Set from the late 1960s to the early 1980s in Sri Lanka, Funny Boy follows the childhood and adolescence of Arjie Chelvaratnam as his nation hurdles toward civil war. At the same time as he watches Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority gradually turn against his minority Tamil community, Arjie comes to terms with the consequences of being gay in a patriarchal culture and family. From his earliest days, Arjie fails to meet his family's expectations of a boy; he prefers staging weddings with his girl cousins, acting in plays, and reading love comics and Little Women to playing cricket with his male cousins or rugger with the boys at school. When his parents start openly worrying about his “funny” sexuality and Arjie realizes that he is indeed gay, they all react with deep embarrassment and shame. Ultimately, Arjie’ does not manage to find acceptance for his sexuality or even come out to his family during the novel; instead, his great accomplishment is simply learning to accept himself, reject shame, and disavow his family’s demand that he follow in other men's footsteps.
Arjie grows up in a family and society structured by rigid gender roles and a distinct concept of masculinity that he does not, and never will, fit into. At the family's monthly gatherings, which they call “spend-the-days,” Arjie and his numerous cousins have complete freedom to play and invariably split up by gender: the boys play cricket, and the girls act out weddings—along with Arjie, who is always the bride. When Arjie’s cousin Tanuja (also known as “Her Fatness”) tries to take over his role, she calls him a "pansy," "faggot," and "sissy." Although she is no older than ten, she already has a deeply ingrained sense of what masculinity—the “proper” way of being male—requires. In order to cultivate his masculinity, Arjie’s dad (whom he calls Appa, the Tamil word for “father”) sends him to his brother Diggy’s school, Victoria Academy, in the novel’s penultimate chapter. As Diggy puts it, Appa “doesn’t want [Arjie] turning out funny,” but instead thinks he can “force [Arjie] to become a man” by surrounding him with Victoria’s rambunctious, aggressive, athletic students. Indeed, Appa’s continual fear that Arjie will become “funny” and his commitment to masculinizing his son suggest that he sees masculinity, femininity, and sexuality as changeable, rather than innate, which means that being properly masculine is in one’s control and reflective of one’s value as a human being.
Arjie's deviation from traditional masculinity leads his family to continuously shame him, and he quickly internalizes this shame and begins to think of himself as inherently flawed. Largely because they do not know what to make of him and fear that his failure to be conventionally masculine reflects their failure as a family, the Chelvaratnams repeatedly call Arjie “funny”—a word that both betrays the family’s anxiety about admitting the possibility of having a gay son and shows that their homophobia is based on an unjustified, instinctual revulsion, tied to the cultural norm of heterosexual marriage and families. While he is too young to even understand his family’s conviction that he is the wrong kind of boy, Arjie understands that he is being punished for simply being himself and following his desires, things over which he has no control. Although Arjie’s sexuality mostly falls out of view during the middle part of the book, when he goes to Victoria Academy, he befriends and falls in love with a boy named Shehan, about whom his brother Diggy repeatedly warns him. After Arjie and Shehan first have sex, Arjie immediately sees that Appa disapproves of Shehan and thus lashes out at him, although internally, Arjie actually blames himself for committing a “dreadful act” and feels he has betrayed his family. Over time, Arjie has absorbed his family and culture’s sense of shame surrounding queerness, and like many young people overcome with such shame about sex, he is unable to fully appreciate or embrace his first love.
Ultimately, however, Arjie does manage to overcome his shame, and this shows the groundlessness and arbitrariness of the conventional gender roles his family tried to squeeze him into. Even in the first chapter, when Amma forces Arjie to play with the boys rather than the girls, she reveals that she does not completely believe in the restrictive notion of masculinity she is enforcing: she says that Arjie must go with the boys "because the sky is so high and pigs can't fly," as though gender separation is just an inherent and necessary feature of the world. When Arjie challenges her, Amma's frantic reaction proves to him "how little she actually believed in the justness of her actions." She has done what she was pressured to do, not what she believes. Eventually, Arjie learns to form his own beliefs about gender and love; he learns to see "powerful and hidden possibilities" in his friendship with Shehan, to recognize that the same behavior his family shames him for also allows him to uncover his true self and pursue his true desires without self-censorship. After berating Shehan, Arjie soon realizes that what they share is love, not deviance: he sees that Shehan "had not debased me or degraded me, but rather offered me his love," and so he decides to take this at face value instead of continuing to fight against his genuine desires.
In simply deciding that his own feelings are more important than the roles he is asked to fit into, Arjie overcomes his family’s restrictive assumptions and accepts himself. Although Arjie does not come out to his family or win their acceptance—which is another, longer battle—he does realize that society’s scripts for what men should do, how they should carry themselves, and who they should love really just reflect everyone else’s fear of difference. While others see gender roles as inevitable, like the fact that "the sky is so high and pigs can't fly," Arjie proves to himself that an alternative is possible and learns to reject shame in favor of self-acceptance.
Masculinity and Queerness ThemeTracker
Masculinity and Queerness 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.
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.
My father chuckled. “I don’t see any police out there, do you?” He poured himself another drink. “It’s not just our luscious beaches that keep the tourist industry going, you know. We have other natural resources as well.”
“The Academy will force you to become a man,” he said. Sonali, Amma, and Neliya Aunty smiled at me sympathetically before they continued with their meal. Diggy had a look on his face that told me he understood all the things my father had not said.
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.
I felt bitter at the thought that the students he punished were probably the least deserving. They were the ones who had broken his rules—no blinking, no licking of lips, no long hair—a code that was unfair. Right and wrong, fair and unfair had nothing to do with how things really were. I thought of Shehan and myself. What had happened between us in the garage was not wrong. For how could loving Shehan be bad? Yet if my parents or anybody else discovered this love, I would be in terrible trouble. I thought of how unfair this was and I was reminded of things I had seen happen to other people, like Jegan, or even Radha Aunty, who, in their own way, had experienced injustice. How was it that some people got to decide what was correct or not, just or unjust? It had to do with who was in charge; everything had to do with who held power and who didn’t.