While Funny Boy's most important love story is undeniably about Arjie discovering his sexuality and meeting Shehan, the vast majority of the book follows other relationships, in all of which people fall in love across, despite, and even because of the social boundaries that separate them. Like Arjie’s sexuality, these forbidden relationships draw familial ire; and yet, whereas Arjie learns to accept his sexuality despite his family’s criticism, the book’s forbidden relationships seem to end, for the greater good, because of a similar family pressure. While Funny Boy shows how class, race, ethnicity, and culture are never absolute barriers to desire, it also makes a case for prioritizing family—to whom one is already committed—over particular love interests.
Beyond Arjie's own love story, Funny Boy is full of relationships that cross social barriers and prove that differences of class, race, ethnicity, and culture can seldom stamp out the feelings of love—and, in many cases, are precisely what attract people to one another. One example of such a relationship is Radha Aunty’s relationship with Anil, a Sinhala boy who acts alongside her in a production of The King and I. Although she initially finds him annoying, Radha grows attracted to Anil because she realizes that he loves her despite belonging to an opposed ethnic group. In fact, The King and I also foreshadows the failure of Radha and Anil’s interethnic relationship: in the play, an English governess and her employer, the King of Siam, fall in love but can never be together because, as Amma explains, interracial love was not (and in many places is still not) conventionally accepted. Amma’s ambivalence about interracial love becomes even more clear when Arjie learns about her previous relationship with Daryl Uncle, a white burgher who grew up in Sri Lanka but has lived elsewhere for at least 15 years. And beyond Arjie's relationship with Shehan, his early affinity for romantic Sinhala comic books and insistence on playing the bride during his mock weddings with his girl cousins demonstrate how his romantic desires consistently land outside the sphere of social acceptability. Whether ethnic, cultural, racial, or class-based, social barriers cannot quash the feelings of love.
And yet all these characters face immense pressure for loving someone outside their social group; they are ultimately forced to choose between romance and family. Both Radha Aunty's mother (Ammachi) and Anil’s father are horrified that their children are dating across ethnic lines. And Daryl's return to Sri Lanka, while Appa is in Europe for business, sows division in Arjie's family. Neliya Aunty, Diggy, and Sonali grow distant and resentful as Amma and Daryl grow close; Arjie is horribly ill the whole time, and when he recovers, Amma brings him to a bungalow in the hills, where Daryl soon shows up. As Daryl explains that burghers and native Sri Lankans were effectively barred from dating one another in the past because of social prejudice (obviously referring to his history with Amma), Arjie, too, begins to resent him for getting between Amma and the rest of the family. As though to prove Daryl's point about the social pressures against interracial marriage, Aunty Doris, the school theatre director who is also a burgher, warns Radha about marrying Anil by divulging the fact that her own family rejected her—by moving back to England without even informing her or leaving contact information—when she married a Tamil man. Radha, Anil, Amma, and Daryl—plus, eventually, Arjie and Shehan—end up in moral dilemmas: while they know their families are wrong to reject their love, they still have to pick between the sure thing that is family and the enchanting uncertainty that is romance.
Ultimately, while the novel openly criticizes the social divisions and norms that make intergroup marriages taboo, it also suggests that people are correct to choose family over their transgressive relationships. When Radha gets violently attacked by a Sinhala mob on a train, she finally caves in to her mother's pressure, quits the play, and marries Rajan, the Tamil man to whom she was already engaged. After this, Arjie explains that he has lost the ability to think “that if two people loved each other everything was possible,” a view that might strike a young reader as cynical, but is full of wisdom: love is powerful but can always be rediscovered, and sometimes prudence requires sacrificing it and waiting. Amma loves and loses Daryl twice: once in her youth, and then again when he dies while covering the Tamil-Sinhala riots in the northern city of Jaffna. While his death is a tragedy, Daryl Uncle likely would have broken up Arjie’s family had he stayed with Amma. (When she visits the civil rights lawyer Q.C. Uncle, he encourages her to do something similar: to give up her passionate desire to avenge Daryl’s death in order to save her family from the government’s wrath.) Aunty Doris, of all people, is the one to deliver the book’s message about hasty love: after her husband’s death, Doris explains, she began to wonder whether it was really worth it to marry the person she loved and lose her family, since she presumably could have had a successful marriage with someone else down the line. In Funny Boy, romance is fleeting and limitless, while family is enduring and finite; it is always possible to find another love but never possible to find new parents and siblings.
Although Funny Boy shows how the social constraints around love will never stop people from falling in love and sees a deep tragedy in relationships cut off by family and cultural pressures, it also shows how, in many cases, the tragedy of losing love might be preferable to the tragedy of losing one's community or family. Despite this preference for family ties, Funny Boy also pushes for constructing a world in which people are not forced to choose between love and community, in which difference makes relationships more vibrant instead of more difficult.
Forbidden Love and Family ThemeTracker
Forbidden Love and Family 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.
It was clear to me that I had done something wrong, but what it was I couldn’t comprehend. I thought of what my father had said about turning out “funny.” The word “funny” as I understood it meant either humorous or strange, as in the expression “That’s funny.” Neither of these fitted the sense in which my father had used the word, for there had been a hint of disgust in his tone.
Later, Amma came out of her room and called Anula to give her instructions for the evening. As I listened to the sound of her voice, I realized that something had changed forever between us.
This was not how a bride-to-be was supposed to behave. It was unthinkable that a woman who was on the brink of marriage could look like this and play the piano so badly.
"Because he’s an engineer and he doesn’t have insanity in his family."
“Be careful. We Sinhalese are losing patience with you Tamils and your arrogance.”
Radha Aunty didn’t answer for a moment. “Until a few days ago I only thought of Rajan, but now I find myself thinking of Anil as well.”
Mala Aunty sighed. “It’ll never work.”
“But other Sinhalese and Tamil people get married.”
“I know,” Mala Aunty replied, “but they have their parents’ consent.
“If two people love each other, the rest is unimportant.”
“No, it isn’t. Ultimately, you have to live in the real world. And without your family you are nothing.”
Sometimes I wonder if it was all worth it in the end. To have made all those sacrifices. Life is a funny thing, you know. It goes on, whatever decisions you make. Ultimately you have children or don’t have children and then you grow old. Whether you married the person you loved or not seems to become less important as time passes. Sometimes I think that if I had gone to England with them maybe I would have met somebody else….” She clicked her tongue against her teeth and laughed. “Anyway, there’s no point in thinking about that—no?”
“You’re putting your life at risk for nothing,” Amma insisted.
“It’s not nothing,” Daryl Uncle said. “People are being tortured and killed even as we sit in all this opulence.”
Then the meaning of what Diggy had said hit me, and a realization began to take shape in my mind. A fact so startling that it made my head spin just to think about it. The difference within me that I sometimes felt I had, that had brought me so much confusion, whatever this difference, it was shared by Shehan. I felt amazed that a normal thing—like my friendship with Shehan—could have such powerful and hidden possibilities. I found myself thinking about that moment Shehan had kissed me and also of how he had lain on his bed, waiting for me to carry something through. I now knew that the kiss was somehow connected to what we had in common, and Shehan had known this all along.
I looked around at my family and I saw that I had committed a terrible crime against them, against the trust and love they had given me. I glanced at Amma and imagined what her reaction would have been had she discovered us, the profound expression of hurt that would have come over her face. She noticed that I was studying her, and she smiled. I looked down at my plate, feeling my heart clench painfully at the contrast between the innocence of her smile and the dreadful act I had just committed. I wanted to cry out what I had done, beg to be absolved of my crime, but the deed was already done and it couldn’t be taken back. Now I understood my father’s concern, why there had been such worry in his voice whenever he talked about me. He had been right to try to protect me from what he feared was inside me, but he had failed. What I had done in the garage had moved me beyond his hand.