Funny Boy

Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy uses six loosely connected stories to recount the childhood and adolescence of a Sri Lankan Tamil boy, Arjie, who comes of age in Colombo during the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to learning he is different from other boys and eventually recognizing that he is gay, Arjie must confront the increasingly tense and violent relations between Sri Lanka’s two major ethnic groups, the Tamils and Sinhalese, which break out into a civil war at the book’s end in 1983.

The first story, “Pigs Can’t Fly,” follows Arjie as a young child, when he cherishes his monthly playdate with all his cousins at his grandparents’ house. Free from the watchful eyes of their parents and Ammachi, the children break up into two groups: the boys play cricket in the front yard, while the girls—plus Arjie—play out a fantasy wedding in a game they call “bride-bride.” Arjie always gets this game’s most prestigious role—that of the bride herself—until a new cousin, whom the others nickname “Her Fatness,” arrives on the scene and tries to take over Arjie’s role. Her Fatness gets her mother, Kanthi Aunty, to march the sari-clad Arjie in front of all the uncles and aunties, who are horrified. One uncle laughs out loud and labels Arjie a “funny one.” Arjie’s parents (Amma and Appa) declare that he will have to play cricket with the boys, but he has other plans. The next month, Arjie incites a fight between the boys’ cricket teams and, in a plot to win back his spot as the bride, convinces Her Fatness to start him off with the lowliest role in “bride-bride”: the groom. But after they get into a fight, Her Fatness again publicly humiliates Arjie. Ammachi blames him for the conflict and he lashes out before running down to the beach to cry.

Some time thereafter, the title character of the second story, Radha Aunty, comes home to Sri Lanka after four years in America. She plans to marry Rajan, a family friend she met while abroad, and the seven-year-old Arjie is thrilled at the prospect of his bride-bride fantasies becoming a reality. Although Radha looks nothing like Arjie had hoped, the two still strike up a friendship; Radha lets Arjie try her makeup and brings him to join her in a school production of the play The King and I. During rehearsals, a Sinhalese boy named Anil starts hitting on Radha and eventually offers her a ride home. But when Ammachi hears about this, she is furious: after her father was murdered by a Sinhalese mob during race riots in the 1950s, Ammachi began hating the Sinhalese and supporting the Tamil Tigers, a separatist militant organization. Arjie follows his curiosity and starts learning about Sri Lanka’s ethnic divisions. Ammachi threatens Anil’s family, and when Radha and Arjie go to apologize, Anil’s father curses them out and insists that he would never let his son “marry some non-Sinhalese.” After two aunties stumble upon Radha and Anil eating lunch together, Ammachi decides to send Radha north to Jaffna for a couple months. Having resolutely fallen in love, Radha and Anil make plans to get married when she returns. But on the day of her return, the family hears about riots elsewhere in Sri Lanka, and Arjie’s brother Diggy reports that a Sinhalese mob attacked the train on which Radha Aunty was traveling. Radha Aunty returns with a bruised face and, although she soon recovers, she cannot bring herself to continue seeing Anil or participating in The King and I. Radha and her original love interest, Rajan, officially get engaged, but Arjie loses his previous faith in the idea “that if two people loved each other everything was possible.”

The third story, “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” starts with Appa buying a hotel and heading away to Europe on business. The rest of the family gets a visitor: Daryl Uncle, a white Burgher man who grew up in Sri Lanka but has been living in Australia for the last 15 years. A journalist, Daryl has returned to cover the accelerating violence in Sri Lanka’s north. He also introduces tension into the family, and after Arjie recovers from a brief bout of hepatitis, he and Amma take him for a stay at a bungalow in the hills. On this vacation, it becomes clear that Daryl and Amma used to have a relationship, but could never marry because they were from different ethnic groups. To Amma’s horror, Daryl insists on going north to Jaffna to cover the government’s abuses of power during the conflict, and while he is away the family hears worse and worse stories about violence in the North. When Daryl does not return, Amma contacts the police, who ignore her fears and later report that he has “washed ashore [dead] on the beach of a fishing village.” They insist it is an accident, although Amma slowly comes to realize that the Sinhalese-run government is probably responsible for Daryl’s death. She visits the civil rights lawyer Q.C. Uncle, who encourages her to forget and move on, and the village of Daryl’s servant boy Somaratne, where the wary and long-suffering locals chase her and Arjie back to their car. Amma does not recover from her solemnity, not even upon Appa’s return.

In the fourth story, “Small Choices,” a young man named Jegan—the son of Appa’s longtime, recently deceased school friend—comes to live with Arjie’s family and work with Appa’s hotel business. Before coming to Colombo, Jegan worked with the Gandhiyam movement in Jaffna and (he later admits) briefly joined the Tamil Tigers. Arjie, now in puberty, is immediately fascinated by this newcomer, both because he finds Jegan attractive and because he admires Jegan’s sense of purpose. But Jegan starts facing trouble at work, where the mostly-Sinhalese hotel staff think he is getting promoted just for being Tamil, and in Colombo, where the police start following him and eventually arrest him on suspicion of helping plot an assassination attempt. Although Jegan is released without charge, word quickly spreads; Appa starts getting threatening calls, Appa’s Sinhalese employees grow distant, and locals nearly attack Jegan and then write “Death to all Tamil pariahs” on his door at the hotel. Forced to choose between his loyalty to Jegan and his business, Appa reluctantly fires Jegan, who leaves without even properly saying goodbye. While Arjie understands Appa’s dilemma, he also feels that Appa has unfairly given up on Jegan, scapegoating his friend’s son to save his own family.

In the penultimate and lengthiest chapter of Funny Boy, “The Best School of All,” Appa transfers Arjie to his brother Diggy’s strict, traditional, colonial relic of a school, the Queen Victoria Academy, which Appa thinks will “force [Arjie] to become a man.” The schoolboys are athletic, hypermasculine, and divided sharply by ethnicity. But Arjie, who takes Sinhala-medium classes, ends up watching Sinhalese bullies like Salgado beat up other Tamil kids, which he does with the blessings of the school’s vice principal, Lokubandara. Arjie also befriends and develops an attraction to the jovial, carefree Shehan Soyza, who shows him around and defends him from Salgado. One day, the school’s draconian principal, Black Tie, reprimands Shehan for having long hair and begins taking him to his office daily, punishing him constantly along with the group of students he deems “the future ills and burdens of Sri Lanka.” The following day, the English and Drama teacher, Mr. Sunderalingam, is impressed by Arjie’s recitation of a poem. Black Tie asks Arjie to recite two poems for an upcoming ceremony, which Arjie soon learns is intended to maintain Black Tie’s control over the school: although he is cruel, Black Tie is committed to welcoming various kinds of students, whereas Lokubandara wants the school to be officially Sinhalese and Buddhist. At the ceremony, Black Tie will honor a powerful politician who can ensure he remains principal.

Over the next few days, Arjie recites the poems for Black Tie, who punishes both him and Shehan whenever he messes up. Shehan and Arjie also start spending time together outside school, although Diggy warns Arjie that Shehan is known for having sex with other boys. When they get Mr. Sunderalingam to convince Black Tie to release them one day, Shehan and Arjie suddenly kiss. Shehan invites Arjie over to his house, where he expects something to happen between them but Arjie feels awkward and heads home. Arjie invites Shehan to his house instead, and they have sex in the garage while playing hide-and-seek. At lunch, Appa clearly dislikes Shehan, and afterward Arjie begins to feel intensely guilty and blame Shehan for corrupting him, but he dreams about Shehan that night and worries as Shehan continues to receive punishments from Black Tie. To save Shehan, Arjie hatches a plan: instead of dutifully reciting his poems during Black Tie’s ceremony, he will purposefully bungle them and ensure that Black Tie’s speech—which is based on the poems—comes out looking ridiculous instead of inspiring. Courageously, he carries out this plan, and after the ceremony he tells Shehan he “did it for you.”

The epilogue of Funny Boy, “Riot Journal,” consists of Arjie’s notebooks during the 1983 Tamil-Sinhala riots that eventually turned into the Sri Lankan Civil War. Arjie learns that Sinhalese mobs are burning down Tamils’ homes and businesses in Colombo, and then that the government is actively supporting these mobs, giving them lists of Tamil families from voter rolls and deciding not to publicly report what is going on. Arjie’s family is planning to stay with Amma and Appa’s friends, Chithra Aunty and Sena Uncle, but they soon learn that a man has stolen the petrol from Sena Uncle’s van and used it to burn a Tamil family alive in their car, with the police watching all the while. Arjie’s family develops a new plan: they will hide with their neighbors, the Pereras, in case anyone comes for them. They have to put this plan into action that same night, when a mob comes and burns down their house; Arjie is horrified and traumatized, unable to process the gravity of losing his home. Arjie’s family does make it to Sena and Chithra’s house, but Sena starts receiving threatening phone calls from people who accuse him of harboring Tamils. During a brief break in the curfew, Shehan visits Arjie but seems remarkably normal and proposes they see a movie, which makes Arjie realize that “Shehan was Sinhalese and I was not.” An uncle living in Canada, Lakshman, calls and suggests the family apply for refugee status. Although they publicly deny any intention of doing so, Amma and Appa privately agree to apply for passports for their children. Soon, the family learns even more horrifying news: Ammachi and Appachi have been murdered, too, burned alive in their car. Radha even visits for their funeral. Just before the family leaves for Canada, Arjie meets Shehan for the last time, only to discover that they have already withdrawn emotionally from one another. In his final journal entry, Arjie returns to his burnt-out house for the last time and cries.