie realizes that Black Tie has only put away the cane because he so desperately wants to beat out Lokubandara. And then Arjie has an epiphany: “Black Tie needed me, and because he needed me, power had moved into my hands.” With this, his fear of Black Tie vanishes.
The irony in Black Tie’s appeal to the poems’ “values” is that he clearly espouses no true principles whatsoever, but merely doles out rewards and punishments however he sees fit, and is using Arjie as a tool for his own personal gain rather than trying to educate him or treat him fairly. In other words, Arjie sees that Black Tie cares only about power, and not at all about values, but also that he has given up some of that power by relying on Arjie. Using his newfound understanding of power, Arjie realizes he can now change his school’s values.
On his walk back to class, Arjie thinks about all of the ways he can use this power to save Shehan or get back at Black Tie. He realizes he can completely mess up the poems and throw off Black Tie’s speech, which is supposed to be structured around them. Black Tie would lose the minister’s favor and Lokubandara would take over and free Shehan from his eternal punishment. After school, Arjie grows both worried about and committed to this idea; when Shehan comes to the classroom to collect his bag, Arjie feels that he has no choice and his “destiny had now passed out of [his] hands.”
Arjie sees an opportunity at what might quite literally be called poetic justice, the chance to give Black Tie a taste of his own medicine—to treat him the way he treats all those under his power, by using the self-serving manipulation that he has taught so well at Victoria. Of course, the crucial difference is that Arjie is using these unjust tactics for the sake of justice, in order to save Shehan. And yet his internal conflict about doing so probably relates to his knowledge that Lokubandara would be far worse for Tamil students like himself. Despite this, Arjie decides to put his individual, experiential knowledge above the group identities with which so much of Sri Lanka remains obsessed.
The next week, on the day of the ceremony, Arjie has not informed Shehan about his plans, but asks if Shehan will come. Shehan says he will be there—but does not show up. Arjie’s parents and Mr. Sunderalingam greet him, and he sees his name on the program and begins to feel “a flutter of fear.” Black Tie brings the minister to the front row, the choir sings the national anthem, and then the school’s Sinhala Drama Society performs a Sinhalese origin story about Vijaya and Kuveni, which ends suddenly and signals that it is Arjie’s turn.
In the decisive moment, Arjie commits to making good on his promise to himself even though Shehan appears to have broken his promise to attend. Between the national anthem and the Sinhalese Drama Society’s performance, a story about the first Sinhalese prince invading Sri Lanka and conquering its native inhabitants, it becomes clear that Sinhalese nationalism is growing in Sri Lanka, with Sinhalese identity increasingly equated with the country’s identity.
Arjie climbs to the stage and stares at the microphone, then at “the expectant faces” in the audience: Black Tie, the minister, Mr. Sunderalingam, Amma and Appa, and—to Arjie’s surprise and delight—Shehan, on the second floor balcony. Arjie recites the poems, completely out of order, as he intended. Black Tie is visibly distraught, the minister visibly “bemused,” Shehan filled with “dismay and bewilderment.” The teachers are clearly disturbed when Arjie returns to his seat, but Mr. Sunderalingam compliments him for trying his best.
Arjie is remarkably brave in facing his audience before knowingly making a fool out of himself; for the first time, he is comfortable in his own skin at Victoria Academy, and this time precisely because he has consciously rejected any pressure to succeed or conform. His willful failure more subtly points to the actual culture and character of Victoria Academy, which bungles instead of forming students, teaching them dishonesty and overconfidence (the vices Arjie deliberately inflates here) rather than morality and good citizenship. Black Tie and Mr. Sunderalingam’s opposite reactions to Arjie’s recitation betray their fundamental differences; Black Tie is still only interested in holding power, Sunderalingam in educating and supporting students.
Black Tie begins his speech and accuses Arjie of “defil[ing] a thing of beauty, wreak[ing] havoc on fine sentiments,” by messing up the poem. He claims that the school is producing failed students like Arjie, “the kind of scoundrel who will bring nothing but shame to his family and be a burden to society.” The nation is going this way too, he says—the minister is momentarily uncomfortable. Black Tie pauses and begins his prepared speech, which comically contradicts his angry prelude. The audience breaks out in laughter over and over as Black Tie now starts praising Victoria Academy and his values. Facing a confused audience, Black Tie abruptly ends his speech and invites the minister up.
As planned, Arjie manages to completely undermine Black Tie’s speech. When he speaks impromptu, likely with the intention of prefacing his planned speech and establishing the errors in the poems, Black tie instead reveals his true, vicious character, his abusive attitude towards his students, and his open disdain for the government whose support he is supposed to be winning. The content of his usual speech shows the gap between his feigned and true selves, and through Arjie’s mistakes Black Tie—of all people—becomes the school laughingstock.
While the prizes are being given out during the last part of the ceremony, Arjie runs upstairs to see Shehan, whom he brings into an empty classroom. Shehan is confused; Arjie explains his plan and realizes how much he has changed in his two months at Victoria Academy. Arjie declares that he “did it for you [Shehan],” because he “couldn’t bear to see you suffer anymore.” Shehan is surprised, but they embrace. After the audience stops clapping, Arjie and Shehan head back to the gallery; Arjie feels “a sudden sadness” when he sees his Amma, with whom he can never have the same relationship. He realizes he is “no longer a part of [his] family in the same way” because he “inhabit[s] a world they didn’t understand.” As the audience starts leaving, Arjie and Shehan walk together out of the auditorium.
The reader never learns whether Arjie got Black Tie replaced, how his parents reacted to his failure, or what happens to Arjie and Shehan’s relationship in the short term. However, this story is less about the outcome of Arjie’s daring experiment and more about the courage and moral purpose that led him to attempt it—it is about his recognition that he has the capacity to change the world and his decision to use that capacity to save the person he loves. Having chosen love, a product of his own individual volition, over school and family, two institutions in which he is embedded whether he likes it or not, Arjie has also undertaken this mission in order to banish his shame and prove that he will think for himself rather than letting the expectations and fears of others set an absolute limit on the possibilities available to him.