Shyam Selvadurai's serious concerns in Funny Boy
Funny Boy was Shyam Selvadurai’s banging “homecoming” (?) into the Sri Lankan bookshelf. (Since, the writer has published two consequent novels, but my current focus is on Funny Boy alone) While being a reflection of the maturing years of a homosexual Upper Class Tamil growing up in Sri Lanka between the mid seventies and early eighties, the novel’s more immediate function is to accuse, to charge the “privileged” majority of the country as being responsible for their demonic and deliberate socio-politic deprivation of the Tamil community. The privileged political majority – in a word: the Sinhala Buddhist polity.
The novel is built on an unmistakable historic foundation: postcolonial Sri Lanka, which was emerging from imperial rule; a country that is hinted to as being directed in the route of Sinhala chauvinism. Lokubandara, Black Tie’s counterpart is no fumbling epitome of the above element. The “rowdies” on the beach, the Sinhala (rival) Hotel owner’s son and their rabid attacks on the Chelvaratnams and Jegan cut deeper than the evident. These insults and assaults were aimed – mind you – at an elite, established Tamil family. The text ends at that point; but the question lies open: if the Chelvaratnams fared thus bad, what chances would the disempowered, “ordinary” Tamil have? What about the Muslim and the other “minority” ethnicities that don’t “count”; that do not make it into the equation?
There are two types of politics stringed together in Funny Boy: the spheres of Sex Politics and that of Social Politics. Observation denotes Arjie, the narrator, being taunted throughout his maturing years by the fact of him being “funny”, which – to him – meant either “humorous or strange”. His young reaction to of him not belonging to the Cricket field and of him being ripped from “bride-bride”, the imaginative game of the girl cousins, is pain and anguish. But, this dilemma of being a sexually displaced is not as strong or significant as Selvadurai’s discussion of the socio-political displacement. The sexual marginalisation (if you call it that), in my view, remains subordinate to the political oppression, that is discussed.
Socio-politic oppression: this is the one thick strand that holds the entire novel together. The uneasy social tension of the post 1948 – definitely the post ’56 – Sri Lankan setting provides the spinal to Selvadurai’s novel; and this tense, “uneasy” backdrop is quite deliberately stirred, manipulated and even, at times, tickled at given cues, to shape up the plot and storyline. A retrospective accuser: the narrative re-turns to a childhood spent in an alienating, dominating, chauvinistic regime and the accusation pins down the Sinhalese as the demolisher of a close exclusive domain with which Arjie was at home.
Accusation and judgment is raw and direct; yet, Shyam Selvadurai uses two structural devices to make this political accusation not over offensive; in order not to make it appear to be bluntly anti-Sinhalese. He, so to say, coats the venom of his attack. This by no means makes the attack less severe. Firstly, the narrator is made to be retrospective: the point of reference, though it came from a now grown up adult, is, still, that of a child. This child, we learn quite soon, is inquisitive, imaginative, and extremely sensitive to his surroundings and is immaculately alert. He is the brim and bright kid – every reader’s ready pet, unlike his pompous brother Diggy. Arjie is the lovable, active and excusable little darling: more like Narayan’s Swami in Swami and Friends.
Secondly, Selvadurai records the only direct, blunt and immediate act of “communal violence” – which appears in the last chapter – in the form of a journal entry. A journal entry of a sixteen year old: it could be, and it will be excused of being, both objective and subjective at the same time. It would be personal and would preferably carry what the particular individual considered as fact; as reality. Therefore, the extremely disturbing and blunt narrative of the 1983 riot is recorded with Selvadurai taking precautions not to appear as being judgmental. He uses the medium of the journal to disengage himself from any inadequacy, exaggeration, blame, praise, under-narration or judgment. The function of Arjie’s “Riot Journal” will be retaken in a later paragraph.
Selvadurai’s plot development is deliberate to the last syllable. Every chapter is politically loaded, as the Sinhala Buddhist Establishment gets exposed as the aggressor. It can be noted in each significant action that takes place, in each “Book”, how the hostile Sinhala oppressor crouches over Arjie’s domain. It is not hard to analyse how each of Arjie’s loved ones and Role Models get confronted, assaulted and deprived by this Sinhala chauvinism in due course. These heroes, we can identify, have a tremendous impact and they hold a prestigious position in young Arjie’s life. This makes his accusation all the more severe.
Let us summarize the six chapters of the novel: the first chapter, Pigs Cannot Fly, is set as an overview introduction to Arjie’s personal, social domain. The second chapter foregrounds Radha Aunty – a young, educated Tamil girl just returned from the U.S and set to marry shortly – and the chapter climaxes with her being mugged by a communally-provoked bunch of Sinhalese, while travelling from Jaffna. Radha Aunty, by that point, had developed a unique bond with Arjie and is his closest and most influential ally, in meeting the day-to-day realities. The third chapter, “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” involves Daryl Uncle – Arjie’s mother’s lover – who, again, casts a benevolent shade on young Arjie’s life. Daryl Uncle’s kindness and empathy is sustained over and over by the recurring references to the sequels of Little Women: the worthiest gifts Arjie possessed in his young hands. Alas, Daryl Uncle is killed and thrown into a river to get mutilated and defiled. His body, the alert Arjie hears her mother tell Neliya Aunty, was inscrutable if not for the wallet they found on him.
Daryl Uncle’s mission in Sri Lanka was to confirm the torture of Tamil youths up in the North, by the (Sinhala) Police. The obvious suggestion raised is that he was killed and disposed of by the same khaki outfits. The subject of torture, a grave issue in the eyes of basic Human Rights, stays open and is, in fact, sustained with courtesy of a sane, reliable and able youth who appears in chapter five: Jegan Parameswaran. Jegan, while walking along the beach with Arjie, confides to the boy how, in fact, one of his best friends had been tortured by the Police. The rapport between Jegan and Arjie develops quite strong and it is coupled by the professional heights Jegan achieves in Mr. Chelvaratnam’s hotel business.
Jegan, an accountant, due to his ability – a fact confirmed by Mr. Chelvaratnam himself – rises in his profession, superseding others: most of them, it is hinted, were Sinhalese. It is reported how the Sinhala staff of the office were quite upset and jealous of Jegan’s professional success. As Mr. Chelvaratnam puts it, “[the Sinhalese] have this notion we Tamils scratch each other’s back”. The capable Tamil, therefore, is seen envied and viewed with malice by the Sinhalese eye. Incidents like Jegan Parameswaran being abused by some writing on the hotel wall – “Death to all Tamil pariahs” – and the challenge poised by Banduratne Mudalali’s sons further sustain this fact. The climax is when, at the conclusion of the chapter, Jegan returns to Jaffna and was never seen again: the suggestion is obvious enough – the hint is that Jegan was compelled to join the Tamil Tigers – a group he, as a just and loyal youth, earlier despised and rejected.
Jegan Parameswaran is characterized as a close embodiment of just, loyalty and honesty. He rips the Referendum poster apart, for it was his belief it only acted as unethical propaganda and he is quite frank and professional as an employer: he would correct and admonish as his post would allow him. Therefore, he is not party-bias and is straight in word and action alike. It is the Sinhalese, as highlighted in the incident with the office peon, who are not prepared to take orders from him. Being corrected, the peon swears and walks out. Equality was not even an option, then. The inevitable end for the just and the loyal Tamil, therefore, was to take up arms in order to resist conscious subordination. Abilities gave way for chauvinistic majorities. Tamil individuals, no matter how efficient, had to be the pariah: full stop.
Even Arjie’s mother, deprived of Daryl Uncle, is internally antagonized against the Sinhalese. She, earlier a deterring opponent of the LTTE – even in her debates with Daryl – ultimately becomes pro-LTTE, for the Sinhala Hostility had mutilated and violated the harmony of their social and moral commitments. Arjie’s father’s decision to migrate comes like a shot out of a blue sky (even though the Sri Lankan skies are shown to be black and grey, at the time): he is one man who insisted on not leaving Sri Lanka and who earnestly believed the riots would “die down”. He had immense faith in the government and the Open Market where “if you are clever you can make it”. Therefore, his being compelled to abandon his belief for a refugee passport and couple of dollars cuts deep into the flesh.
Selvadurai’s focus in the fifth chapter deviates to the relationship between Shehan and Arjie. Even though the action is mainly centred on and about the “Greatest School of All”, the Sinhala Hostility is suppressed, but present in the immediate backdrop. The political position of the Victoria Academy, for instance, is one such signifier: the Academy is at the verge of being converted into a “Sinhala Only” institute; at the verge of socially and culturally kicking out the Tamil prospects, such as Arjie. Salgado’s mugging of the Tamil boy in the Academy toilet, too, is equally symbolically political.
Selvadurai is well in control of his narration. The young eyes, through which the story is told, balance the story in such a way that – as noted earlier – the political accusation is rabid, but defensive. The political crisis is often eluded – “disguised” – behind the narrative structure(s) and mode(s) of narration. Disguised and eluded: Radha Aunty, Daryl Uncle and Jegan all become victimized by the political set-up. The actual crisis, therefore, is kept off stage: we do not experience it at first hand. What we experience is Arjie’s loved ones and his allies being brutalized and hampered by the growing chauvinist tension. This, in fact, is Selvadurai’s strength of narration: he manages to reach out to the audience at a more domestic level, for we are already “family” with Arjie.
To clarify the point further: a convenient example can be found in the second chapter, Radha Aunty. The Radha-Anil relationship, the scene between Radha Aunty and Anil’s father, the story of Arjie’s great grandfather being cut to death by a Sinhalese mob – (ironically and pathetically, a similar fate awaits his grand parents in the concluding chapter) – all contribute to underscore the political friction, which climaxes with Radha Aunty’s being assaulted in Anuradhapura. (Jegan Parameswaran’s chapter further contributes to this same point).
Selvadurai knows what he is talking about. A popular Encyclopaedic quotes from a Canadian reference, while introducing Funny Boy as a book on the coming of age; but, indeed, Funny Boy is a coming of age while identifying and concluding the factor which forces and encourages placelessness for thousands of people like Arjie; and poeple in relatively worse positions of the other, than Arjie. It is an allegation made against political brutality and socio-political and moral injustice by a majority group against the ethnically minor Tamils. Selvadurai speaks through a boy, but this is merely his disguise. The disguise is briefly penetrated in the See No Evil, Hear No Evil chapter:
The eavesdropping Arjie hears Daryl Uncle converse of “something called the Prevention of Terrorism Act” and “something called a Warrant”. This seeming innocence of the narrator immediately disengages the writer from the gravity of the political criticism he is making. The fact of a “Warrant” being unknown to Arjie – who wakes up occasionally from his immaculate wet dreams – is quite improbable. This is one of Selvadurai’s defence mechanisms. The disguise comes undone in the immediate fourth page, where the innocent, childlike Arjie quite boldly and assuredly refers to the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). The identification is done without any pre-heads commencing “something called…” and is taken for granted that the reader, too, is familiar with this reference. How queer – Arjie of “bride-bride” fame, who is ignorant of the “Prevention of Terrorism Act” and a “Warrant”, being quite concrete regards the TULF.
“Riot Journal” is the ideal finish for the story Selvadurai could dream of achieving: it contains a series of “flashes” – quick and abrupt interjected scenes, so to say, - that function to sum up the brutality of the “Sinhala Mob” during the span of five days; in these couple of journal entries recorded we find Arjie’s world entirely stutter and fall down. The burning of his house – symbolic of the utter helplessness and the extremity of the violence –, the many recorded moments of anguish and the burning down of shops, houses and – worse – many a Tamil family, all come piled on top of the other in the space of a few pages. The peon’s eye-witness account of petrol being thrown on the car while the bemused Tamil owners merely gaped in a daze and the Police actually cheering the scene further crystallizes the “accusation”. This brutal eyewitness account was but the owl itself. Then, the salt is rubbed over the wound: the synonymous fate of Ammachchi and appachchi – the grand parents. Selvadurai thus succeeds in hammering the last nail home with the moving and poignant “Riot Journal”.
Therefore, Funny Boy is not an effort that functions to explore the sexual marginalization of the given community. In fact, Selvadurai is quite shy (he plays “bride bride”) in referring to the sexual repression Arjie meets up with. While the political thesis gets a three-dimensional stamp, the text fails to project the voice of the sexually marginalized Arjie in any articulate tone. One might argue that Arjie was too young to grasp the politics of sexuality as firmly as one might want to. This argument does not stand, anyway, as Arjie the retrospective narrator succeeds in projecting the political theme quite persuasively.
The more dominant focus of Funny Boy is, therefore, is to underline the marginalizing, othering, hostility of the Tamil minority by the Sinhala-chauvinistic agent of postcolonial Sri Lanka. The focus is to accuse and pin down the Sinhalese for disrupting the social mosaic of which Arjie, too, was a member.