Behind Arjie’s coming of age, Funny Boy also traces the lead-up to the Sri Lankan Civil War, a growing tension between Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority and sizable Tamil minority that eventually erupts into violent conflict and becomes the book’s driving force, uprooting Arjie and his family forever. And yet Selvadurai presents this ethnic conflict from the perspective of a boy who scarcely cares about ethnicity. In doing so, he sheds light on the fundamental illogic of the quest to secure a country for a single group of people, and a single group of people for one’s country, in addition to showing the horrifying impact of the random violence that seems to inevitably emerge from such ethno-nationalist politics. By emphasizing personal relationships that transcend the ethnic divide, Selvadurai suggests that pluralism is the only route to political coexistence.
During Arjie’s childhood and adolescence, the reader watches Sinhala and Tamil Sri Lankans grow increasingly mistrustful of and violent toward one another. Arjie’s first encounter with this tension is hearing about Ammachi’s hatred toward the Sinhalese, a response to her own father’s murder by a racist Sinhalese mob in 1958. At this point, not only does the young Arjie fail to understand Ammachi’s racism, but he does not even know what the word "racist" means. When Daryl Uncle returns to Sri Lanka after 15 years, he is there to document the violent conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese in the northern region around Jaffna. His mysterious death, declared an accident by the police likely responsible for it, shows that the Sri Lankan government actively backed the Sinhalese and drove the nation toward war. In the following chapter, a young man named Jegan, the son of Appa’s old friend, comes to live with Arjie’s family. A former Tamil Tiger, Jegan’s presence makes Appa’s Sinhalese employees suspicious; after the police falsely but publicly accuse Jegan of plotting an assassination and then quietly release him, thugs deface Appa’s hotel with threats and Appa feels he has no choice but to fire Jegan. Although he disapproves of violence, Jegan is treated as a threat and a pariah, which reflects Sri Lankans’ severe ethnic paranoia in the lead-up to the war. The book’s Epilogue most saliently captures the toll of Sri Lanka’s ethnic violence, as Arjie and his family have to flee their house (which is then burned down), Appachi and Ammachi are murdered, Appa’s hotel is burned down, and numerous Tamils lose their homes and businesses, not to mention their lives.
The conflict between Sri Lanka’s Tamils and Sinhalese is fundamentally a conflict over belonging: it is about who gets to own the nation, whom the government should serve, and whether different groups can coexist at all. Over the book’s course, Arjie’s family increasingly feels that they are being defined out of the national identity and made foreigners in their own homeland. The novel explains that the earliest waves of Tamil rebellion and violence followed the government’s attempts to make Sinhala the nation’s only official language. The Tamil Tigers demanded their own state because they felt Tamils were being made sub-citizens, while being Sri Lankan increasingly came to mean being Sinhalese. Yet ethnicity never means anything to Arjie, who is no more attached to Tamil than Sinhalese identity; he shows how it is not at all inevitable for ethnic identities to take on political weight. He takes Sinhala-medium classes and surrounds himself with Sinhala friends; in fact, he does not even speak Tamil. Despite this, when Jegan comes to Colombo, the family realizes that, as Tamils, they are under constant threat from the government, which can declare them extremists and targeted them whenever it wishes. And near the book’s end, Arjie and Shehan grow distant, despite being one another’s primary source of emotional support; Shehan cannot understand Arjie’s sense of constant persecution, and Arjie can’t fathom how Shehan feels normal enough to propose they go see a movie. While they never turn against each other, their rift shows how the experiential and empathetic gap between a majority group and an oppressed minority group can easily foster misunderstanding.
The book also shows numerous close relationships between Tamils and Sinhalese that prove mutual understanding is possible and disprove the government and Tamil Tigers’ shared assumption that successful nations should be drawn on ethnic lines. During the riots, Sinhalese neighbors and friends save Arjie’s family: the Pereras shelter them from the mob that burns down their house, and Chithra Aunty and Sena Uncle lodge them afterwards. In other words, the Chelvaratnams manage to survive because of Sinhalese people who put personal relationships and human connections before the bare fact of ethnic difference. Similarly, in the last chapter, Arjie chooses to side with the pro-Sinhalese Mr. Lokubandara over the school’s racially indifferent principal, Black Tie, in order to save Shehan from Black Tie’s cruel punishments. In a Sri Lanka apparently unable to see past ethnicity, Arjie stubbornly insists on doing so, and in his last reflections on immigration he expresses hope that Canada might be able to accept him in a way his own home country cannot. However, he also sees it possible that Canada will be just as racist as Sri Lanka, and that his family could be reduced to begging. While he can envision a better kind of nation, then, Arjie does not necessarily expect it to be possible.
In Funny Boy, Selvadurai shows both how real people are far more complex than ethnicity and also how they are nevertheless reduced to it by political forces. In doing so, he points to the insolubility of ethnic conflict over national identity: people will never be as one-dimensional or cut-and-dry as nationalists and racists want them to be, and so nationalism and racism, beyond perpetrating horrible violence, cannot achieve the kinds of societies they want to begin with. It is only because some Sinhalese and Tamils do not care about being Sinhalese or Tamil, in other words, that the efforts to create a fully Sinhalese or Tamil nation will inevitably fail.
Nationalism, Ethnic Conflict, and Violence ThemeTracker
Nationalism, Ethnic Conflict, and Violence Quotes in Funny Boy
“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.”
“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.”
As I looked around me, I felt an odd sensation. Our daily routine had been cast away, while the rest of the world was going on as usual. A man I had known, a man who was my mother’s lover, was now dead. I was aware that it was a significant thing, a momentous event in my life even, but, like a newspaper report on an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, it seemed something that happened outside my reality, my world.
“So what must we do?”
“Nothing, my dear,” he said sadly.
Amma looked at him, shocked. “Nothing?” she said.
“These days one must be like the three wise monkeys. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”
“But we are a minority, and that’s a fact of life,” my father said placatingly. “As a Tamil you have to learn how to play the game. Play it right and you can do very well for yourself. The trick is not to make yourself conspicuous. Go around quietly, make your money, and don’t step on anyone’s toes.” […] “It’s good to have ideals, but now you're a man, son.”
“How do you know he’s innocent?” my father asked. “We can’t be a hundred percent sure.”
“You mean you honestly think he’s guilty?” Amma asked, astonished.
My father was silent. We all stared at him, angry and hurt that he would really believe this.
“Look,” my father eventually said, “the best thing is to get as little involved as possible. If they find out that Jegan is connected to the assassination attempt, we could be accused of harboring a terrorist.”
“Nonsense,” Amma said. “Why would they accuse us?”
“These days, every Tamil is a Tiger until proven otherwise.”
"You know,” she said, “I’ve been thinking about emigration.”
My father looked at her in shock.
“Canada and Australia are opening their doors. It would be a good time to apply. For the sake of the children.”
My father shook his head emphatically. “I’ll never emigrate. I’ve seen the way our people live in foreign countries.”
“It’s better than living in this terrible uncertainty.”
He turned to Amma angrily. “How can you want to emigrate? You saw the way our friends lived when we went to America. They come here and flash their dollars around, but over there they’re nothing.”
“It’s not a question of wanting or not wanting to go. We have to think about the children.”
“Don’t worry,” my father said. “Things will work out.”
And then after a while, “Besides, what would I do there? The only job I’d be fit for would be a taxi driver or a petrol station man.”
I was angry by now, but at whom I didn’t know. I thought about my father, but I couldn’t feel angry at him, because, when I remembered that yellowed piece of paper and the promise he had made to Jegan’s father, I actually felt sorry for him. I thought of the number of times he had abandoned his promise, how he had left Jegan in jail overnight, how he had taken the side of the office peon against him, and I wondered if he had actually had a choice in any of these matters. I thought, too, of how Jegan had said that his father was so proud of my father’s achievements, and I wondered what his father would think if he were alive now and could see what a mess everything had come to.
Chithra Aunty began to cry. Amma went to her and tried to comfort her. There was something ironic about that. Amma comforting Chithra Aunty. Yet I understood it. Chithra Aunty was free to cry. We couldn’t, for if we started we would never stop.
He was trying to cheer me up, and as I listened to him talk, something occurred to me that I had never really been conscious of before—Shehan was Sinhalese and I was not. This awareness did not change my feelings for him, it was simply there, like a thin translucent screen through which I watched him.