During his childhood “spend-the-days” at Ammachi and Appachi’s house, young Arjie plays the game “bride-bride” with his girl cousins, which consists of staging a fantasy wedding. During these weddings, he invariably gets the position of honor: that of the bride herself. When he puts on the rudimentary sari (a traditional draped cloth garment) he made out of a bedsheet, Arjie feels like a film hero and declares that he is “ascend[ing] into another, more brilliant, more beautiful self.” Many years before he even realizes that he is attracted to men, this sari illuminates and stands for the changing and conflicted relationship between Arjie’s gender expression, social norms, and the promise of romantic love.
Beyond clearly representing his break from gender norms and affinity for things considered conventionally feminine—which soon gets him in trouble—the sari also shows how Arjie, as a boy who does not fit in, only gets to pursue his real desires (here, the desire to be beautiful and fall in love) in the register of fantasy. Indeed, when Kanthi Aunty finds him in the sari, she marches him out in front of all the other adults, who fall silent in horror at Arjie’s effeminate outfit. In this sense, the sari comes to represent Arjie’s shame before his family, and his family’s shame before the world; it crystalizes what is wrong and “funny” about Arjie in everyone else’s eyes (except the children’s). Even his most innocent desire—to play with the girls—becomes seen as a deviation from the “correct” way of being and threat to his family’s honor. When he withholds the sari in order to try and win his role back from his vicious cousin Tanuja (“Her Fatness”), Arjie and Tanuja end up literally fighting over an emblem of womanhood, which Arjie tries but fails to hide (like his feminine disposition and his own sexuality later in the book) and ultimately gets punished even more harshly for seeking out. His conflict during bride-bride is both a prediction and a microcosm of the struggles he will face as gay teenager in his conservative Tamil family and Sri Lankan community.
Ultimately, the sari both exposes and ridicules the unchallenged norm of heterosexual love. By donning the sari, Arjie gets to fulfill his nascent desire to love a man, but only in fantasy, by roleplaying a heterosexual marriage; the children have no concept of a marriage except as a bride marrying a groom, and so when Arjie dons the sari, one of the girl children—namely, Arjie’s sister, Sonali—ends up with the unwanted role of groom. In this sense, while it reveals the strong norms of gender, tradition, and heterosexuality that ultimately constrain Arjie’s self-realization throughout the book, the sari also circumscribes an inverted realm of play in which femininity is power and masculinity is irrelevant.
The Bride-Bride Sari Quotes in Funny Boy
From my sling-bag I would bring out my most prized possession, an old white sari, slightly yellow with age, its border torn and missing most of its sequins. The dressing of the bride would now begin, and then, by the transfiguration I saw taking place in Janaki’s cracked full-length mirror—by the sari being wrapped around my body, the veil being pinned to my head, the rouge put on my cheeks, lipstick on my lips, kohl around my eyes—I was able to leave the constraints of my self and ascend into another, more brilliant, more beautiful self, a self to whom this day was dedicated, and around whom the world, represented by my cousins putting flowers in my hair, draping the palu, seemed to revolve. It was a self magnified, like the goddesses of the Sinhalese and Tamil cinema, larger than life; and like them, like the Malini Fonsekas and the Geetha Kumarasinghes, I was an icon, a graceful, benevolent, perfect being upon whom the adoring eyes of the world rested.
Her Fatness looked at all of us for a moment and then her gaze rested on me.
“You’re a pansy,” she said, her lips curling in disgust.
We looked at her blankly.
“A faggot,” she said, her voice rising against our uncomprehending stares.
“A sissy!” she shouted in desperation.
It was clear by this time that these were insults.